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Top pick Bennett heralds rise of Canadian basketball

Anthony Bennett from the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) reacts after being selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers as the first overall p
Anthony Bennett from the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNLV) reacts after being selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers as the first overall p

By Larry Fine

(Reuters) - Canada is famed as a hotbed of hockey, but basketball dominated headlines in the Great White North after Anthony Bennett became the first Canadian to be taken first overall in the NBA Draft.

With more Canadian talent on the way, Bennett's selection by the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday could serve as a red-letter moment in a golden era for Canadian basketball.

Even Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, an avid hockey fan, took to Twitter, writing "Congrats to @AnthonyBennett for being the first Cdn ever drafted #1 overall in the NBA draft. Good luck in Cleveland, we're all behind you."

Bennett will have Canadian company on the Cavs, joining compatriot Tristan Thompson, who had held the distinction of being the highest-drafted player from Canada when he was taken fourth overall last year by Cleveland.

The team's newest forward, who entered the draft out of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, following his freshman year, left New York after the draft to meet reporters in Cleveland.

Bennett thought a moment when asked if there was anything special about his day of non-stop activities. "Yeah, the private jet that I flew in on this morning," he told Reuters with a chuckle in a telephone interview on Friday.

"It's not really something I do, but I can get used to it."

As for reaction from back home, the versatile forward said: "Just been getting a lot of love."

Joining the prime minister with a Twitter reaction was Steve Nash, the two-time NBA Most Valuable Player now of the Los Angeles Lakers, who went 15th overall to the Phoenix Suns in 1996 as the previous top Canadian pick before Thompson.

Wrote Nash, "Proud on Proud!"

INTEREST SKYROCKETED

Bennett was also proud of some other history made Thursday as the selection of British Columbia's Kelly Olynyk, headed to the Boston Celtics as the 13th pick, marked the first time two Canadians were among the top 14 so-called lottery picks awarded to the non-playoff teams.

Canadian basketball is on the rise, according to Bennett.

"For sure. We have a couple of players now in the league, a couple just got drafted and more on the college level and others in high school. I feel like on every level in basketball, there is a strong Canadian group of guys.

"Later on, it's going to be pretty crazy," he said, admitting to dreams of Olympic glory. "Everyone is going to want to bring back a medal."

Popularity of basketball in Canada should not be that surprising.

Canada, after all, can lay claim to its invention as Canadian sports coach James Naismith is credited with devising the game in Springfield, Massachusetts, first played with soccer balls shot into peach baskets hung above a gym floor in 1891.

NBA Canada General Manager Dan Mackenzie said the launch of National Basketball Association (NBA) franchises in Toronto and Vancouver in 1995 had a great impact.

"In '95 the Raptors and Grizzlies hit the floor and this is really the first generation of kids that have grown up having the NBA in their backyard," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

The Grizzlies lasted only six seasons in Vancouver before they moved to Memphis in 2001, but general interest across Canada in basketball has skyrocketed in recent years.

"Having the league more present both on television and on media platforms and in live events has really had a great impact on kids' desire to pick up a basketball versus a hockey stick," he said.

'MAPLE JORDAN'

Mackenzie pointed to statistics showing that over the last four years basketball was growing faster than soccer and hockey in terms of participation and said Canadians have embraced digital platforms providing nearly non-stop NBA action.

"When you layer on top of that the macro factors of immigration, we think immigration has been a big part of the growth of the sport here," the NBA executive said.

"We think a lot of that is due to people coming to Canada from countries where basketball is very popular. For our country, the two largest sub-groups of newcomers to Canada are folks from the Philippines and from China. Those are two countries where basketball is very popular."

He said the general hoops interest in Canada combined with "the individual passion, talent and desire of these kids that are starting to excel, it really makes for a great movement."

"When you look at the pipeline of talent coming through, if you look at the NCAA pipeline, high schools in Canada and/or in prep schools in the U.S., the Canadians are coming."

One of the most eagerly anticipated Canadian players, Andrew Wiggins, will be hitting the major U.S. college basketball scene next season as a freshman at Kansas, where Naismith went on to coach basketball at the turn of the 20th Century.

Even Bennett is excited by what Wiggins, who has been dubbed the "Maple Jordan," could accomplish.

"He's just real dominant, can take over games any time he wants," Bennett said. "He's athletic, he can shoot.

"I feel like in the next draft coming up, he can go number one, too, and make history again. Two Canadian players going number one, back-to-back. That would be something else."

(Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Frank Pingue)

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