In their debut season, the Raptors were dismal. Until the night His Airness showed up.
It was 20 years ago today—March 24, 1996—and the expansion Toronto Raptors held a record of just 17-49 when Michael Jordan and the 60-8 Chicago Bulls, who would go on to win a record 72 games that season, walked onto the SkyDome court.
From the opening tip-off, the Raptors looked like a different team, taking it to the Bulls in every way. Rookie sensation Damon Stoudamire was on fire, Tracy Murray couldn’t miss and alpha dog Alvin Robertson was relishing the matchup with Jordan, as the Raps carried a 56-54 lead into halftime.
“I remember thinking, ‘How are we losing to these cats?’” says NBA vet John Salley. The four-time champ had started the season with the Raptors before being waived (at his own request) and finding his way onto a contender. He made his return to Toronto in a Bulls uniform, a weekend that started off well but one he’d wind remember for all the wrong reasons.
“We had a party on the Saturday night,” he recalls, “then we play Sunday afternoon—and we
Despite a stellar performance from Stoudamire down the stretch, the game still came down to one shot, with the ball in Jordan’s hands. He nailed it (of course), though the buzzer had sounded milliseconds before his release, sealing the win for Toronto, 109-108. It still might be the biggest win in the franchise’s 20 year history.
Stoudamire finished with 30 points and 11 assists, hitting six of his eight three-point attempts. In 19 minutes off the bench, Salley managed two points and three rebounds. “We relaxed, to tall you the truth, because we were playing the worst team in the league,” he says. “It was the springtime, most guys are phoning it in. We took them for granted.”
“It was something special, it really was,” recalls Tracy Murray, who scored 24 points and played 47 minutes that night. “And in a year where you couldn’t say that a lot, at least not on the basketball court.”
The Raptors won only three more games the rest of the season, but it didn’t matter. The feeling from that night would last for years.