The Toronto Raptors’ quest to go back-to-back begins Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers. Catch every moment of the action on Sportsnet ONE, Citytv and SN NOW starting at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT. Full broadcast details of the Raptors’ return-to-play schedule can be found here.
The Toronto Raptors aren’t like the other NBA teams, or previous NBA champions.
It’s evident in ways large and small, obvious and nuanced.
Plainly, the Raptors are the only team in the NBA who play a different anthem before games, “O Canada” in addition to “The Star Spangled Banner.”
Off the floor they’re the only team with a Black, African-born president and one of the few teams with women in prominent front office roles, chipping in at practice as an assistant coach and working behind the scenes in analytics and elsewhere in the organization.
On the floor they do it differently, too.
Last season they became the first team in NBA history to win a championship without having a lottery pick on their roster. This season they’re going to try for something almost as rare: an NBA title without a superstar around which to organize the furniture.
Instead they’re doing it unconventionally, where each piece in the room matters in relation to the next and the light falls just right, every corner getting a chance to glow.
The Los Angeles Lakers, who the Raptors face Saturday night in the first of eight seeding games — and what could easily be an NBA Finals preview — have three former No.1 overall picks in their rotation with LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Dwight Howard. James and Davis are two of the top five players in the league. They are headed to the Hall of Fame and Howard likely is too.
The Raptors’ rotation boasts two second round picks in Norman Powell and Marc Gasol and two undrafted free agents in Fred VanVleet and Terence Davis. Their leader is Kyle Lowry, the bowling ball of a point guard. In a league where all the stars fly through the air with the greatest of ease, Lowry hasn’t dunked in 11 seasons. His signature play is getting knocked on his ass and taking a charge.
But they feel pretty good about themselves and their chances even now that one of their starters from the championship team — Danny Green — starts for the Lakers and the other, Kawhi Leonard, starts for the Los Angeles Clippers.
They got through the first part of the regular season with a 46-18 record, third best in the league and can boast the league’s second-best defence even while having more games lost to injury by their core players that any team in the NBA.
They’re healthy now, and undaunted. Teams have won titles without MVP-type players at their peak, just not very often. The 2004 Detroit Pistons did it and the 2011 Dallas Mavericks probably qualify. The 2014 San Antonio Spurs with their aging trio of greats might fit the bill, if barely.
The Raptors don’t see the issue.
“I look at it differently,” says Marc Gasol, who won an NBA title as an underdog last year and then a world championship as an underdog and, understandably, doesn’t have a lot of time for the concept of underdogs or favourites. “I look at it like how all the teams that had a top-five player mostly, they didn’t get a championship. Right?
“What is more important to you? You just have to find a way to be the best team possible because at the end of the day it doesn’t matter how good of a player you have on your side. At the end of the day you have to win as a team and it takes a whole team to win a championship or even any playoff series.
“So, let’s focus on that and what we can control and be the best team we can be. Just continue to grow with every regular season game, every playoff game. Just continue to get a little bit better and a little bit better and see where we end up. Everyone has a lot of players and stuff but at the end of the day, to me, I always believe the best team wins regardless of who they have on their roster.”
If the Raptors have an advantage it’s that they know they can do it. While Leonard got the lion’s share of the credit for bringing a title to Toronto last year, those that remain look at the fact that Raptors have gone 63-23 in their past 86 games without him — a better winning percentage than Leonard has with the Clippers this season — and figure Leonard didn’t do it alone.
All the other contenders gathered at the Walt Disney World Resort outside Orlando think they can leave in October with a championship, the Raptors know it because they’ve done it.
“Having won it, I think that helps,” says VanVleet. “You know that there’s the big picture there, the pot of gold is at the end of the rainbow, and you can kind of see ahead of what’s to come. And until you do that, you don’t really know what you’re exactly chasing. I think that’s part of winning a championship and having that pedigree, is you kinda know the answers to the test.”
But while they’re here — ‘here’ being in the antiseptic ‘bubble’ the NBA has set up outside Orlando — the Raptors have other things in mind, as do most of the players gathered having left behind family, friends and loved ones in the midst of generational social unrest, not to mention the pandemic.
But even in that there are differences, subtleties that set the Raptors apart.
Nick Nurse is a 53-year-old white man from Carroll, Iowa, but on his coaching staff is Jamal Magloire, a trailblazer on the Toronto hoops scene, and a pillar in the Carribean community from where so many Black Torontonians claim roots.
So in the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the protests that followed, Nurse listened.
Among the messages he heard — in part from Magloire — was that Toronto and Canada has its share of challenges with regard to equality and race relations. And so the coach from Iowa who started his career in England could say with a certain degree of confidence on Friday that whatever gesture the players make when the anthems are played Saturday night will resonate in Toronto and Canada, too, because it needs to.
“It does create a little bit different moment when you’re playing two country’s anthems,” said Nurse. “[But] … this isn’t about countries, this isn’t about the borders, to me it’s about continuing to shine the light on that we need to do better in police brutality area, we need to do better in the systemic racism area.
“That’s not just Canada, America, that’s a lot of places so we treat that as one long song tomorrow.”
And the Raptors being the Raptors, it’s not just North America either. Gasol grew up in Spain and learned about race relations in the United States when one of the first places he visited upon moving to Memphis as a teenager was the National Civil Rights Museum, built around the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. In past off-seasons Gasol has volunteered with an international aid organization rescuing refugees trying to make it from Africa to Europe by sea and makes the connections.
The issues underlying the Black Lives Matter movement run deeper than police brutality in the United States or Canada.
“We can see how we treat a lot of immigrants that come from Africa to Europe, the way we deal with it — not ‘we,’ but a lot of people do, sadly in Spain or Italy or other countries around Europe,” Gasol said recently. “We look at them as immigrants, not only as human beings. So that tag that you put on (them) already tells you a lot of stuff about the way you view them. All those things need to change, and if it doesn’t come from the top and from the government, it has to come from the people.”
Serge Ibaka grew up in Brazzaville in the Republic of Congo, a region torn by civil war and strife for decades, if not centuries. He left home to purse basketball as a teenager first in France and then Spain before coming to the United States and now Canada.
The Black Lives Matter movement may have gained momentum in the broadly unified response to the death of Floyd at the hands of a white police officer in Minneapolis, but the tremors rumble far beyond.
For Ibaka it’s about a continent that has buckled under the thumb of colonialism — the ultimate expression of white privilege — and where the wounds run deep.
Players are wearing social justice messages on their jerseys and Ibaka’s reads “Respect Us.”
“This is one thing I want people to understand: What is going on in the United States is what is going on everywhere, maybe in different ways” said Ibaka. “In the States you can see what is happening directly, how, police is killing somebody. But in the Congo, in Africa, in all the countries in Europe, it’s happening, too, in different ways. The fight we’re fighting here is bigger than the fight people are thinking. Because if we can win this fight here, we’re going to change a lot of things around the world.
“They’re making us out there killing ourselves, killing each other, raping our moms, our daughters,” said Ibaka. “They’re coming and they’re getting a lot of other resources from our countries. We are living poor. We are nothing. At the same time, when we go emigrate … they don’t want us to be there. They treat us like nothing. And they’re the ones, they come to Africa to take everything [from] us. They think we don’t deserve respect. They don’t respect us.
“That’s why my [jersey] message, I say “Respect Us.”
Ibaka has found a home in Toronto, an NBA city and NBA franchise that has deservedly earned respect and more. He fits in with an organization filled with people that defy convention.
It’s a team which doesn’t neatly conform to any preconceived notions of what an NBA champion should be.
It’s a unique team perfectly suited for unique times. They rightly believe this could be their moment again.