When Jonas Valanciunas broke his hand against the Los Angeles Lakers in November of 2015, it was only a matter of minutes before Drake was texting Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri for updates. Ujiri, not in L.A. with the team, new about as much as Drake did from his courtside seats, but this is not irregular for the passionate global ambassador. Even when his career keeps him out of Toronto, his partnership with the Raptors is never far from his mind.
On Wednesday, Drake and the Raptors announced that their partnership is not only continuing for the foreseeable future, it’s expanding. At a press conference at Gate 5 of the Air Canada Centre, host Matt Devlin went over the bullet points of the expanded Welcome Toronto initiative between the Raptors and OVO before giving way to a smiling Ujiri and an excited Drake.
"Over the past four years, the Raptors’ relationship with Drake has always ultimately been about celebrating this city and the people that make it unique," Ujiri said. "We have something very special happening in Toronto and Drake is a big part of that. We’re looking forward to this opportunity to continue working together to inspire and support young people, to showcase this great city around the world and to grow the game of basketball."
Welcome Toronto promises to be an immersive and dynamic partnership over the next few years, building off of the past four years of the relationship. What started as sort of a vague alignment, an unexpected introductory presser, and the inaugural Drake Night has grown to where it’s not only a major part of both the Raptors and OVO brand but will stand to make a lasting impact on the sport of basketball and the growth of the arts in the city of Toronto.
Last week, the Raptors revealed their new Nike "City" edition jerseys, as well as a new court that will be utilized for the Welcome Toronto nights. The jersey is black and gold, a nod to the OVO relationship, and the new court will feature all-black keys, baselines, and sidelines with gold font, a bold new center-court logo, and two-toned hardwood.
The first Welcome Toronto night will take place on Jan. 26 when the Raptors host the Utah Jazz. On Wednesday, the Raptors also revealed that Welcome Toronto nights will take place Jan. 28, Feb. 2, March 9, March 23, and April 6. At the press conference, Devlin also revealed that there will be six Welcome Toronto nights in each of the next two seasons, as well. In other words, get used to this sharp new court.
In the time since Drake came aboard, the ACC has become known as one of the best buildings in the NBA. With the Raptors reaching new levels of success for the franchise and the Raptors’ diverse fanbase proving itself one of the most passionate, Ujiri sees the entire momentum of Toronto basketball as an area of strength.
"We can't do it any better than The King of Toronto," Ujiri said of Drake. To have somebody special like this for us I think is huge. We appreciate all the support, all the support from the fans. We have to make Toronto - we have to - we have to make Toronto the best atmosphere in the NBA. And it's becoming the best atmosphere in the NBA. I can't wait to go to every single Raptors game, and we're damn proud of it."
The OVO-themed Welcome Toronto nights will be about more than "Drake Night," and their impact will be felt far outside of the ACC.
As part of the expanded partnership, the Raptors and OVO have pledged to donate $1 million over the next three years to refurbish local community basketball courts. Four local community courts will be selected in each of the next three years, with the first four announced within the next month. The hope is that by investing in basketball infrastructure with easy access in the community, that the Raptors and OVO can help facilitate the growth and expanded inclusivity of the sport in and around the city.
"I think the key is always to grow, the key is always to evolve. It's nice to have the uniforms and the fancy court and the merchandise and stuff like that, but what was most important to me was just the call to action," Drake said. "I think in this day and age it's really easy to get on social media and talk about things we'd like to see change or things we think are wrong, and then there's an opportunity when you're presented with one to be able to do something about it.
"So for us, my biggest thing that I'm most proud of in this partnership is the million dollars that we're gonna be giving to the city to re-do these courts and hopefully create an amazing atmosphere for anyone in that community to come out and either play casual basketball or, you know, potentially breed the next generation of Canadian basketball superstars."
There is real potential that improved courts and greater access can continue to facilitate the growth of high-end Canadian basketball talent. To that end, the Raptors and OVO have also pledged $2 million to Canada Basketball over the next five years.
"Canada Basketball is grateful to the Toronto Raptors for their continued support as one of our longest standing partners," Michele O’Keefe, president and CEO of Canada Basketball, told Raptors.com. "Support like this allows the game of basketball to continue to grow in Canada, from grassroots initiatives to our national programs."
The contribution will aim to continue to support the development of the sport from the grassroots level up to the national level. Canada Basketball has experienced a great deal of success at the national level of late, including a gold medal at the FIBA Women’s AmeriCup, a gold medal at the Under-19 men’s World Cup, and a bronze medal at the Under-19 women’s World Cup this past summer. The NBA and G League continue to be populated with record or near-record levels of Canadians, and the NCAA and high-school pipelines remain flush with Canadian talent.
"Giving back to the fans was very important for us," Ujiri said. "Giving back to our communities is huge. Giving back to basketball, and Canada Basketball, I think we've always looked for ways to do this and I think this is a great way, not only because of the partnership or because of Canada Basketball, but I think there is momentum in basketball with the youth. We see all the players around the league and all the youth around college and even in basketball in Canada, the way the national teams are doing, and we're proud. I know Drake is very proud to support this and has made this one of the big things that we wanted to do."
There are more details still to come, as well, like what specific role The Remix Project will play. The two sides have promised that their continued partnership will focus not just on basketball but will celebrate the future of art and culture in the community under that same Welcome Toronto banner.
The 18 Welcome Toronto nights over the next three years, the donations to local court refurbishment and Canada Basketball, the new court and jerseys, it may not stop there. If there’s anything that’s defined Drake’s career to date, it’s reinvention and staying ahead of the curve. As he and the Raptors extend their relationships over the next few years, they renew an implied commitment that there’s always more to come.
"Growth is inevitable with this partnership. It's something that I'm still proud and excited about and it's something that still makes all other rappers jealous," Drake said. "I don’t think it’s gonna stop anytime soon. We've got incredible people like Masai at the helm of the ship. I'm just really excited to still be here after all these years. It was surreal when it first happened and it's still surreal to be sitting here with this guy, being able to give back to the best city in the world. I'm honored, and again, thank you guys for believing in us.
"And I promise you Raptors basketball, Canada Basketball, and Toronto as a whole will only get better."