First Raptors game with fans a step in right direction after agonizing wait

Scottie Barnes stuffed the stat sheet in his Toronto Raptors debut with 13 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists and 2 steals as the Toronto Raptors downed the Philadelphia 76ers 123-107.

TORONTO — It was exactly 585 days ago that the Toronto Raptors last played in Scotiabank Arena, and OG Anunoby remembers it about as well as anyone’s bound to remember a late February game.

“It was early March, or end of February,” Anunoby said Monday morning. “We played the Hornets here. We lost.”

To be precise, the Raptors fell 99-96 to Charlotte in a game where the most notable thing to happen was seeing Rondae Hollis-Jefferson get the start at centre for the team.

Or at least, that’s what everyone thought of the game at the time.

As you may recall, after that game the Raptors headed out on a five-game road trip, and then never returned as Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, effectively shutting down the league and with it displacing the Raptors from their home in Toronto for close to 20 months.

So while a pre-season game — even a pre-season opener — isn’t usually something spoken about with much fanfare, after navigating the isolation of the bubble and spending an entire season played out on the road where their “home” games were played in Tampa, you can excuse the Raptors if they weren’t a little excited for Monday evening’s clash with the Philadelphia 76ers.

“There’s gonna be so much energy. That’s that raw feel that you can’t really describe or anticipate,” Fred VanVleet said of the atmosphere in Scotiabank Arena he was expecting to see last week. “It’s something in the air and we’re gonna be excited, they’re gonna be excited and, again, this is what it’s supposed to be more than anything during this pandemic and the last 12, 18 months.”

To say the crowd was just “excited” Monday, however, would be quite an understatement, though.

That energy VanVleet was anticipating could be felt from the minute the gates opened to the public at 6:00 p.m. ET.

There were lines to get into the official Raptors team shop with scores of people exiting the shop barely able to carry all the bags they had on them from all the swag they had purchased, groups of friends and family were seen hugging each other in the concourse, looking to be reunited after a long time spent apart and couples were seen throughout taking those all-important selfies with the court proudly displayed in the background.

And most importantly, though there were only about 9,900 fans in attendance and the building did look noticeably emptier than it normally is, it certainly didn’t sound like it.

From the raucous applause the crowd gave during the Raptors’ player introductions to the eruption of noisy approval whenever the team scored and even the cacophonous chorus of boos when an official appeared to miss a call against the Raptors, that 9,900 may well have been the capacity 19,800 because these Raptors fans were loud, proud and just seemed overjoyed to be back and watching their beloved Raptors live and in-person again.

“It definitely feels a lot more important, but we’ve been season ticket holders for the past 11 years now,” said Ben Papageorge, who, with his brother, have been a season ticket holder for the past 11 seasons. “This is like our second home and we’ve been looking forward to this day for the last two years. We’ve missed this, this is our routine, we come here all the time, it’s an escape for us and we love it here. So this is like better than Christmas for us.”

Added Roman Chesiuk, who’s been a season ticket holder dating back to when Scotiabank Arena first opened as Air Canada Centre and Vince Carter was defying gravity: “We certainly missed it and we don’t want to miss too many games this year.”

And if the Raptors’ big 123-107 win over 76ers team that didn’t dress Joel Embiid nor Tobias Harris — to say nothing of Ben Simmons, of course — on Monday is to be used as any evidence at all, then it would seem that the team would very appreciate having a crowd with them to support them every home game as well.

As it was mentioned before, the Raptors’ experience in Tampa wasn’t the best as far as home support goes and being back where they truly belong can only help them this season.

“It was bad in Tampa because they didn’t have the fans like they do have here with the fans who go crazy here,” said Shelley Samee, a Toronto-Tampa snowbird who went to go see the Raptors down in Florida last season. “In Tampa it was bad for the Raptors to see them play there because they didn’t have a fan base there, and a lot of the people who went to see them in Tampa were there to see the other teams they were playing.”

COVID-19 is still very prevalent and very much part of life -- one need only look around at all the masks fans and media are required to wear in Scotiabank Arena to understand that -- but for the Raptors who haven’t really known what “normal” looks like for nearly two years, playing back in their own home in front of a smattering -- but still equally as passionate -- of their own fans had to feel good.

And for those fans, coming down to Scotiabank Arena and being able to cheer their team on in person also had to bring a comforting feeling of normality that they likely hadn’t been feeling before.

“We’ve been doing this for like the last 10 years and it was a big-time routine for us,” said Papageorge. “We’re in our mid-to-late 20s now, so throughout our 20s that was our routine and, like a lot of people, we’ve grown up with the Raptors so it feels like it’s back [to normal].”

Is it all the way there yet?

Well, when asked after the game if this pre-season game had any extra juice, VanVleet replied simply with a “Nah,” but that’s because all he wants is more.

“It was just great to be back all around the board, but there was not enough people for me,” said VanVleet after the game. “So we’ve gotta continue to fill it up. I think that is a part of what makes this place what it is is not only the individual fan, but the collective of bringing everybody together with just so much energy and enthusiasm in the air that comes from piling up on top of each other.

“Now, I don’t know if we can do that with the rules and all that, but hopefully we can continue to grow that crowd and get back to what we used [to be].”

Being greedy in this instance isn’t a bad thing, but Monday night proved to be a good first step towards what is hopefully a road that leads to more people safely being allowed into Scotiabank Arena to watch the Raptors play again.

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