TORONTO – Throughout life you would be very hard-pressed not to make a few relationships along the way.
Some will be fleeting, some a matter of convenience and others still merely cordial.
But the strongest bonds are often those forged when you’re faced with adversity, either tackling a challenge side-by-side with a group of people or even during head-to-head competition -- as is the case with the Toronto Raptors.
Though the pre-season is over, Toronto still needs to make a call on a number of key decisions, most pertinently who among its list of non-guaranteed players brought in for training camp will earn an opening-night roster spot.
There are technically three spots up for the grabs, but it’s assumed that one of those three will go to Yuta Watanabe. That means, with Freddie Gillespie getting waived on Wednesday, there are actually just two spots open for Sam Dekker, Ishmail Wainright and Isaac Bonga to fight for.
Each man has done his part during the pre-season, confident that they’ve shown enough to impress the Raptors brass, but what’s most impressive about this trio is that even though they’ve all been fiercely competing with each other for that coveted NBA job, they’ve also managed to forge a tight bond with each other that doesn’t appear like it’ll be easily broken, no matter who ends up making the team.
“That is the hardest part of the job,” Dekker said after the Raptors practised Thursday, discussing the friendships he's made with people he’s competing against. “The quality of people we have in that locker room right now is – I was talking with my wife about this yesterday – I was saying that this is coolest group of guys that I’ve been around with in the NBA because our leaders are young, our leaders are these guys who have scratched and clawed.
"Fred VanVleet is an undrafted guy and he still has that DNA in him. Also, there’s no seniority, there’s no, ‘I make this much, so…’ These guys are helping each other and cheering for each other.
“Sure, the unguaranteed guys are fighting for spots like Isaac Bonga, Ish, Freddie Gillespie, but those guys are some of the kindest human beings you could ever meet. So that is the hardest part of the job. For the coaches it’s the hardest part of the job, for the front office it’s the hardest part of the job, for the front office it’s the hardest part, for agents and you can go down and down and down. … So these are guys that I’ll stay in touch with for a long time, no matter what happens and I’m always going to cheer for them, no matter what because it’s the weakness of a man to root for someone to fail. So whatever happens I want those guys to have success in whatever they do.”
Added Wainright: “It’s a brotherhood. We've been playing against each other for years, it’s a basketball community, it's a brotherhood. I mean, I’ve been playing against Sam since the sixth grade, just played against him a few months ago overseas. I mean we have a special bond but on the court we're competing for spots.
“I'm competing not just with Isaac, Sam, and other guys, I’m competing with OG [Anunoby], Scottie [Barnes], guys like that. We take whatever is on the court, we don't take it off the court, we still have our bonds, we’ll still go to lunch, go to dinner no matter what happens we're still going to be OK, we're still going to be cool, still going to text, still going to have our group message. We'll see down the line with whatever happens.”
This is a positive attitude for anyone to have, but it feels like it’s essential for guys like Dekker, Wainright and Bonga who are on the fringes of the NBA. Being supportive and empathetic to the plight of others who are going through similar experiences is a solid way to make a good impression not only with your teammates and even those you’re competing with, but with front-office personnel and the coaching staff.
An upbeat, optimistic disposition will carry all of these guys far, even if their destination won’t necessarily be in Toronto.
“I’m going to be able to go to bed at night happy with what I was able to do and proud of myself for this whole summer, this whole fall, the way I performed, the way I approached each day, the relationships I made,” Dekker said. “Those are the things I’m proud of, I think I showed who I am as a player and a person and if one of us isn’t chosen, it’s not a knock on you as a person or a player. We have 20 good players coming into camp so it’s not, oh, we don’t need that guy. It’s more of we’ve got to go in a different direction. It’s the art of the business.
“Again, I’m proud of myself for the way I’ve handled all of this, all the pressure, and coming back. The biggest thing that it solidified in my own mind is I am an NBA player. Sometimes the biggest person you have to prove that to is yourself. That’s where I am right now.”
“No matter how it goes I’m not going to hang my head,” added Wainright. “My parents and my family always told me once one door closes another one opens up. So I’m coming out of this a better man, a better basketball player, a better person, period. So I’m not going to hold my head, I think nobody’s going to hold their heads.”
And Bonga: “I think for me the thing is always I want to learn as much as possible. It’s the same thing as winning games. These last weeks have definitely done that. As a basketball player I think I’ve gotten better. As a person I’ve gotten better. A hundred per cent.”
All three of these guys have had to endure some rougher waters on their way to make it to this point, with Dekker playing the last two seasons in Europe after being a first-round pick in 2015 and spending the first five seasons of his pro career in the NBA, Wainright needing to start his professional career in Europe before getting a shot with the Raptors and Bonga, on the verge of turning 22 years old in November, still trying to find his footing as an NBA player entering his fourth season.
The Raptors have until Saturday to make their final cuts, but whoever ends up on the outside looking in likely won’t be too disconnected from the group.
Dekker, Wainright and Bonga have done all they can to try to make a case for themselves. Now all they can do is wait – together.
“We haven’t gotten an answer, the clock is ticking, we feel it, we talk about it all the time, we kind of look at each other and chuckle about it but, again, like we said earlier, I’m gonna root for these guys, I’m gonna root for all of them,” said Dekker. “They’re good guys and they deserve the spot.
"We all do so there’s not a wrong answer, there’s not a 100 per cent correct answer. There’s the answers and we’ll get those soon.”