Home Away From Home

by Chris O'Leary

Much like their fans, the Toronto Raptors were hopeful that they were going to be playing at home this year right until the moment they realized that they wouldn’t be.

On Nov. 20, the team was Tampa Bay-bound, just 10 days before the scheduled start of training camp. 

The key items of a contingency plan were lined up -- the Raptors would play out of Amalie Arena and would stay at a nearby Marriott until players, coaches and staff could find some temporary housing -- but one key day-to-day item needed to be taken care of. The team needed a practice facility. 

That put Teresa Resch, the Raptors’ vice president, basketball operations and player development, into motion.

“We actually really thought we had a shot at staying,” she said late last week, with her whirlwind project finished.  

“I’m not saying that we didn't plan but we didn't necessarily invest until we...mutually agreed that time was running out (on a decision to stay in Toronto). We were having good discussions but we weren't quite there and we just had to make the decision. 

“In the Tampa solution, we had identified that it would have to be a hotel ballroom buildout and we would need extra time to build it out.” 

The Raptors followed the cues that the NBA took over the summer in the bubble in Florida and converted their hotel’s ballroom into a practice facility. It’s not a duplication of the OVO Athletic Centre in Toronto -- a project Resch led to its 2016 completion -- but it’ll be comfortable and it should provide some of the stability and routine that the players have come to expect over the last four seasons.

Like Resch, Raptors GM Bobby Webster was with the organization before the practice facility was built. Along with team president Masai Ujiri, they’ve seen the significance that the OVO Centre has taken on in the team’s day-to-day existence. Four years in, Webster called the facility in Toronto a pillar for the team.

“It touches so many different areas of the organization,” he said. 

“At its heart it's our home. It's where we work, where the guys come into practice. I always describe it to people, there's a reason why the two courts are at the centre (of the facility). 

“That's the basis of it but there are so many other important things, whether it's where we eat, obviously it’s where we work, where we talk to each other. It's kind of where we live during the nine months of the season. So in all of those ways, it's super important. 

“So when you're coming to a new scenario or a new situation like here, it might be the most important part of the organization.”  

While the Raptors held their training camp at St. Leo University, the hotel ballroom was transformed into something that no one likely would have envisioned when it was originally built. 

The result of that labour? Two full courts with four baskets, a socially-distanced locker room for the players, a spacious weight room and a training room that has a hot and cold tub. There’s a film room, meeting rooms, an equipment office and offices for staff members.  

“We talked to the players and got an idea of what things were important to them and tried to incorporate that as much as possible,” Resch said. 

“There were some things we couldn’t do, like build showers in the middle of a hotel that don’t already exist, but other than that I think we’ve been able to deliver everything we need.” 

To do the job the Raptors turned to a Canadian company, BaAm Productions, which had helped the Blue Jays with their move to Buffalo earlier in the year. They acquired courts that were used at Disney World in the bubble and moved them to Tampa. They shipped down about half of the equipment from their weight room at the OVO Centre and rented equipment in Florida to round out the other half. 

“We knew that they could do good work and they could do it quite quickly,” Resch said, noting that everything came together on a tight timeline. The court only made it to Tampa early last week. 

“Everything takes time and we had none of it,” she said. “You’re on pins and needles hoping everything happens and most of it did. BaAm’s really good and flexible and they were able to meet our needs. 

“There's probably going to be a portion of the staff that want to stay here forever, because they have it better and there's a portion of the staff that are going to say, ‘I want to go back home really soon.’ The players, I think as long as there's a ball and a basket, they're usually OK.” 

Having taken part in the bubble and practising in converted spaces will likely make this adjustment an easier one for the Raptors’ returning players. Ballrooms aren’t often designed with considerations for NBA players relocated during a pandemic, so there may be some differences and things to get used to but overall, Resch said that the early impressions of the facility have been positive. 

The Raptors will get a feel for the facility this week, leading into their third and final preseason game Friday game in Tampa against Miami. 

“More than anything, what's most important is we have an area that I think we can continue to grow and develop our players and our team,” Resch said. 

“That's what's most important and I think we were able to achieve that. We've had a couple guys come in and work out before they left (for their games in Charlotte) and everything I heard was good.” 

Relocating wasn’t what the organization had hoped for but it’s embracing the challenges that come with it. 

“It's what we in essence work for and live for,” Webster said. 

“I think that's on a very light scale, part of the fun of it.”

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