TORONTO — Before Kawhi or Kyle or DeMar or Vince, there was Damon.
Before the Toronto Raptors were marching through California in these NBA Finals, claw raised, eyes fixed on a championship, they were simply a northern experiment. An odd, unfamiliar cage within which the ‘Mighty Mouse,’ Damon Stoudamire, thrived.
Though the Portland, Ore., native’s stay in Ontario lasted only two-and-a-half seasons, the weight of his impact on the franchise’s history is immovable. His place in the Raptors’ story is easy to find — page one, as the club’s first-ever draft pick. It’s the same position he holds in regards to the club’s hall of former stars, with Stoudamire earning his place as the first to put Raptors basketball on the map when he claimed Rookie of the Year honours during that inaugural 1995-96 season, three years before Vince Carter followed suit.
With his former club heading into the latter half of its first-ever NBA Finals appearance, holding a legitimate shot at its first title, Stoudamire caught up with Sportsnet to reflect on Toronto’s progress, the growth of former teammate Kyle Lowry, and why the Raptors can tune out all talk of a championship asterisk.
Sportsnet: As somebody who was there from Day 1 and helped lay the foundation for all this, what’s it been like to see the Raptors take this next step and first get to the Finals, and now go up 2-1 in the series?
Damon Stoudamire: Man, it’s been really good. Honestly, to see the way the Raptors have taken advantage of their opportunities, from a basketball standpoint — they’re up 2-1, they’re two wins away, they seem to be in a good place both physically and mentally, other than maybe the nicknacks on Kawhi and Kyle’s thumb. When I look at that kind of bravery all the way back to when this thing first started — really, truly, I’m just happy for the city of Toronto, happy for the people of Toronto, happy for the surrounding cities, man.
Because it’s been a long time overdue. It’s been a lot of heartache in terms of basketball, but it’s definitely going in the right direction and on the right track right now.
SN: What was it like for you to be there for Game 1 with the other alumni, to be honoured in front of the fans and hear the love that people here have for you?
Stoudamire: It was nice, man, it was nice. To go back, watch the game — just to feel the energy in the city, in the crowd, it was lovely. It was a surreal moment.
A celebration of the history! @Raptors alumni in the house for Game 1! #NBAFinals | #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/Mg92JqAA35
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 31, 2019
SN: What did you think of the atmosphere here — the fans in the streets, in Jurassic Park. It’s really taken over the entire city. What are you feeling for the people of Toronto and how far they’ve come in terms of the love for the game?
Stoudamire: They’ve come a long way, they’ve come a long way. When I first got there, at times I felt like they didn’t know whether to cheer or boo, you know. But obviously, throughout the years, besides being educated on the game, they’ve had some really good players come through and they’ve just figured it all out.
The whole Jurassic Park thing — I’m telling you, boy, hey, I don’t know who thought of that idea, but man. The whole gimmick and getup, that vibe and that energy, boy, they’ve taken it to another level.
SN: What about outside of Canada — how do you think the perception of the team has changed? Becoming a competitive team, having Kawhi, and everybody in the States seeing Jurassic Park on TV — around the league, how do you think people perceive the Raptors now?
Stoudamire: You know, in a roundabout way, I think that Toronto has to keep winning. Let me just say this — I’m excited for the Raptors, I’m excited for the organization. As a basketball fan I just watch the game, but when I come into contact with people, it’s almost like they’re putting an asterisk next to what’s going on right now in the Finals based on all the injuries, you know. A lot of the stuff I hear is, ‘If Klay played last night, [the Warriors] win.’ ‘If KD was here, Toronto probably would’ve won one game.’
So, what I would say to the city is that I don’t know if they’re getting the respect that they should, but at the same time, I really wouldn’t even care.
Because a title is a title. They don’t put an asterisk next to it, man.
And I tell people, to play over 100 games in a year is hard — it’s hard. Even for Golden State, and it looks like injuries might be catching up to them, but it’s just hard. And you know, what I see is a locked in Raptors team. And I think they’ve got to continue to win to earn the respect of the people.
SN: One of those guys battling through injuries is Kyle Lowry, who continues to prove himself to be the heartbeat of this team. Tell me about the growth you’ve seen from Kyle since your time as teammates, and the impact he’s had on this series.
Stoudamire: I tell you, the growth from Kyle is amazing because the Kyle I played with, if that guy would’ve pushed him like he did [in Game 3], Kyle would’ve hit him. There’s no question — I know Kyle Lowry, I’ve been with him since he left Villanova, Kyle would’ve hit him. But Kyle has shown so much maturity.
