Toronto basketball game reflects sport’s growth

Basketball has been a part of Trevor Lui’s life for as long as he can remember.

Growing up in downtown Toronto with immigrant parents from Hong Kong in the 1980s, Lui spent his Sundays watching the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics on television with his grandfather. He started playing organized basketball in the 9th grade and participated in local pickup games in his early 20s. He was invited to a weekly game at Harbourfront Community Center in 1998 and, more than two decades later, attends the same game every Tuesday night.

« It’s been our outlet for over 20 years, » says Lui, co-owner of Superfresh, an Asian night market in The Annex, and cookbook author. “It’s the only day we don’t have to take care of things at home or at work. We just showed up, talked to each other and played ball for two hours.

He, who stands six-foot-one in his Ben Wallace Detroit Pistons jersey and Nike sneakers, still gets a thrill every time he scores a basket. “There is an inner child in all of us. I still feel like when I was 17 hitting a basket in a high school game.

The Tuesday group has the typical archetypes of a weekly game: the grumpy old head who disagrees with every foul; the guy who doesn’t look like an athlete who grabs every offensive rebound; the arrogant kid who takes all available sweaters; the annoying guy you have to hunt for an hour as he roams all the screens. But there’s also a camaraderie shared between lifelong friends who have forged a bond through their love of basketball.

When people point out the impact of a professional basketball franchise in Toronto, they talk about the “Vince Carter effect” and the rise of Canadian players in the NBA. But Harbourfront’s pickup game is another reflection of the growth and popularity of basketball in the city.

Michael Chow, who has been part of the pickup race since its inception, didn’t even play basketball growing up in Toronto. « It was ice hockey and ball hockey, » he says, « until the Raptors got here. »

In 1997, two years after the Raptors’ inaugural season, Chow and a handful of friends decided to lease land at Central Commerce Collegiate, a Toronto high school now known as Central Toronto Academy. Eventually, a place on Tuesday opened up at Harbourfront.

« It was a hodgepodge of close friends, » Chow says. « It was just a bunch of guys having fun. »

A few years later, Lui was invited. He had dropped out of Western University and was working in the hospitality industry. And when he received a job offer in the Niagara region, Lui would sometimes drive an hour so as not to miss the weekly race. He has made friends at the game, friends who reflect the Toronto diaspora.

Twenty-five years later, Trevor Lui, who stands six-foot-one in his retro Ben Wallace Detroit Pistons jersey and Nike sneakers, still gets chills every time he scores a field goal.

  • Trevor Lui and a group of mostly Asian players have been playing basketball at the Waterfront Community Center every Tuesday since the 1990s.

Adrian Pryce was born in the city but spent most of his childhood in Jamaica, where he learned to play barefoot basketball on concrete in the scorching summer heat. Pryce, a TTC employee, has been in the game for 18 years and plans Tuesday nights off work.

« It’s a priority, » he said.

Jeff Regular, who runs several popular Thai restaurants including Sukhothai and Pai, shares the same sentiment. « Everyone knows not to book anything on Tuesday night for me, » he laughs.

Growing up in Scarborough, Regular played in Philippine leagues and volunteered at Raptors games in their first season at the SkyDome. The downtown location of Pai has become a popular hangout for NBA players, from when Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson played in Toronto.

But even a photo op with some of his favorite players wouldn’t stop Regular from participating in his weekly game. He often brings his son, brother or staff members with him.

The love of basketball shared by first- and second-generation Canadians in this dating game for more than 20 years is consistent with recent research that indicates basketball is the most-watched sport among newcomers in Canada. According to Solutions Research Group’s 2021 study, 56% of newcomers follow the NBA. The Raptors were No. 1 when New Canadians were asked to identify their favorite professional sports teams from North American leagues.

« I grew up in a time without internet or cellphones, mostly in neighborhoods with high immigrant density. We relied on the community life of the playground, spending hours and hours experiencing those shooting moments winning, » Lui explains. « Those childhood memories have essentially helped shape who we are today as we grew up with the culture of sport in our communities. These weekly runs really bring those moments to life.

He had spoken to Regular and others about organizing a basketball league for restaurant staff in town. Then the pandemic hit and the pickup game was shut down. Regular missed it so much that he built a basketball court in his backyard to fill the void.

There were also bigger issues to worry about. The restaurant community has been hit hard during the pandemic, especially Asian businesses.

Him reconsidered his identity and what he wanted to represent. He consumed videos of hate crimes committed against Asians and became more outspoken on his social media platforms. He now runs an agency with his sister Stephanie with the aim of representing Asians in the hotel space.

“I don’t want to be ashamed of being Chinese anymore,” he says. « The pandemic has given us a look back at who we are as immigrants and what our purpose is. »

The demographics of the weekly pickup game, which resumed in December, are also changing. “In recent years, it has become very Asian,” says Lui. “Now we all visit each other’s restaurants. We have seen our children born and grow. My daughter is 17 now… I don’t think we really understand what we have.

Having suffered multiple concussions, a broken back, shoulder and knee over the years, Lui has considered stepping away from Tuesday night basketball, possibly when he turns 50 in a few months. Standing at work the next day is more painful now. The recovery time for each pickup set spans several days.

But the camaraderie between the group and the desire to keep this weekly routine in her life might outweigh any of her physical concerns.

« I don’t want to give up my race, » he said.

Alex Wong is a Toronto-based freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter @steven_lebron


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