Kyle Lowry, the Raptors fierce bulldog of a point guard, walked down the ramp from the Toronto Raptors dressing room buzzing from his team’s big playoff win Tuesday night and immediately made eyes with the gorgeous babe with the killer ringlets and just-so dress.
He set course, swept her up in his arms and with a big smile began cooing sweet nothings in her ear. He got a big smile back.
“Your Daddy, played a great game tonight,” he said, pulling the cutie a little closer. “Did you see? Your Daddy came up big.” And they looked in each other’s eyes, lost in the moment.
It lasted until DeMar DeRozan showed up.
The 6-foot-7 Raptors shooting guard gently reached to take his 11-month old daughter Diar from Lowry, his friend and teammate, for a little visit before heading to a press conference to explain to the world how he scored 17 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter and helped the unlikely Raptors continue to defy expectations and tie their first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets at 1-1.
Watching it all was Diar’s Mom and DeRozan’s fiancée Kiara, who remembers arriving in Toronto from Los Angeles in 2009 to join a young team full of strangers far away from her native California. Now she feels like she’s home. And the Raptors? They seem like a family. A very big, very young, family.
Kiara was in charge of putting together the team’s Easter baskets on the weekend, which were distributed in the Raptors over-flowing family lounge just off the dressing room at the ACC. It was no small task.
"I went into Mom mode," she said.
Including Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri’s four-month old daughter, there are six infants less than a year old with fathers on the team and 25 children under seven when coaches’ and executives’ families are included. Head coach Dwane Casey just turned 57 but his kids are six and two. The only members of the 15-man roster that don’t have a child or one on the way are Jonas Valanciunas, Patrick Patterson and Terrence Ross.
"It’s one of the reasons this team is all so close," says Kiara, who met DeRozan at the University of Southern California. "There are so many young kids on this team and we’re always going to each other’s houses with them – you don’t even have to bring toys because they’re already there. It gives that extra connection that other teams might not have. "
On Friday night the surprising Raptors will head into Brooklyn for their first taste of playoff basketball on the road. Waiting there for them will be a snarling Kevin Garnett and his group of veteran NBA stars looking to avenge their loss in game two of their best-of-seven first-round series with Toronto.
To a man the Raptors claim they won’t be rattled, no matter what the circumstances, now that they have their game 1 jitters out of the way. They anticipate their unique bonds will hold fast in the face of adversity.
"We’re a band of brothers," says Lowry. And Daddies too.
Spend enough time around the Raptors and their flaws are evident – they don’t have a roll-call of stars and they lack a go-to presence in the post, but mostly, they’re young and inexperienced.
But there’s a connection between the group that the players, coaches and executives describe as rare and real in the frenetic NBA. It might be their key advantage as they try to collectively accelerate the learning process on a team that doesn’t boast a single player who had previously started a playoff game. When trying to identify a common thread that has so quickly been woven among the group, the fact that so many of them are sharing a life-changing experience off the court keeps coming up.
"We’ve all got the same problems, right?" says Amir Johnson, who became a father to his daughter Milli five months ago. "The same dirty diapers, the same staying up late, going to the hospital if they get sick… there’s a lot to talk about. You’ll be in the locker room and someone will be like ‘man, I just changed the worst diaper I ever changed in my life. It’s definitely brought us together. It’s a real family atmosphere."
You have to be quick on your feet in the hallway behind the floor at the ACC on game nights as an armada of strollers roll through. They gather in the family lounge, which is a crowded, raucous scene and the heartbeat of the team.
"It’s a way you can get away from basketball, but grow your relationship as a team and as friends because you’re always, 'my kid did this or my kid did that'," said Lowry, who got married to Ayahna this summer. Their son Karter, 2, goes to daycare with the youngest of fellow point guard Greivis Vasquez’ two kids. "You come in the family room and everyone speaks to everyone and everyone know each other’s kids names … it grows the relationship bigger than basketball."
Vasquez who joined the team in December with four other members of the Sacramento Kings in a season altering trade, said having young kids helped everyone connect and create what he believes is the best team chemistry in the NBA.
"The vibe is natural, it’s spontaneous," he said. "We want to hang out and have our kids hang out together. My kids and Kyle’s kid go to the same daycare together. So we don’t always talk basketball, we talk about our kids. The wives all get along, they have a lot in common. It’s natural, not fake like sometimes in the NBA."
A few Sundays ago the entire team went to a Blue Jays game and they needed three full boxes to accommodate the crowd – there were about 70 people on hand.
"There were kids everywhere," said Ujiri. His wife Ramatu presented him with a baby Raptors jersey with ‘Ujiri’ on the back as a gift to celebrate making the playoffs. Ujiri gets choked up just thinking about it.
Finding common ground with respect to Lowry’s role as a father was the moment both Ujiri and Lowry claim was the pivot in Lowry's attitude shift that has been the undercurrent beneath so much of the Raptors success.
In a pre-season meeting to emphasize what was at stake for Lowry as he headed into a contract year burdened by a well-earned reputation as a hardhead who was tough on coaches, Ujiri was able to strike a chord by appealing to Lowry’s role as the head of a young family. His talent was never in doubt, but for him to earn a fat new contract he would need to prove he’d matured.
"I said: ‘You have a son,’" said Ujiri. "For me, in five years’ time there is a big difference between [you] making $1-million or $2-million a year and making $7,8,9-million a year or whatever. There’s a big difference [for your family]. Have you thought about that?"
Lowry responded with a career-year and is likely the team’s most valuable player.
Similarly, at the beginning of the season Ujiri addressed the whole team in an attempt to help them identify a common cause, a vision that could steady them in hard times and keep them ground in heady ones.
He looked out at a group of young men, many of whom were embarking on or in the early stages of the greatest journey in life and he knew just what to say.
"That’s the one thing that came to me," recalled Ujiri. "I told them: ‘let’s go out and protect those babies.’"