The Toronto pickup basketball game reflects the growth of the sport

Basketball has always been a part of Trevor Luis’ life.

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

“This has been our outlet for more than 20 years,” says Lui, co-owner of Superfresh, an Asian night market at The Annex, and author of a cookbook. “It’s the one day when we don’t have to worry about things at home or at work. We just show up, talk s— to each other and play ball for two hours.”

Lui, who stands 1.80m tall in his throwback Ben Wallace Detroit Pistons jersey and Nike trainers, still gets thrills every time he scores a basket. “There is an inner child in each of us. I still feel like I shot a basket in a high school game when I was 17.”

The Tuesday group has the typical archetypes of a weekly game: the grumpy old man who objects to every foul; the non-athletic looking guy who snags every offensive rebound; the high-spirited kid who takes every sweater available; the annoying guy you have to chase after for an hour as he runs through every screen. But there’s also a shared camaraderie among lifelong friends who have forged a bond through their love of basketball.

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

Michael Chow, who has been part of the pickup run since its inception, didn’t even play basketball growing up in Toronto. “It was hockey and ball hockey,” he says, “until the Raptors came here.”

In 1997, two years after the Raptors’ inaugural season, Chow and a handful of friends decided to rent a spot at Central Commerce Collegiate, a Toronto high school now known as Central Toronto Academy. Finally, a Tuesday square opened on the Harbourfront.

“It was a hodgepodge of close friends,” says Chow. “It was just a bunch of guys fooling around.”

Trevor Lui and a group of mostly Asian ballplayers have played pickup basketball at the Waterfront Community Center every Tuesday since the 1990s.

A few years later, Lui was invited. He had dropped out of Western University and was working in the hospitality industry. And when he got a job offer in the Niagara area, Lui would occasionally drive an hour to catch the weekly run. He’s made friends at the game, friends who reflect the Toronto diaspora.

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 part of the game for 18 years and schedules Tuesday nights off at work.

“That’s a priority,” he says.

Jeff Regular, who runs several popular Thai restaurants including Sukhothai and Pai, shares the same sentiment. “Everyone knows you can’t book anything for me on Tuesday nights,” he says, laughing.

Growing up in Scarborough, Regular played in Philippine leagues and volunteered at Raptors games during her first season at the SkyDome. Pai’s downtown location has become a popular haunt for NBA players since Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson played in Toronto.

But not even a photo op with some of his favorite players would stop Regular from his weekly game. He often brings his son, brother or co-worker with him.

The love of basketball shared by first- and second-generation Canadians in this pickup game for over 20 years is consistent with a recent study stating that basketball is the most-watched sport among newcomers to Canada. According to that 2021 study by Solutions Research Group, 56 percent of newcomers follow the NBA. The Raptors were #1 when new Canadians were asked to name their favorite pro sports teams from North American leagues.

“I grew up in a time without internet and cellphones, mostly in immigrant neighborhoods. We relied on community life on the playground and spent hours upon hours living out those game-winning moments,” says Lui. “Those youthful memories have been a major contributor to who we are today as we have grown with the sports culture in our communities. These weekly runs really bring those moments back to life.”

Lui had spoken to Regular and others about organizing a basketball league for restaurant workers across the city. Then the pandemic struck and the pickup game was shut down. Regular missed it so much that he built a basketball court in his backyard to fill the gap.

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

Lui rechecked his identity and what he wanted to portray. He consumed videos of hate crimes being committed against Asians and became more outspoken on his social media platforms. Today he runs an agency with his sister Stephanie with the aim of representing Asians in the hospitality industry.

“I no longer want to be ashamed of being Chinese,” 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. “It’s become very Asian in recent years,” says Lui. “Now we all visit each other’s restaurants. We have watched our children being born and growing up. My daughter is 17 now… I don’t think we really understand what we have.”

After suffering multiple concussions, a broken back, and shoulder and knee surgeries over the years, Lui considered retiring from basketball Tuesday night, perhaps when he turns 50 in a few months. Standing on your feet at work the next day is now more painful. The recovery time from each Pickup game spans several days.

But the camaraderie between the group and a desire to make this weekly routine a part of his life might override any of his physical concerns.

“I don’t want to give up my run,” he says.

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

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