Habitant hoops: Montreal is a basketball town
When I plunged into 2020 basketball, I didn't expect that Montreal would wind up front and centre
This is the fourth in a series of articles by the 2020 CBC Montreal/Quebec Writers' Federation writer in residence, K.B. Thors.
In the extra-strange hubbub of this back-to-school season, playoff sports are all around us. When I plunged into 2020 basketball, I didn't expect that Montreal, a city without an NBA team, would wind up front and centre in my escapism.
Full disclosure: I'm writing this in an Oilers shirt. Cut into a tank top, it has "Thanks for the Memories" printed around a blue and orange number 99. A gift from my dad in 2013 — to mark the 25th anniversary of the trading of Gretzky to the L.A. Kings — this says everything you need to know about the prairie hockey fandom I was born into. Though ripe for vintage fashion, Edmonton could do with a little less nostalgia and a little more current-day contention.
My Oilers heritage has prepared me for being a Canadian hoops fan. There's only one Canadian NBA team, but long-accustomed to our team not making the playoffs, Oilers fans have developed deep knowledge banks about local players on other teams. These facts allow us to take part no matter what, and they're woven into my very Albertan paternal phone calls. Las Vegas signed a kid from Okotoks? Cool. Go Knights. I don't have to follow hockey. Hockey follows me.
Basketball draws me in. I played growing up and got into the Raptors while living in Brooklyn, expat homesickness fuelling my jump on the national bandwagon. I moved to Montreal just in time to watch the 2019 Raptors Championship run in Montreal sports bars, surrounded by Montrealers cheering… for Toronto! The transcendence of Quebecers whooping for a Toronto-based team was impossible to fully explain to my American beau.
No doubt, Montreal's support for the team has a lot to do with the team's global feel—regular starters include Cameroonian Pascal Siakam, British-Nigerian O.G. Anunoby, Spanish Marc Gasol, Congolese-Spanish Serge Ibaka, and even Montrealer Chris Boucher. There is something special about connecting with a fandom that is demonstrably diverse.
A year later, an even more bizarre situation: watching athletes in a pandemic bubble become an international moral compass, rallying for change while setting a slew of new records. The stand-out performance of these playoffs, to me, came from Montreal's own Luguentz Dort, a Haitian-Canadian baller who was born and raised in Montréal-Nord, and grew up playing in Park Ex. Known as Lu, Dort is 21 years old and plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder. He went undrafted but became a fixture in OKC's starting lineup this season, known not for offence but excellent defence — it's his job to guard the opposition's most dangerous scorer.
The NBA's return to play has leveraged the league's platform to increase awareness about social issues. Dort performed his assignment while repping Haitian Creole, Respekte Nou written across his shoulders. He became known as the Thunder's secret weapon, though the secret was out as the internet began dissecting videos of how this 6'3" kid was shutting down James Harden, a former MVP who's been called the greatest scorer of this NBA era. In a sport known for flashy offense, what Dort does in the NBA is what the pandemic does to all of us — demonstrate the power of digging in and getting back to basics. There's a lot of Montreal in his scrappy underdog style.
Largely because of Dort's defence, OKC forced Game 7 with the Rockets, where Lu sealed my OKC-via-Montreal fandom. He became the youngest player in NBA history to score 30 points in a Game 7. It's the equivalent of a Montrealer registering a Game 7 hat trick, and Lu joins Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant as the only players to score at least 25 points in a Game 7 before the age of 22. The Rockets won, but the GQ headline tells the story: "James Harden Won Game Seven, But Lu Dort Was Still the Hero."
Nelson Ossé, Luguentz Dort's coach with the Park Ex Knights, has been called an uncompromising guardian angel for his work with Dort and other young athletes. Chris Boucher has credited basketball with giving him a shot at life. Such community impact demonstrates the power of sport. Both Dort and Boucher, Montreal's playoff ballers, have worked their way out of trying social circumstances. It's no wonder that these players, many of whom have direct experience with the kind of profiling being protested, are showing up both on and off the court.
Another Canadian, Kitchener-raised Denver Nuggets point guard Jamal Murray, has been especially vocal about his off-court goals. After his second 50 point game (in three games), Murray gave an emotional explanation about his motivation for playing so hard. Out of breath after his own record-setting effort, he directed the camera to his shoes, which were painted with portraits of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. "If I find things that hold value, find things to fight for… and we've found something to fight for in the NBA as a collective unit. It's not just America," Murray said, in tears. "It happens everywhere." He went on to carry his team into the next round.
As he continues his series against Kawhi Leonard, Murray's words echo the league's focus on social justice, proving the NBA bubble isn't really a bubble at all. Surely all across Canada there are fans like me, who've never been more interested in sports.