How the Raptors’ game operations team brought a piece of home to the bubble

Watch as Jessie Reyez performs the Canadian national anthem from atop the CN Tower as the Raptors prepare to start their playoff journey against the Nets.

TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors opened their 2020 playoff run like a house on fire.

Jumping out to a 10-2 lead before the first stoppage in play, the Raptors looked fired up to kick off their post-season run in Game 1 against the Brooklyn Nets.

And, really, how could they not be raring to go?

Even under normal circumstances, the adrenaline of a playoff-opening Game 1 would be enough to wake the dead. But in the Raptors’ case during last Monday’s opener with the Nets, they were even more motivated.

That’s because, after a nice, familiar rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Raptors game operations staple Doug Tranquada, the playing of “O Canada” suddenly shifted gears to something completely different: a view of the CN Tower, with Canadian singer/songwriter Jessie Reyez down on one knee belting out the anthem from EdgeWalk, where new Canadian citizens often get sworn into their new home.

“Man, it was awesome. Caught me by surprise,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said of Reyez’s performance. “I think everybody was probably thinking the same thing. You are trying to figure out, ‘Wait a minute, is that the CN Tower?” And then you saw that it was. It was an unbelievable rendition. I thought the camera and the shots of Toronto and all that stuff were, I don’t know, kind of took your breath away a little bit.”

And that wasn’t the only thing the Raptors did to kick off their playoff run that left the team in awe.

Right after Reyez’s performance of “O Canada,” the Raptors’ starters were introduced not in the standard way by the public-address announcer, but by members of their family.

It was a moment so precious and wholesome it even brought a million-watt smile to the usually curmudgeon-like Kyle Lowry.

“It got me going. It got me going,” Lowry said of the introduction his two boys gave him. “My boys, they’re my world. I kind of wanted to halfway cry but I had to [calm] myself. That was awesome. I miss my babies even more now. That’s a memory that’s going to last forever.”

That kind of reaction from Lowry is exactly what the Raptors behind the scenes were hoping for. Because even with the team in the Walt Disney World bubble, it’s paramount that a Raptors home game still feels like one.

“We’re always trying to think of different ideas and things that we can do to help make it feel more like home in the bubble,” Teresa Resch, Raptors vice president of basketball operations, said in a recent interview with Sportsnet. “Within basketball operations, we’re at every single home game; families are at every single home game. So what can we do to make it feel like home when those guys are stepping out onto the court, even though they’re in the bubble at Disney World?”

Thanks to the dream team of Jennifer Taylor and Rae-Marie Rostant from team services, Tasala Tahir from media relations and Raptors technology lead Happy Pharwaha — with Resch steering the ship — the execution of getting the families involved to introduce Toronto’s starters came together to create an unforgettable moment for the Raptors players.

And even though it wasn’t a completely original idea (the Phoenix Suns did it first in their second-last seeding game), as the old saying goes, imitation is often the sincerest form of flattery.

“Let’s give credit where credit is due, this is not an original idea,” Resch said. “The Phoenix Suns did it earlier in the seeding games and it was fabulous. When they did it I think I got about five different texts from colleagues and different family members saying like, ‘Oh, did you see this? This is so great!’ And it was.

“And, you know, sometimes you question if you really want to outright copy someone, but we just knew how much it would mean to our players to see their family. So we went to work.”

As Resch recalled, the whole process to get everything organized and ready for Game 1 was a whirlwind few days — but it was ultimately worth it.

Also under a time crunch was Mad Ruk Entertainment, the company that helped put together that towering rendition of “O Canada” by Reyez.

As Mad Ruk Entertainment CEO Rey Mendoza said in a recent interview, the whole process from conception to realization of that national anthem only took about 13 days. It’s a remarkable turnaround time when you consider the idea came about when Mendoza’s business partner, Mauricio Ruiz, was brainstorming with MLSE about potentially asking Reyez to sing the national anthem for the Raptors’ playoff opener.

Ruiz is Reyez’s manager and, as Mendoza recalled, the idea to do the national anthem on top of the CN Tower was borne out of a desire to do something really big and special.

“Because it was the national anthem for the [Raptors playoff] opener and because of how bold the creative was, this was a great opportunity for Canada and a Canadian heritage moment to do what we can to make it happen.”

The whole process to shoot the anthem saw its fair share of challenges, as they needed to have a cameraman on the EdgeWalk and had to use a couple drones – getting clearance from air traffic control to fly them – to get the panoramic shots that Nurse said especially impressed him.

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In the end, however, all that mattered was the sight of Reyez singing “O Canada” from the top of North America’s tallest free-standing building, specifically making a message by being down on one knee.

“That was something that was influenced from the Toronto Raptors and was something that she wanted to do in unison with the whole team,” Mendoza said of Reyez taking a knee. “They’re taking a knee and she’s taking a knee. And we didn’t want to just have it so that she performed the national anthem for the [playoff] opener. It needed to be a bold statement and it needed to create a moment of awareness.”

In a recent short documentary Reyez posted on her YouTube channel she explained the importance of the message she was trying to convey by taking a knee with the players in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

“All I can do is hope that it adds to the movement when it comes out as a catalyst,” Reyez said.

And it wasn’t just the Canadian national anthem Reyez wanted to make a statement with, as she also originally sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” while sending an even bolder message of protest by donning a Breonna Taylor mask.

“She had the Breonna Taylor face mask on, she pulls it off like Spider-Man, like a superhero – it wasn’t in the creative but that’s what it looks like – and she goes and sings the national anthem and then as the camera moves back we reveal that she’s actually on her knee singing the national anthem,” Mendoza said of the original idea.

Unfortunately for Mendoza, Reyez and the rest of the crew, the American anthem portion of Reyez’s CN Tower shoot didn’t make the final cut, but here’s a look at the full product for anyone interested:

It’s unclear why Reyez’s “Star-Spangled Bannner” was cut. Regardless, the impact they wanted to convey from the whole production still appeared to work, as the Raptors could barely contain their wonder while watching the anthem performance.

“I honestly got goosebumps just seeing just Nick Nurse’s face and Lowry’s,” Mendoza said. “It was like, ‘OK, we got a great reaction!’”

On Thursday, the Raptors will open their second-round matchup with the Boston Celtics as the so-called “home” team. The last time they opened a series, the team’s game ops knocked it out of the park with the rendition of “O Canada” and starting lineup introductions from loved ones.

It’ll be tough to top that Thursday, but we’re looking forward to seeing what they have up their sleeve.

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