John Saunders was the Raptors’ first play-by-play man and No. 1 fan

NBA analyst Eric Smith on the Jeff Blair discussing the legitimacy of a potential Toronto Raptors NBA championship compared to past winners.

On Monday night in Toronto, thousands of Raptors fans will take a seat inside Scotiabank Arena hoping to witness the first NBA championship in franchise history.

Outside of the arena at Jurassic Park and at viewing parties across the country, tens, perhaps even hundreds, of thousands more will gather en masse.

Also on Monday night, some 800 kilometres away from Scotiabank Arena in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y., the surviving family members of John Saunders – the Raptors’ Day 1 play-by-play man, original Super Fan and unofficial North American Ambassador – will assemble in their family room to watch Game 5, with Saunders’ favourite spot on the couch set aside for him.

The sudden 2016 death of the popular and highly-respected Saunders – a long-time ESPN host and play-by-play man – prompted an outpouring of tributes and condolences from across the sports world, including his native Toronto.

Known in the United States as one the most recognizable and accomplished faces in sports broadcasting, Saunders was perhaps best known in his native Canada for his time as a sports anchor with Citytv in Toronto (1980-82) and his five-year stint as the Raptors play-by-play man on Citytv and The New VR beginning with the franchise’s inaugural season in 1995-96.

What’s less well-known – especially to new or younger fans of the Raptors – is the critical role Saunders played in giving Toronto’s fledging NBA team credibility around the league; the spot the Raptors held in his heart long after he stopped calling games for them, and just how much he would have enjoyed the enormous party his hometown is almost bursting to throw.

“He should be here appreciating it, calling it, being a big part of it because I don’t know if anybody was prouder to be a part of the Raptors as a broadcaster,” says Leo Rautins, a close of friend of Saunders and his partner in the broadcast booth in Toronto. “To see (Toronto) today would be unbelievable for him.

“For him to be able to go into ESPN and talk shit about his team in Toronto that just won the whole thing…”

Raptors wanted him from Day 1

For the Raptors’ first season, then team owner John Bitove wanted to assemble a broadcast team that would “reflect what the city at that time looked like,” recalls Brian Cooper, who was the Raptors vice-president of operations and business development at the time.

Bitove also wanted someone who could provide the team with credibility around the league while introducing NBA basketball to Canadians. Saunders – despite a very busy and well-paying job at ESPN – sat at the top of Bitove’s list.

“To think at the time that we could get John Saunders, who had moved on from Toronto to much bigger and greener grass in the U.S., it was phenomenal that John (Bitove) thought it and (Saunders) was open to it,” says Cooper.

In addition to Saunders and Rautins, the broadcast team was rounded out by another Canadian, Lori Belanger.

“From Day 1 (Saunders) provided some credibility to the audience,” says Cooper. “He was passionate about the city and passionate about the sport and the beginnings of it in Canada. The games were on Citytv and VR. So to take that step back (from ESPN), it shows the character of John.”

A John Saunders-led Raptors broadcast was smooth, smart – and perhaps most importantly during the early years when wins were scarce – fun. The last is a word that comes up repeatedly in conversation with Rautins when asked what it was like to work with not only one of the best in the business but someone who would quickly become one of his best friends.

“Honestly, we had too much fun,” Rautins explains, almost sheepishly. “Every time we saw each other it was just pure fun. We loved doing games. We had a really great crew and had a blast.”

Belanger recalls Saunders as someone who never acted like a star, despite being one of the biggest in the industry at that time.

“He was authentic and kind,” she says. “He never looked down on us. We were literally rookies in every aspect and John never looked down on us. TSN and Sportsnet did not have the cache that they have now. If you were working in sports, you wanted to get to ESPN, so the fact that he came back the other way and could have been arrogant or had higher expectations… he was never like that.

“He was willing to put his own reputation on the line for the team. It was a conscious choice for him to help put the Raptors on the map, to come back and take this job.”

