House couldn’t have been more different than the Raptors, however, it still is.
At the start of the first game of a five-game road trip, the Raptors only spent six of the previous 48 days on the road. It’s the biggest home bait they’ll have all season, their next one coming at the end of March when they play eight of nine in Toronto before they head to New York for the regular season finale.
Scotiabank Arena was empty of fans, matches were postponed, and most players had to spend time in isolation due to covid protocols. However, there is enough connection that perfectly preserves the elements of the house.
“We still come to OVO, we come here, we train here. We go to Scotiabank,” Pascal Sicam said. “It felt like home. We obviously want to have fans there, but that gives you a home feel because it’s a well-known area, honestly. It doesn’t seem weird because it’s something we’ve been doing, we’re used to. Having the same routine helps sometimes. With everything going on in the world, I think we’re also adjusting to not knowing what’s going to happen. It’s been a good year in Tampa. Obviously, getting out of your comfort zone makes you learn about yourself. I think we all improved from that experience.
“Even now sometimes when things change quickly we stay on track because we’re used to changing things. It’s an experience we want to have. We’re thankful we got that, and hopefully it makes us better.”
When asked last season what part of the Raptors’ culture was missing from being in Tampa, team boss Masai Ujiri pointed out the Ofo Athletic Center. In-house development has been a pivotal force for the franchise over the years and returning to a world-class training facility after a workout in the hotel ballroom is critical to returning to normalcy like anything and can be seen in the improvements not only made by team leaders like Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby but Even Justin Champagnie turned out as a go-to piece. The opportunity not only for him, but Dalano Banton, Malachi Flynn, and Isaac Bunga to take a quick trip to Mississauga and have playtime is another aspect that the Raptors have come to know once again.
Little things make a big difference in the world, too.
Despite all the limitations and things 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 through his day to day work without thinking about a trip to catch up with the nurse gave the kind of normalcy he remembered. Going to practice and then coming home to play with his kids before putting them to bed, you can’t put a price on that.
“I feel like I haven’t been in front of my television at home forever,” a nurse said after training in early December. “I’ve had two days in a row. I feel comfortable getting ready for me, so I’m sure the guys feel a little bit the same. There’s a rhythm you really like and you’ll get used to it. All other things, it’s light years better than playing in front of no one on the road and playing in Tampa in front of Nobody or in front of 3000.”
Much of the connective tissue between the team and the fans has been lost without them in the ring but the Raptors are still trying to give back what they can and maintain that relationship.
Fred VanVleet created a U of T scholarship opportunity for a member of the Black or Indigenous community in financial need, in which the nurse, through his own foundation, provided meals to families for Thanksgiving. Siakam, while still in streetwear while recovering from his injury, wore clothes made by some of Toronto’s top BIPOC designers, while also expanding his “Coding for Champions” program to students. Chris Boucher gave a concert featuring local artists Anders, Charmaine and Covey with all proceeds going to his non-profit charitable foundation.
Among the new “donors” is local boy Dalano Banton. Banton fulfilled his dream of playing for the Raptors, and he pursued another goal by giving back to the Rexdale community with his first-ever Skills Academy.
“I feel that just being able to give back and show my face whenever possible would be very beneficial for my community,” Banton said. “I want to keep doing that and next time or at the next camp or whatever I’m doing I hope to get more kids and more people just because of COVID (this camp was limited).”
Specifically for the holiday season, the Nurse initially had a plan to give the kids gifts in person but instead had them come down to keep them safe. VanVleet also held an event of his own through relief and development organization Penny Appeal Canada, but he was also unable to attend. Basketball development consultant Jamal Magloire had a fundraising plan that has since been pushed into February.
While the body cheered by the crowd is absent, the skeleton of all that this house has to offer is still very much there. All the training time at the OVO Sports Center, the regular driving to and from the Scotiabank Arena, the back-and-forth transfer of players between 905 and the parent club, and the sheer consistency of being in their locker room has contributed to the Raptors winning 10 of their last 13 home games.
Some cooking at home before long seemed like just what the doctor ordered, and the nurse, among others, got the feel for 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 feel some building coming in here,” a nurse said. “I said it last night, it’s been a few weeks of strong build and basketball and learning a lot about the team, the players, the formations; tough games and matches and all kinds of things. I think there’s a lot of guys looking forward to getting out and seeing what we can do on this journey.”