New court puts the 'We' in We The North

by Chris O'Leary

If 2020 has felt like an endless handout of lemons, give the Toronto Raptors credit for their ability to make lemonade. 

Making displaced players feel comfortable in improvised living situations has become something that the team has learned to thrive at this year. It started in the bubble in Florida, where the Raptors’ floor of their hotel was decorated with Toronto-themed images and players’ rooms had pictures of their families waiting to greet them upon check-in. 

The team has tried to take the same approach to its stay in Tampa Bay, whether it’s a half-season that ends in March or the full 72-game plus-playoff run. It starts with what the team is working with now, staying at a hotel that has an expansive, high-end and hastily put together practice facility built into it that’s just a short walk away from the Amalie Arena. The team played its preseason finale there this past Friday and they’ll open up the 2020-21 season there on Wednesday when they host the New Orleans Pelicans. 

Making the arena feel like home is the next step for the organization in getting everyone settled into their new situation. 

“There will be some getting used to the arena and the flow and whatnot,” Raptors GM Bobby Webster said. 

“(The) other things that we think about...what is the experience for the players and the staff from essentially the moment they park their car and come into the arena and the locker room?” 

The organization started planning a year ago for the new look it would have this season, from revised uniforms to a redesigned court. That it ended up all being unveiled with the team temporarily relocating wasn’t in the original planning but as the season gets underway, the theme to that new look fits. It’s one that players will see as soon as they step on the court. 

“From our perspective that's really special. That court has, around the outside of the border it has ‘North’ written in 25 different languages,” Kevin Mones, the creative director at Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment explained. 

The court surrounded by text should provide some familiarity. Mones and his team took inspiration from the Raptors’ crowning achievement for the look, borrowing from the design of the team’s 2019 championship banner. They added a pair of chevrons -- mainstays in the team’s uniform for years -- that span almost the entire length of the court as well. 

“When we wanted to do the court, we wanted something holistic to tie into the championship banner itself,” he said. “Around the border of this court is something that contains a lot of meaning. It’s all of the people that were necessary for greatness to happen.” 

Through the playoff run this year, Raptors fans from around the world sent in pictures and videos of them with We The North flags or t-shirts, offering encouragement to their team. Mones wanted to emphasize the ‘We’ in We The North. 

“The idea is that ‘We’ are not a single entity. You are different than I am, however we are ‘We’ together,” he said. “Strength in diversity was always something we positioned within the Raptors and really it’s Toronto-centric. Toronto is the most diverse city in the world, it’s been recognized by the U.N. 

“We wanted to put that in a place that would have some permanency. Look and feel can change every year but notionally, We The North is here to stay and it’s really something that...we dub it The North Court. 

“This year is different, obviously. It’s not the year we wanted or expected it to be but we always thought it’d be something special, (the idea) that it’s the place that the north holds court. It has a representation of a lot of different languages that are spoken in and around Toronto.” 

As the Raptors’ players and staff get settled into Tampa, the new court should help to give game days a home-like feel, at least. 

“It looks good. They did a nice job, the court looks great,,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said after the team held its first practice at the arena last week. 

Nurse noticed the court and its inspiration, the championship banner, hanging in the rafters at Amalie Arena. It’s all a strong reminder of where the organization has been and where it wants to continue to go, even if the present-day location may feel like a strange sojourn at times this year. 

“It helps. It certainly gives you a boost, just a little bit of juice or energy or whatever,” Nurse said. 

“(The banner was) the second thing I noticed when I walked in. It's nice to have the touches of home, for sure.” 

The relocation wasn’t a part of the design plan, but the theme fits. Even if that court were sitting at Scotiabank Arena this season, the idea of the world coming to and being represented on it is the same. 

“We’ve had the notion that the north isn’t a destination; it’s a declaration,” Mones said. 

“The Raptors have an international fanbase and that has grown and grown every year. The idea of the north court being in Tampa, there wasn’t a need to pivot. 

“We The North isn’t necessarily an idea of you living in Toronto, Canada. It’s more that we are the outsiders who play our game the way we play our game. It’s not about people telling us what’s right. The ‘We; in that just isn’t geographical. There wasn’t a need for us to pivot. The story for us is still true.”  

Like so many things in 2020, games in Tampa will be a strange experience no matter how much work goes into them. There will be a limited number of fans in the arena, mixed with some pumped in noise. The Raptors learned how to play in a new atmosphere in the bubble. This will be similar to that, which should help them as they go into a new slate of games. 

“You can’t really control what happens in the stands,” Webster said. 

“The environment on the bench, the energy of our staff, the energy of the players who are playing, I think that's something that we've taken as a priority for our team in the sense that you can create that on your own side of the court.”

The word North appears in the following 25 languages, surrounding the Raptors’ home court this year: 

English, Filipino, Portuguese, Spanish, Taiwanese Mandarin, Italian, French, Hindi, Indonesian, Lithuanian, Mongolian, German, Greek, Polish, Malay (Malaysian), Hausa, Mandarin, Contonese, Bengali, Turkish, Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Arabic, Dutch


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