Over the course of the last three, four years, he’s taken a lot of criticism for how he’s played in the playoffs. He hasn’t said one word — he’s just absorbed it, he’s grown from it. And the Toronto Raptors organization, they stuck with him, and he’s proving everybody wrong right now. He had a heck of a game [on Wednesday].
The value of Kyle Lowry is not solely based on making and missing shots, you know. Kyle is a winner. He’s won on every level. He can do a lot of different things on the floor to help teams win, and he’s done that throughout his time with Toronto, not just these NBA Finals.
To me, to appreciate what Kyle does, you have to come from a different place, you know what I mean. The intangible things that he does. He’s always been a great rebounder, he’ll always make the extra pass, he can guard — he can guard whether it’s on-ball, off-ball, he does a great job with that. You just see the leadership and the poise in him as he’s out there on the floor, and you can tell that the guys respond to him.
SN: Looking at the rest of this team and how they’ve come together, the performances they’ve seen from Pascal, Kawhi, Danny Green — what’s stood out to you most about the way they’ve played as a team and about the level Kawhi has reached in these Finals?
Stoudamire: You know, number one, Danny Green — we all know Danny Green is a good shooter and [Wednesday night] he got back to making shots. Siakam, he’s so young, he had a good game [in Game 3], not so good a game in Game 2, but he’s done a great job — he brings a lot of energy, a lot of effort, he’s very athletic out there on the floor.
And you know, man, Kawhi is Kawhi. I love DeMar DeRozan, but for that change, they needed a guy that can close games and he’s done a great job — probably the thing that I’ve taken from him more than anything throughout these playoffs is he’s really worked on his passing.
I’m going to say before last year, before he got hurt in San Antonio, probably that last year in San Antonio, is when I felt he became probably the best two-way player in the NBA. He took a year off due to injury and now he’s back to playing again — it’s almost like we forgot. I think he’s reminding everybody through these playoffs why he was always considered the best two-way player.
SN: You’ve taken this next step into coaching — seeing the game from that perspective, what do you think has been the key for Toronto in getting this series lead and holding their own against Golden State?
Stoudamire: Well I think the key has been defence. I think people tend to forget, you know, [three] of the five starters on Toronto, at some point in their careers, I think have been All-Defensive Team. Kawhi and Marc have been Defensive Player of the Year. That’s a heck of a defensive team — and then you’ve got Serge Ibaka coming off the bench, and he’s been All-Defence. And I think at some point Siakam will be All-Defence.
So, I think they hang their hat on defence but the biggest thing for me, in the two wins that Toronto has had, they’ve hit threes and they’ve gotten out in transition, and that has to continue to be the recipe. Defence, they’ve got to knock down threes, and they’ve got to continue to get out in transition and get easy buckets.
SN: Game 4 is going to be a different animal with Klay coming back, and who knows beyond that if Durant can play at some point — what do you think is the key to managing that change in the lineup and trying to get those last two wins?
Stoudamire: Nothing changes for Toronto, regardless of who plays. They still gotta do the things I talked about — you’ve got to be able to guard the same way. You’re going to have to take probably a little bit more pride if Klay and possibly KD come back, because it’s going to be a little more one-on-one, you know.
But I think that they’re capable. But the gameplan and the script doesn’t change — you’ve got to limit those guys to one shot, and you have to keep getting out in transition trying to get easy buckets and knocking down threes.
SN: These Finals have been a coming out party for Nick Nurse as well for people that haven’t had a chance to see him work — there’s been a lot of praise for him having that willingness to be bold and experiment. As a coach, what are your thoughts on the job he’s done this season and in these playoffs?
Stoudamire: He’s done a good job, Nurse has done a really good job. He’s thinking outside the box — which, at times when I watch NBA games, I don’t understand why people don’t do things outside the box. He played a box-and-one the other night in Game 2 — I like the things that he does out of the box. You know, I’m a fan.
He’s doing some great things, and this is just his first year. A lot of times as a coach, especially in the NBA, it’s not necessarily coaching, it’s all about managing egos and making adjustments during the game. And he’s definitely done that.
SN: Lastly, having played such a key role in this franchise’s history, what would it mean to you to see Toronto win a championship?
Stoudamire: It would be lovely for the city. Like I said, they’ve been through a lot — 24 years. To hang in there and finally see a light at the end of this tunnel, I can only imagine if they’re able to have a parade down Yonge Street — wherever they would have that parade, it would be amazing.
Just thinking about all my Day 1 friends out there in Toronto and how much they love the sport, how, even when I talked to them before the Raptors made this run, how invested they were in the team, looking for the day that they might possibly be in position to win a championship.
And now they’re two wins away.