Home has never been more different for the Raptors, and yet, it still is.
Leading into the first game of a five-game road trip, the Raptors only spent six of their previous 48 days on the road. It’s the biggest taste of home they’ll have all season, their next coming towards the end of March when they play eight of nine in Toronto before heading to New York for their regular season finale.
Scotiabank arena has been fan-less, games have been postponed, and most of the players have had to spend time in isolation due to covid protocols. Still, there is enough connectivity that keeps the elements of home exactly that.
“We still come to OVO, we come here, we practise here. We go to Scotiabank,” Pascal SIakam said. “It feels like home. Obviously, we want to have fans there but it gives you a home feel because it’s known territory, to be honest. It doesn’t feel strange because it’s something we’ve been doing, we’re used to. Having that same routine sometimes helps. With everything going on in the world, I think we also adapt to not knowing what’s going to happen. It was an OK year in Tampa. Obviously getting out of your comfort zone makes you learn about yourself. I think that we all got better from that experience.
“Even now sometimes when things get changed quickly, we stay on track because we’ve been used to things changing. It’s an experience that we want to have. We’re grateful that we had that, and hopefully it can make us better.”
When asked last season what part of the Raptors’ culture was missing most by being in Tampa, team president Masai Ujiri pointed to the OVO Athletic Centre. Internal development has been a pivotal strength for the franchise over the years and going back to a world class training facility after practicing in a hotel ball room is as crucial a return to normalcy as any and can be seen in the improvements not only team leaders like Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby have made but even Justin Champagnie emerging as a rotation piece. The opportunity for not only him but Dalano Banton, Malachi Flynn, and Isaac Bonga to make the quick ride to Mississauga and get playing time is another aspect the Raptors have become reacquainted with.
The little things make all the difference in the world, too.
Despite all the restrictions and things that have been taken away from the Raptors, there is a comfort and regularity that comes with being in Toronto that Nick Nurse appreciates. The opportunity to go about his business day in and day out without thinking about a flight to catch has given Nurse a semblance of the normalcy he remembers. Going to practice and then going back home to play with his kids before putting them to bed, you can’t put a price on that.
“Feels like I haven’t been in front of my own TV at home in forever,” Nurse said after an early December practice. “I’ve just had two days in a row. There’s a comfort level of being prepared for me so I’m sure the players feel the same a little bit. There’s a rhythm that you really like and you get used to. All the other stuff, it’s light years better than playing in front of nobody on the road and playing in Tampa in front of nobody or in front of 3,000.”
A big part of the connective tissue between the team and the fans has been lost without their presence in the arena but the Raptors have still tried to give back as best they can and maintain that relationship.
Fred VanVleet set up a U of T scholarship opportunity for a member of the Black or Indigenous community in financial need, Nurse, through his own foundation, provided meals to families for Thanksgiving. Siakam, while he was still in street clothes recovering from his injury, wore clothing provided by some of Toronto’s best BIPOC designers, while also further expanding his ‘Coding for Champions’ program for students. Chris Boucher held a concert featuring local artists Anders, Charmaine and Kofi with all proceeds going to his non-profit charity.
Among the new “givers” is local boy Dalano Banton. Living out his dream playing for the Raptors, Banton followed up on another goal of his by giving back to the Rexdale community with his first ever skills academy.
“I feel like just being able to give back and show my face whenever I can is going to be very helpful to my community,” Banton said. “I want to continue to do so and for the next time or the next camp or anything that I do, I hope I get to bring out more kids and more people just because of COVID (this camp was limited).”
Specifically for the holiday season, Nurse initially had a plan to give gifts to kids in person but instead had them dropped off to maintain safety. VanVleet also had his own event set up through relief and development organization Penny Appeal Canada, but was also unable to attend. Basketball Development Consultant Jamaal Magloire had a fundraiser planned that has since been pushed to February.
While the flesh that is the crowd cheering them on is absent, the skeletal framework of all that home provides is still very much present. All that practice time at OVO Athletic Centre, the regular drives to and from Scotiabank Arena, shuttling players back and forth between the 905 and the parent club, and the sheer consistency of being in their own locker room has contributed to the Raptors winning 10 of their last 13 home games.
Some home cooking before a long stretch away seems like just what the doctor ordered, and it’s got Nurse, among others, feeling prepared for a stretch of eight of the next 10 games on the road and, zooming out even further, 24 of the next 34.
“We’re looking forward to it for a number of reasons but mostly, I think we’re feeling some building coming on here,” Nurse said. “I said it the other night, it’s been some weeks now of some pretty solid building and basketball and learning a lot about the team and the players and the lineups; tough games and matchups and all kinds of stuff. I think there’s a lot of guys looking forward to getting out there and seeing what we can do on this trip.”