Pro Basketball Background: Toronto Huskies
Toronto’s first professional basketball team was the Toronto Huskies of the Basketball Association of America, a forerunner of the NBA. Toronto hosted the league’s first game on 1 November 1946, facing off against the New York Knickerbockers at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Huskies lost to the Knickerbockers that evening and folded at the end of the 1946–47 season, which had seen low attendance and a dismal record of 22 wins and 38 losses. Professional basketball wouldn’t return to the city for nearly 50 years, although the Buffalo Braves of the NBA played 16 regular season games at Maple Leaf Gardens between 1971 and 1975.
Founding of the Toronto Raptors
The Toronto Raptors were one of two expansion teams that joined the NBA for the 1995–96 NBA season, the second being another Canadian franchise, the Vancouver Grizzlies. It was a big step for the NBA, as the move marked the first time the league expanded beyond the United States.
Two years earlier, in April 1993, Professional Basketball Franchise (Canada) Inc. (PBF) made a formal application to acquire an NBA team. The application was made by John Bitove, president of a financial services company, and a group that included former premier of Ontario David Peterson and former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas. Thomas later became the Raptors’ first vice-president.
In July 1993, an NBA expansion committee came to Toronto, where the PBF group explained their plan for a downtown arena — one that would be on the Toronto subway line. On 30 September 1993, PBF was conditionally awarded a franchise for the 1995–96 season. It would become the 28th team in the NBA at a then-record expansion fee of $125 million. Part of the agreement was that Toronto would play its first two seasons in the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) while its own building was being completed.
Fans Choose a Name
In 1994, fans were asked to submit their preference for the team’s new name, which resulted in a final list of 10 options: Beavers, Bobcats, Dragons, Grizzlies, Hogs, Scorpions, T-Rex, Tarantulas, Terriers and Raptors.
On 15 May, the team’s moniker, the Toronto Raptors, was unveiled on Canadian national television. The associated logo was revealed a few days later. The moniker was likely influenced by the popularity of the Steven Spielberg blockbuster Jurassic Park (1993). The team’s logo featured an aggressive dinosaur dribbling a basketball. The team colours were to be bright red, purple, black and “Naismith silver” — in honour of Canadian James Naismith, who invented basketball in 1891.
Early Seasons (1995–98)
With Isiah Thomas as the team’s vice-president of basketball operations and former Denver Nuggets vice-president Glen Grunwald as his assistant, the club hired Brendan Malone as head coach and turned its attention toward the 1995 NBA Draft. With the seventh overall pick, the team selected University of Arizona point guard Damon Stoudamire, who became the first face of the franchise.
While Stoudamire lived up to expectations, leading the team in scoring and assists, the club struggled in its inaugural season. The team finished with a 21–61 record but posted a few surprising wins over some of the league’s premier clubs, including the Chicago Bulls and Seattle SuperSonics. Stoudamire was the MVP of the NBA Rookie Challenge during All-Star Weekend and went on to win the NBA’s Rookie of the Year Award.
However, Thomas wasn’t happy with the club’s performance. To improve the team’s prospects, he acquired Doug Christie and Sharone Wright and replaced coach Malone with Darrell Walker at the end of the season. The club selected Marcus Camby in the 1996–97 NBA Draft, and the combination of Camby and Stoudamire, as well as veterans such as Christie, Walt Williams and Popeye Jones, saw the club make incremental gains in its record. It finished the 1996–97 season with 30 wins and 52 losses. However, internal strife led Thomas to sever ties with the club the following season. With Thomas gone, Stoudamire demanded a trade. He was eventually shipped to the Portland Trail Blazers as part of a six-player deal. The club won only 16 games in the 1997–98 season and were headed back to the NBA Draft lottery yet again.
