TORONTO – As the Toronto Raptors inch ever closer to their official restart this coming Saturday against the Los Angeles Lakers, questions about how the team might perform after nearly five months without playing meaningful games are, understandably, front of mind for many.
What’s the rotation going to look like with the club fully healthy? Can Pascal Siakam take the next step and become a bona fide superstar? What about Kyle Lowry? Should we expect the best post-season of his career this year because of how rested he’ll be?
These are all big questions that, while fun to think about, aren’t really all that important because, in the end, basketball is still a simple game.
“If you play the best defence and you make the most shots, you win,” said a chuckling Marc Gasol in a conference call Thursday.
Truer words have rarely been spoken before.
But while the key to the Raptors’ performance in the NBA restart may be easy to identify and answer, a much more difficult thing to do will be to ensure the social and racial justice issues that have been talked about in the leadup to actual games returning don’t get swept under the rug when everything starts to count again.
It’ll be up to everyone involved in the NBA – players, coaches, support staff, executives and even us in the media – to ensure this narrative doesn’t die because the conversation is far too important to put to the wayside in favour of discussions about pick-and-roll coverages and out-of-timeout play calls.
“I think basketball could be a distraction but we’re all firm that we want to use it as a vehicle to spread awareness and continue to just give a positive message to everyone out there,” Pascal Siakam said. “So, like we said, there are bigger issues in the world right now. And obviously we need basketball, and basketball is something that’s really vital for us and for everyone, but at the same time we just can’t forget about the task at hand and the things that are way more important than basketball and the things that are way more important than us.”
Siakam, a Cameroon native, has had a different experience with anti-Black racism in his life and said he had to learn about the history of it in North American when he first came over to the continent when he was 16.
“Like I said to a lot of the guys, I had to educate myself on a lot of issues in North America and find things that I didn’t know about, like Jim Crow and all the different things I just didn’t know about,” Siakam said. “Where I’m from those are not issues that we deal with. We have different issues. So I think the more I educate myself, the more I can speak on these issues that we see here.”
The crash course Siakam took himself through in North America’s less-than-stellar history with racism can serve as an example of what’s possible if people were to just take the time to educate themselves on important matters. In just 10 years, Siakam has gone from knowing little-to-none about the dynamics of race in North America to be able to speak eloquently on the topic.
“I think just keep the conversation going,” Siakam said in regards to how to prevent social justice issues from being overshadowed by basketball. “I think our team, we have a lot of special things set up and things that we’ve been thinking about to try and make sure we keep educating ourselves and educating people.
“…I think guys have different opinions and different ways or different things that they want to focus on. And I think we have to find a common a message and then everybody, individually, can go on their own and do what they have to do to make the change.”
Similarly to Siakam, Gasol, a native Spaniard, also made a point to learn African-American history when he first came across to these shores in 2008.
Originally a member of the Memphis Grizzlies, Gasol recalled one of the first activities the team did together was to visit the National Civil Rights Museum built around the former Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
“…If you have a chance I would advise you to go,” Gasol said of the museum. “It has grown and improved over the years but the history is still there, the education is still there to be taught and you have a lot of leaders in the Memphis community area that can really help you.
“And yes, you have to learn a lot and see how much of a struggle African-American people [faced] and the lack of opportunity and about the history and how hard they had to work to get that opportunity and be where they’re at now, and they’re still not where they’re supposed to be.
“So it’s a work in progress, but I think with all the allies and all the people pushing for it, I think eventually we’re gonna get, for sure, where we want to be.”
Or rather, if we are to reach that utopia Gasol spoke about, it has to be.