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Canadians Gear Up For NBA Expansion Team

Basketball's popularity, while still ranking behind hockey, is gaining rapidly

STARTING a professional basketball team in Canada appears to be a slam dunk for the National Basketball Association.

Four Canadian groups - three from Toronto and one from Vancouver - are vying to be the one to pay the 27-team NBA up to $100 million or more for the 28th franchise. The winning group would also be expected to spend tens of millions more to build a new arena.

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Money seems no object to the groups, however, which include some of Canada's most prominent companies and businessmen, and one of which has the added star power of Earvin (Magic) Johnson, the former NBA player. The four groups, which all made elaborate presentations to the NBA expansion committee in New York last week, expect to hear soon which is chosen. The final decision will be made at the league's 27-member board of governors meeting Nov. 3.

Toronto appears certain to get a team. The league also may award a second franchise to Vancouver, observers say. The NBA added four teams in two years in the late 1980s to Charlotte, N.C., Miami, Orlando, Fla., and Minneapolis. But the NBA reportedly rejected further expansions within the US, in favor of Canada.

Adding a new franchise is always a risk, of course. Hockey and basketball occupy the same winter season. Will fans tune in and show up in a country that revels in hockey?

According to those putting up the money, a raft of marketing surveys say that if they build it [a new arena] the fans will come. The Toronto Blue Jays success in drawing Canadians to baseball games has encouraged the NBA. But there is another prime reason for expanding to Canada: The NBA sees Canada as a launching point for its grand plan to make basketball as popular as soccer internationally - and to reap millions in licensing, franchising, and TV fees in the process.

``They [the NBA] have a vision of going international,'' says David Peterson, the former Ontario premier who is chairman and partner of one of the three Toronto groups contending for the franchise. ``This thing is going to Mexico City and to Europe. You watch. This is just the first international expansion.''

The vision Mr. Peterson shares is one put forward by NBA Commissioner David Stern, who stepped in to rebuild the weakened league in 1984, and turned it into one of the world's most profitable professional sports leagues.

``This is international expansion in a most comfortable way,'' Mr. Stern told the Toronto Star. ``It's a safe step out and a compelling one because of the size of the market and the likelihood of success.''

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Still unresolved is whether the NBA will accept wagering on its teams. Sports betting is sponsored by provincial governments in Ontario and British Columbia. Peterson says the league has not put its foot down hard, and doubts the governments would change their systems. The NBA would not comment.

A Toronto team would also mark a return to the NBA's Canadian roots.

Basketball was invented in Springfield, Mass., in 1891 by a Canadian-born athletics instructor, James Naismith. The NBA also traces its roots to the first professional game, which was played in Toronto Nov. 1, 1946 between the New York Knicks and the Toronto Huskies, says historian Wayne Patterson at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

Canadians would rather forget what happened to the Huskies after that. The team's two-point opening-game loss led to a dismal season of 38 defeats and only 22 wins. The team folded after that season despite such ingenious promotions as giving away free tickets to anyone taller than the Huskies' 6 ft. 8 in. center George Nostrand, Mr. Patterson says.

But though hockey was dominant then, and still is in Canada, the scene has changed markedly. NBA games are widely televised in Canada, and Chicago Bulls star Michael Jordan is the most widely known sports figure among young people in Canada - ahead of such hockey luminaries as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, says an NBA spokesman citing polling data.

While basketball and baseball still rank in the second tier of Canadian sports in order of participation, basketball is growing as hockey shrinks, says Rick Traer, Canada's top basketball official. ``Basketball has grown by leaps and bounds - about 20 percent over 10 years,'' he says.

A Canadian franchise also fits nicely with the NBA's long-term global marketing plan, which involves pitting the best NBA players against national teams in world championship forums. That part of the plan draws from the famed US ``Dream Team'' of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, in which American players romped against teams from around the world, drawing a huge television audience.

The NBA says the ``Dream Team II,'' to be announced in October, will play at the world championship tournament to be held in Hamilton, Ontario and Toronto next August. Those championships, in addition to the new franchise expected to begin play in 1995-1996, will be a catalyst for Canadian basketball, Traer says.

``We look for basketball to become the No. 1 participation sport in Canada by the year 2000,'' he adds.

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