Vince Carter Era (1998–2004)
The 1998 NBA Draft represented a major turning point in franchise history. Thanks to the prior season’s 16–66 record, the team once again participated in the NBA Draft lottery, a system designed to offer the league’s worst teams the best chance at top college players. New general manager Glen Grunwald took advantage of the situation: After the Raptors landed the fourth overall pick in the NBA Draft lottery, he dealt it to Golden State Warriors for the fifth pick, netting University of North Carolina swingman Vince Carter.
Carter had been a scoring sensation in college, and his rookie campaign took the NBA by storm. He was named the NBA’s Rookie of the Month twice and Player of the Week once — the first Raptor to earn the accolade. Like Stoudamire before him, Carter went on to become Rookie of the Year, averaging a team-leading 18.3 points per game and electrifying crowds with his array of gravity-defying dunks. He became a fan favourite in Toronto and around the league.
The 1998–99 season was the Raptors’ best to date. They won 46 per cent of their games in what was a shortened season due to an NBA labour lockout. Carter was a big part of this improvement, but Grunwald’s other decisions, including bringing in veterans Charles Oakley and Kevin Willis, also paid big dividends. New coach Butch Carter also galvanized the troops. At the end of their final game that season, Carter took the microphone and addressed the crowd, guaranteeing a trip to the playoffs the following year.
Prior to the start of the 1999–2000 season, Grunwald acquired future All-Star Antonio Davis to help fill out the club’s starting lineup. He also continued to add to Toronto’s bench depth with veteran players like Muggsy Bogues and Dell Curry.
While Carter was the star of the team, his cousin Tracy “T-Mac” McGrady also started to make a name for himself. McGrady had been drafted out of high school by Isiah Thomas and the Raptors in the 1997 NBA Draft. Like his cousin, McGrady was an athletic swingman with an impressive all-around game.
The team’s promise was showcased at the season’s All-Star game, where Carter became the first Raptor to appear in and start an NBA All-Star game. He amassed the second-most fan votes in NBA history up to that point. He also competed with cousin T-Mac in the NBA Slam Dunk Contest, in which he obliterated the competition, performing a variety of never-before-seen dunks.
Besides Carter’s elevation into NBA superstardom, the 1999–2000 season marked a number of other milestones for the team. It was showcased for the first time on US television and began playing in the newly constructed Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena). Most significant of all was the Raptors’ first appearance in the playoffs, although they lost to the more-experienced New York Knicks in three straight games.
The team made the playoffs again the next two seasons. The Raptors got past the first round in the 2000–01 season before falling to the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. The series was an epic battle between Carter and another NBA superstar, point guard Allen Iverson. With both teams deadlocked at three wins, the Raptors came out on the losing side (88–87) in the seventh and deciding game. Following the loss, Carter was criticized for his performance and for his decision to attend his college graduation ceremony in North Carolina that morning. Although Carter had again led Toronto in the game, he didn’t score as much as in previous games and his potential game-winning shot at the buzzer hit the rim. The Raptors never advanced that far again during the Carter era.
By the time the 2002–03 season started, the team’s fortunes had begun to wane. The Raptors suffered numerous injuries and set a dubious NBA record in one game by not being able to field a 12-man roster. Injuries piled up and key players like Vince Carter and Antonio Davis missed big chunks of the season. The club tumbled in the standings and finished with a record of 24–58, landing back in the NBA Draft lottery. Fans began to question Carter’s toughness. Coach Lenny Wilkens, who had been successful in guiding the club’s playoff runs during the previous two seasons, was fired.
Transitioning from Carter to Bosh and Rebuilding (2004—08)
The 2003 NBA Draft gave the Toronto Raptors a future building block in forward Chris Bosh, but it would be some time before the team would compete again for a playoff spot. Carter continued to lead the club in most statistical categories. However, many of the players that surrounded him during the Raptors’ playoff runs were now gone. Injuries continued to be a major issue for the team, and the club’s offence struggled under new coach Kevin O’Neill. O’Neill and his staff lasted only one season. In the spring of 2004, general manager Grunwald was relieved of his duties as well.
