TORONTO – The core members of the Toronto Raptors have been together a long time, by the standards of professional sports.
They’ve been Torontonians for a long time.
Dwane Casey is in his seventh season as head coach, making him the fourth-longest tenured bench boss in the NBA. He holds every coaching record the franchise has. Raptors president Masai Ujiri has worked in the city for eight years over two stints.
Kyle Lowry is in his 12th NBA season but his sixth in Toronto. He once thought he’d just be passing through. Twice he’s had a chance to leave as a free agent, twice he’s signed contracts to stay.
All three men have young kids in school here and are at times in awe how easy it has been to integrate their lives into the fabric of a city that they came to for work but have come to call home for so many more reasons.
So when they each paused their preparations for Game 5 of their roller-coaster first-round playoff series against the Washington Wizards to address Monday’s senseless act of violence that left 10 dead on Yonge Street, they were speaking from the heart.
It struck close to home.
Like anyone else from this city, their day was going along normally on Monday, and then it very suddenly felt like something else.
“We were sitting in our coaches’ meeting, talking about what we’re going to do, and all in a heated discussion about Washington and then [assistant coach Rex Kalamian] got a text or email on his phone asking if everyone was okay,” said Casey after the Raptors practiced on Tuesday. “So we turned on the television and saw it, so that’s when we found out about it. So everyone was texting to find out if everyone was okay.
“It took place not too far from where I live. It’s so unfortunate.”
Casey loves Toronto and what it represents. Following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in February Casey spoke reverentially about not having to worry about security at his children’s school and made an impassioned plea for Americans to look north for an example on how to manage guns.
As a child of the segregationist-era South, he sees Toronto as an example of how to live together.
“Just this weekend, I was talking to people saying how safe Toronto is, and how it’s a melting pot and you don’t have the same crime,” Casey said. “It does put things into perspective. There are things much bigger than sport right now in the world, and right now in Toronto.”
Few people are more passionate about the city and its still-untapped potential than Ujiri, and he can speak to it with a certain authority. Born in England, raised in Nigeria, educated in the U.S. and – professionally – one of the most travelled executives in any field, he will tell anyone who wants to listen that Toronto is an oasis, something special.
He’s been in transit in Europe adjacent to terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, and just missed being in Turkey for incidents there. He’s never been naïve enough to think that geography offers blanket protections but this multi-ethnic city of 6.5 million offered him the next best thing.
“There’s just something great about this place. Honestly,” said Ujiri. “I just have to say it. It’s not a bias. You come home and you’re home. Everyone knows what I’m talking about. We’ll continue to believe that. We’ll continue to believe that about Toronto and Canada. It’s an example of how a city and a country should be.”
And what happened here was proof that we’re not immune to any of the evils the world seems to have on offer in greater abundance these days.
Their job is to win basketball games. Usually at this time of the year it seems less a job than a mission with everything important hanging in the balance.
What to do against the Wizards’ switching? How to get Serge Ibaka going? How to defend John Wall in transition?
It all seemed so urgent until one deeply disturbed man chose to bring carnage to the lives of the innocent while tearing at a city’s innocence.
“What we do doesn’t really matter sometimes,” said Ujiri. “I can’t imagine what it would be like to be on that sidewalk or see people that experienced this. Everything we do gets put on the side, I think. For my drive home, all I thought about was that and the heaviness of it and how you should come out of this. The next thing I thought was I still know who we are, I still know what this city is and I still know that those kind of things can never really put this kind of city down.”
He’s right, of course. Even in the evil there was good.
Like everyone, Lowry marveled at the bravery, presence of mind and patience Const. Ken Lam – the police officer who apprehended the driver of the van – showed on the video of the arrest. He never flinched as the perpetrator told him he had a gun and acted like he was going to use it. He was able – under the most extreme duress – to resolve a tragedy without more spilled blood even if some might have wished for it.
It was an image shared around the world, and one that Toronto can be proud of, even in tragedy.
“I think in America he would have definitely been shot up,” said Lowry. “It’s great, kudos to that officer. I’m sure some people wish that officer would have done damage to the man. … I’m glad that’s not my job.
“[But] that’s why those guys, the police officers, they protect and serve to make judgment calls. He did an amazing job of making a judgment call. I think more people could learn from that.”
Neither Casey, Lowry nor Ujiri would suggest that what they do at work can in anyway offset what happened in their city – our city – on Monday. Lives have been lost, others torn apart never to be fully healed.
Is there a lesson? Maybe to just keep doing what we do, but a little more of it.
“We just have to be a little bit aware. We have to care about each other more. Care about your neighbour. Know who your neighbour is,” said Ujiri. “Know who people around you are a little bit more and show affection to these people. Travelling around the world, I never look back because I just feel like I’m a person of the world. You belong to everywhere in the world. That’s what God has given us.”
Ujiri recognizes his role as a spokesman in our community. He understands that the team he, Casey and Lowry work for means so much to so many in it – and never more than at this time of year.
They can only hope that an occasion like a Game 5 Wednesday night can provide a forum for them to come together with their fellow Torontonians, and maybe – just maybe – offer a bit of reprieve, as Casey said.
Sports can be good for that. As citizens of our city Casey, Lowry and Ujiri need it just like the rest of us.