Prior to the start of the 2001 season, the franchise decided to head in another direction with their broadcast teams. Saunders had called his last game for the Raptors. It was a decision that, according to Rautins, was not Saunders’ choice.

“John walked in there expecting to continue in the role. He was devastated. When Isiah (Thomas) and John (Bitove) were there at the beginning, they understood who John Saunders was. Later on, I don’t think (management) understood just who we had doing the games at that time.

“His goal with this job was he wanted to be (long-time Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play man) Chick Hearn. He wanted to retire doing Raptor games. His email address to the day he passed away began with ‘Raptors6.’

(L-R) Leo Rautins. Lori Belanger and John Saunders were part of an all-Canadian Raptors broadcast crew.
(L-R) Leo Rautins. Lori Belanger and John Saunders were part of an all-Canadian Raptors broadcast crew.

“Send one of your sons here”

John Saunders’ daughter Aleah was six-years-old in the fall of 1995. A lifelong basketball fan, she maintains fond memories of her frequent travels with her father from their home in New York to Toronto, where John would spend time teaching her about the sport and his work.

“That was our thing,” says Aleah, 29, who now works as a television producer in New York. “I recently found a bag he had with the original Raptors logo on it and it made me realize he was really in this thing from the ground up. It was great to be a piece of it.”

Despite being born and raised in New York – what many consider to be basketball Mecca – like her father, Aleah’s NBA allegiances are in Toronto.

“He was the voice of the Raptors,” she says almost incredulously. “The voice of my favourite team, in my favourite sport. It’s amazing. It’s very cool.”

The word amazing came up again, this time when asked to describe John Saunders, the dad.

“Amazing. I can’t really put it on a scale,” she says. “When I look back, I can’t really think of anything he wasn’t there for. I can’t think of something he was not there for. He came to my basketball games and plays. He was just there. Always there.”

And if there was somewhere he couldn’t be – but could still help – he did, sometimes even enlisting a friend.

“I did not have a date for my senior prom. My dad called Leo (Rautins) and was like, ‘Send one of your sons here,’” she laughs. “So his youngest son was my prom date. We had a great time, actually. They were close enough to do that.”

Canada’s greatest troll

Throughout his time at ESPN up until his death, Saunders was known for being three things: a great broadcaster, a great mentor and perhaps the biggest Canadian booster/troll in the company.

“He was a proud Canadian and wore it with a badge of honour,” confirms David Amber, who worked at ESPN alongside Saunders beginning in 2002, including as part of an all-Canadian broadcast crew during the 2008 International Bowl in Toronto.

“He kept making a mention of it and was playing it up,” Amber recalls of the event. “It was a pretty cool moment. John was a real mentor in many respects for a lot of people and I can speak to it specifically as a guy with the same skin tone, same background, from the same city. He was the guy who made you say, ‘Wow, he’s made it. I wonder if we could follow in his footsteps. So to get the chance to work with him was amazing.’”

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Despite living in New York, Saunders maintained deep roots to his homeland. He never took out U.S. citizenship. He made his sure his two daughters acquired their Canadian citizenship cards at the earliest opportunity. For a period of time the ringtone on his wife Wanda’s phone was ‘O Canada.’ There was a Canadian flag on his license plate.

And there were moose. Many, many moose.

“Our entire house is Canadian pride,” laughs Aleah. “We have moose in every room. We really do.”

And although John Saunders won’t physically be in that room with his wife Wanda, Aleah and her younger sister Jenna, 26, nor will he be at Scotiabank Arena with good friend Leo Rautins and his ESPN colleagues, regardless of the outcome in Game 5 or the series itself, his role in building the Raptors’ franchise is secure.

“To have him come on board at the initial stages – which were so important in building this franchise, building its fan base, building its popularity, was immeasurable,” says Amber. “I don’t think it would have saved the Vancouver Grizzlies, but maybe (John) was part of what helped build the Toronto Raptors, the fact that they had this incredible, renowned voice leading them off the hop.”

And if the Raptors win it all?

“Oh, don’t worry,” says Aleah. “I will be sure to rub the results in (American’s) faces.”

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