The Raptors entered a rebuilding phase, hiring Rob Babcock as general manager and former NBA player Sam Mitchell as head coach. But in the next two years, the team won less than 40 per cent of their games and cycled through players. Fan favourite Morris Peterson remained, but the bulk of the players from the Carter era were now on other teams’ rosters. Babcock made perhaps the franchise’s most dubious draft choice in its history, selecting centre Rafael Araujo eighth overall in the 2004 NBA Draft. Despite his promise, it quickly became apparent that Araujo lacked the requisite speed, athletic ability and offensive repertoire to be a factor in the modern NBA.
Chris Bosh participates in an NBA basketball game at the Air Canada Centre on February 16, 2011 in Toronto. The Miami Heat beat the Toronto Raptors 103-95.
Babcock followed the Araujo draft selection by trading Vince Carter to the New Jersey Nets early in the 2004–05 season. It turned out to be a poor deal for the Raptors. The trade included two draft picks who ultimately proved disappointing and two veteran players who lasted only a few seasons. The key player in the deal, former All-Star centre Alonzo Mourning, refused to report to Toronto and was released by the club. Bosh was the club’s lone bright spot in the 2004–05 season. He averaged 16.8 points and 8.9 rebounds in his sophomore season and made the first of many All-Star appearances.
Despite Bosh’s strong performance, the team continued to flounder under Babcock, who was dismissed toward the end of the 2005–06 season. The franchise then hired former NBA Executive of the Year Bryan Colangelo as general manager. Colangelo began his Raptors tenure with a bang. He landed the top pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, selecting Andrea Bargnani, and immediately got to work reshaping the roster. The result was one of the NBA’s biggest surprises of the 2006–07 season as the Raptors improved to 47 wins, compared to 27 the previous year. They also made their first playoff appearance in five seasons. Ironically, they were defeated in the post-season by none other than Vince Carter and his new team, the New Jersey Nets. However, with fresh talent and new management, things seemed to be looking up for the Raptors.
With Chris Bosh continuing to lead the way for Toronto, the Raptors made the playoffs again in the 2007–08 season. They once again failed to make it past the first round, though, losing to Dwight Howard and the Orlando Magic.
Struggles Continue (2008–13)
In the wake of two straight first-round playoff losses, Colangelo continued to shuffle the deck around Bosh and Bargnani. The club tried a variety of other big-name NBA veterans — Jermaine O’Neal, Hedo Türkoğlu, Rudy Gay — but none worked, and Bargnani continued to disappoint. The Raptors finished below .500 the next five seasons. Bosh eventually left before the 2010–11 season to join LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami, where he was a key part of future championship teams with the Heat.
Like Babcock before him, Colangelo was eventually fired. During the 2013 off-season, he was replaced by his former assistant, Masai Ujiri, who became general manager and president.
Return to Success with GM Masai Ujiri (2013–17)
General manager Masai Ujiri’s first big move was to trade Andrea Bargnani, followed soon after by Rudy Gay. Fans and media believed the trades would result in Toronto falling to the bottom of the league, increasing their chances of getting the top pick in the 2013 NBA Draft (expected to be Canadian swingman Andrew Wiggins, who had been inspired by watching former Raptor Vince Carter as a kid). However, the trades served to galvanize the club. Against expectations, the Raptors finished the 2013–14 season with a 48–34 record, a then-franchise record for wins. While they once again failed to advance past the first round of the playoffs, losing to the Brooklyn Nets in a tightly contested seven-game series, it was clear that the Raptors were back on the right path.
A second playoff appearance followed in the 2014–15 season, along with a new record for wins in a season (49). But again, the club was vanquished in the first round, this time being swept by the Washington Wizards in four straight games. While Toronto’s offence was consistently strong during the regular season, bolstered by NBA Sixth Man of the Year award-winner Louis Williams, the defence was problematic. It was clear that general manager Ujiri needed upgrades in this area in the off-season.
