By Orrin Farries
At the end of this black history month, it’s important to keep the same energy as the beginning, looking at the historical struggles, the groundbreakers, and the successes that today are rightly marked as “black excellence.”
While Canada might not have had the same marked degree of segregation in sport, where our American neighbours went so far as to have separate leagues to keep their favourite pastime “white,” Canada still has a history of sport that took time to be coloured by black excellence.
Willie O’Ree broke the colour barrier in professional ice hockey in 1958 when he debuted for the Boston Bruins, becoming the NHL’s first black player. While no other black players made the NHL until the Washington Capitals drafted Mike Marson in 1974, O’Ree’s legacy will be one of overcoming adversity and disrupting the predominantly white institution of hockey, Canada’s national sport.
By breaking the colour barrier in hockey, the league has seen black excellence throughout its history since, with black Canadian players such as Jarome Iginla, Dirk Graham, Wayne Simmonds, P.K. Subban, Tony McKegney, Trevor Daley, and Ray Neufeld, to name a few, all bringing their entertaining styles of hockey to the world’s top league.
The legacy of black excellence in hockey was furthered this past year with the founding of the Hockey Diversity Alliance, a group started by notable black NHL players with the purpose “to eradicate systemic racism and intolerance in hockey.”
Toronto Blue Jays (1992-1993)
A city that was thirsting for a championship ensconced in a decades-long drought without a major championship (CFL notwithstanding), the 1992-1993 Blue Jays brought an end to the city’s title drought on the bats of many notable black ballplayers such as Devon White, and most notably, Joe Carter.
The Blue Jays first championship was particularly notable in that their manager at the time, Cito Gaston, became the first African American manager to win a World Series. The World Series went six games, with two extra innings in the final match. Joe Carter came up big with the final out at first base to deliver the Jays their first World Series.
The MLB has its own coloured history with racial inclusion. It is often used to denigrate the historical statistics of early legends such as Babe Ruth, who undoubtedly capitalized on the shortage of talent in the league due to racial segregation. Jackie Robinson, the eponymous “42,” broke the colour barrier in major league baseball, and the game of baseball has only gotten better since.
The 1993-1994 Toronto Blue Jays kept the gang together and became the first back-to-back MLB champions since the Yankees in the ’70s, this time with a renewed jolt of energy in their batting order by the addition of renowned base-stealer and all-around legend, Rickey Henderson. Joe Carter was a part of the final play of back-to-back World Series with a 3-run boomer with the count at 2-2 to deliver Toronto their 2nd championship.
Donovan Bailey, Ben Johnson, Andre De Grasse
Despite the proven allegations of doping, Ben Johnson broke onto the sprinting scene for Canada. He paved the way for other black Canadians to reach the world stage in track, most notably Donovan Bailey and Andre De Grasse, who have both medalled at the Olympics unproblematically.
For all the integrity issues that Johnson had, he has been well foiled by Bailey and De Grasse, who have medalled with honour, and brought Canada onto the radar of international track and field.
Toronto Raptors (2018-2019)
Once again mired in a championship drought dating back to the Blue Jays’ championship in ‘93, the 2019 NBA Championship Toronto Raptors were everything black excellence in sport is about.
President of basketball operations, Masai Ujiri, made the bold move of trading the team’s number one player, DeMar DeRozan, for a disgruntled star in Kawhi Leonard. He broke up the bromance of DeRozan and incumbent point guard Kyle Lowry, and there were no guarantees that Kawhi would re-sign after the last year of his contract was up. It ended up being a move that will go down in time as one of the greatest championship-delivering trades of all time.
It deigns me to say that basketball has, since the time of Bill Russell in the ’60s, been dominated by black players. To put into perspective, the amount of white Hall of Fame players pales in comparison to that of black Hall of Famers who have made the league what it is today.
Kawhi made ‘the shot’ of Canadian basketball history in the dying seconds of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers to win the series. He then went on to put up monstrous numbers in the Eastern Conference Finals against the number-1 seeded Milwaukee Bucks, who went up 2-0 in the series and was demonstrative in leading the Raptors to their first finals appearance.
Without the managerial savvy of Masai Ujiri, the super-star play of Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, and the chip-on-shoulder role play by players such as Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Fred Van Vleet, there is no championship for the Raptors.
Vince Carter brought Toronto reputation in his time with the Raptors. It could be said that his impact on Canadian basketball has influenced the rise of Canadians in the NBA. Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray, Shai Gilgeous Alexander and Nickeil Alexander-Walker are just a few of the Canadians who may have seen “Vinsanity” on the Toronto Raptors and were inspired to make their basketball dreams a reality.
All told, the history of sport in Canada cannot be told without black excellence figuring into the highest heights met in Canadian sport. The narrative is simply that black athletes make sport better across the board, but the endeavour must continue to make it so that not only are sports a level playing field for them but that the game of life be made fair as well.
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