Vince Carter's highlight-reel dunks for the Toronto Raptors in the early 2000s inspired a generation of Canadian basketball players.

Hamilton's Kia Nurse is hoping that a new WNBA franchise awarded to Toronto, set to debut in the league's 2026 season, will have the same impact on Canadian girls and women as Carter did more than 20 years ago. 

Nurse spoke about the new team's possible impact after her Los Angeles Sparks finished up practice on Thursday, hours after the Toronto expansion was made official.

"Carter put basketball on the map in a very hockey-based country, we are now seeing how that has reaped benefits for our generation," Nurse said in a video conference with reporters. "Now we have all these players who are not only just playing at the highest level, but are playing in successful roles on successful teams at the highest level. 

"To be able to have that for young women, I think is going to be something that's truly special."

Kilmer Sports Ventures paid US$115 million for the WNBA team. The as-yet unnamed team will play out of the 8,700-seat Coca-Cola Coliseum, an arena in downtown Toronto at Exhibition Place, and will have the ability to move up to the 19,800-seat Scotiabank Arena on occasion. 

KSV CEO and owner Larry Tanenbaum and newly minted team president Teresa Resch both said at a news conference on Thursday that the club will also play regular-season games in Montreal and Vancouver.

Nurse said the Raptors have created the blueprint for representing Canada with pre-season games in Montreal, Vancouver and Edmonton.

"I think this organization with the WNBA Toronto team will do the same thing, and be able to branch out and allow Canadians across the country to cheer for them, but also to be able to see them in person," she said. "It's so important to have those role models, and to have those role models within the building that you can be able to see is going to be really important."

Nurse was traded to Los Angeles in the off-season and has averaged 16.3 points, two assists, and 1.7 rebounds in three games for the Sparks so far this year. She had nine points, three rebounds and two assists in L.A.'s 84-79 win over the Seattle Storm on May 4 in a pre-season game at Edmonton's Rogers Place. 

The sold-out exhibition was the second-ever pre-season WNBA showcase in Canada after Toronto's Scotiabank Arena held a game in 2023.

"If you can see it, then you can be it," said Nurse on the importance of having professional women's basketball in Canada. "I think that's a big piece of it, is having those role models.

"I think we'll see the reaction of it right away in terms of the support and the fan base and the excitement and the community work that I know the (Toronto WNBA) organization will do."

Canadian Basketball Hall of Famer Tammy Sutton-Brown spoke at the WNBA Toronto announcement news conference. The 12-year WNBA veteran from Markham, Ont., said that she's excited for Canadian children to have more female basketball players as their idols.

"There was no WNBA when I was playing growing up, and so my role models were Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. Those are my role models because that's who I saw on television," said Sutton-Brown. "So I smile every time these next generation of kids come in, the rookie class comes in, and they've grown up with the W and their role models are Dawn Staley, Sue Bird, Sheryl Swoopes, because they grew up watching the W and so I'm really excited for the future."

Besides Nurse, there are three other Canadians in the WNBA this season — Aaliyah Edwards of Kingston, Ont. (Washington Mystics), Bridget Carleton of Chatham, Ont. (Minnesota Lynx), and Laeticia Amihere of Milton, Ont. (Atlanta Dream). Sutton-Brown hopes that the WNBA's foray into Canada will increase that number even more.

"This team in Toronto will make a difference," said Sutton-Brown. "I think adding a few other cities as well over the next few years will open up additional roster spots. 

"Right now we have four Canadians playing in the W. Hopefully in the next few years, we'll double that number."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 23, 2024.