It was in 1995 that veteran NBA executive John Lashway jumped at a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that planted the seeds of the revolutionary movement of Canadian basketball.
The meteoric rise of the game here has disrupted the sports landscape in what was predominantly a hockey and baseball market.
Most hoops fans point to the Toronto Raptors championship or even icons such as Vince Carter, Kyle Lowry, and DeMar DeRozan as the poster boys responsible for the game’s rising popularity in the country.
The emergence of the Canadian Elite Basketball League over the last few years is further advancing this revolution.
But behind the scenes, away from the spotlight, one man has often been at the helm in basketball’s continued here. That man is John Lashway.
Lashway had already been a nine-year NBA executive with the Portland Trail Blazers when, in January of 1995 when he chose to be part of the Toronto Raptors expansion franchise over joining an established Houston Rockets organization.
“I thought that would be like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Lashway says. “I’m gonna do this because it’s something I’ve never done before, probably never get a chance to do it again. So that’s why I picked Toronto.”
On his first day on the job, Lashway knew right away just what he signed up for.
The Raptors executive walked into an elevator with two staffers holding a couple of black and white pictures. One was of Dennis Rodman, the other was of David Robinson.
Rodman was quite the character back in the day — had tattoos all over his body, rocked a different hair colour every week, and wore lots of bling. Robinson, meanwhile, was a multiple-time All-Star and All-NBA member and eventually won league MVP that same season.
The two women were “fawning,” as Lashway described, over Rodman. As for Robinson, they had no clue who The Admiral was.
Lashway depicted the Raptors perfectly: “A basketball team, playing in a baseball stadium (they played their home games at the SkyDome from 1995 to 1998), in a hockey market.”
Promoting the Raptors and the game of basketball certainly had its challenges during those times. The Leafs were the Leafs and the Jays just won back-to-back World Series in ‘92 and ‘93.
Community engagement was Lashway and his group’s strategy to increase the Raptors’ popularity across Toronto and its neighbouring cities and expose Canadians to the beautiful game of basketball.
Glenn Grunwald remembers.
“We had a great product. The sport of basketball and NBA athletes were just awesome,” said the former Raptors general manager and former Canada Basketball CEO, in a phone interview. “But John was able to get that basic fact out to people.”
They had players going to schools and community centres, bagging groceries, and appearing on local TV shows.
Most importantly, they set up basketball hoops in random parks across the city — and they did it relentlessly.
And the payoff for doing those came 20 to 25 years later.
Lashway recalls several instances of people telling him they became Raptors and basketball fans because they received a ball when the team came to their school.
Now, Lashway is “dabbling” with the CEBL. That’s a running joke he plays with CEBL Commissioner Mike Morreale, who asked the seasoned executive to help him “dabble in this” before the league launched in May 2018.
Lashway had seen this movie before. He reveals they at the CEBL were constantly told they weren’t going to succeed, similar to the Raptors.
But not with the league’s “no fear” mentality, as the former Blazers executive called it.
The CEBL has found ways to innovate by becoming the first pro league to incorporate the Elam Ending for a full season — a format where teams must hit a target score to win — mostly seen in All-Star games or exhibitions.
More importantly, it continues to expand and grow the sport across the country.
“It’s been a great addition to the basketball infrastructure of Canada,” Grunwald said of the CEBL.
Lashway is currently the CEBL’s Executive Vice-President, Strategy & Communications and the President of the Honey Badgers organization. The league just concluded its fourth season, with Hamilton winning the 2022 CEBL Championship.
Surprisingly, his first-ever title in a storied career.
“Everything that comes out of the CEBL, in one way, shape, or form touches John Lashway,” said Morreale in a video interview.
Morreale also shared how Lashway was especially instrumental in keeping the league afloat when COVID hit in 2020.
The CEBL was just about to enter its second season at the time, and the commissioner admitted they wouldn’t have navigated the pandemic without the veteran executive.
Lashway isn’t one to step into the limelight. He just does what he does to help.
“Focus on supporting and lifting up others” — those are the words on Lashway’s laptop screensaver.
“He’s a Hall of Famer in Canadian basketball,” said Morreale. “He’s not the guy that bounces the ball, not the guy that coaches the team. He’s somebody who’s always lurked in the background.
“Never wanted the pat on the back, never wanted the accolades. I think he just wanted to be part of something special.”
And that has always been Lashway’s mindset when it came to his decisions to be part of the Raptors’ inauguration and the creation of the CEBL.
With everything he’s done over the past two-and-a-half decades, Lashway’s impact on Canadian basketball is immeasurable.
“Whether he’s ever named to any sort of basketball hall of fame or anything, it doesn’t matter,” said Morreale. “The people that know, know.”