To improve the team’s defence, Ujiri brought in vaunted defensive swingman DeMarre Carroll, shot blocker and backup centre Bismack Biyombo, veteran forward Luis Scola and the team’s first Canadian player, backup point guard Cory Joseph from Pickering, Ontario. Combined with star players DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, as well as up-and-coming centre Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors looked to have their best team ever as they prepared to enter the 2015–16 season. The latter three players were holdovers from the Bryan Colangelo era, but it was only under Ujiri’s management that they were surrounded by the right players to optimize their talents. In addition, head coach Dwane Casey, another holdover from the Colangelo era, improved with each season and found the right mix of patience and intensity in managing the team.
The club started off the 2015–16 season with five straight wins and finished with the league’s fourth-best overall record. The Raptors won a franchise-record 56 games, sent two players (Lowry and DeRozan) to the All-Star game — hosted in Toronto for the first time in NBA history — and entered the playoffs as the second overall seed in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. In the franchise’s best season to date, they defeated the Indiana Pacers and then the Miami Heat, making it to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time. However, they lost to LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the eventual champions.
In September 2016, Ujiri’s contract as president was extended, while Jeff Weltman became general manager. In 2016–17, the Raptors won 51 games during the regular season and finished third in the Eastern Conference. The team defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs but lost in four straight games to the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
“Culture Reset” and Championship (2017–19)
Following another playoff result that did not meet the team’s expectations, it was obvious that changes were needed. In his post-season press conference, Ujiri spoke of a “culture reset.” Many wondered if that meant changing team personnel, including key free agents like Serge Ibaka and Kyle Lowry, or replacing the coaching staff.
Despite speculation, Coach Casey remained at the helm, and Ibaka and Lowry were re-signed. Casey and his staff instituted an entirely new offensive system, one more aligned with the style of successful modern offenses like the Golden State Warriors, emphasizing ball movement and three-point shooting. Led by Lowry and DeRozan, the Raptors soon embraced the change and climbed to the top of the Eastern Conference with an 11-game winning streak in February and March 2018. Lowry and DeRozan were again chosen to represent the Raptors at the annual All-Star Game, with DeRozan voted in as a starter by fans. DeRozan also made franchise history on 1 January 2018, scoring a team record 52 points against the Milwaukee Bucks. He was only the third Raptor to score more than 50 points in a single game, after Vince Carter (51) and Terrence Ross (51). The Raptors won 59 games during regular season play, finishing at the top of the Eastern Conference.
Despite having the top seed in the conference entering the playoffs, the Raptors struggled again in the post-season. It took a hard-fought six-game series to get past the eighth-seeded Washington Wizards in round one. In the conference semifinals, the club again fell to its nemesis, the Cleveland Cavaliers, who swept the Raptors in four games. While the Cavs’ victory owed much to the heroics of star player LeBron James, the fact remained that once again Toronto had failed to capitalize on a tremendous regular season performance. This failure resulted in the end of head coach Dwane Casey’s tenure with the Raptors, even though he was a finalist for NBA coach of the year and won the award a month later.
Nick Nurse, one of Casey’s assistants, was named the new head coach. In July 2018, the Raptors traded fan-favourite DeMar DeRozan, back-up centre Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 first-round draft pick to the San Antonio Spurs for star forward Kawhi Leonard and guard Danny Green. Leonard had won an NBA championship with the Spurs and was named Finals MVP in 2014. He was also named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2014–15 and 2015–16. But rumours swirled in the off-season that he had no interest in playing in Toronto and wouldn’t report to training camp. However, he averaged a career high 26.6 points per game over 60 games and led the team to a division title with a 58–24 record.
After the Raptors defeated Orlando in five games in the opening round of the playoffs, Leonard cemented himself in Raptors lore with a buzzer-beating, rim-bouncing field goal in the seventh and deciding game against Philadelphia. More heroics were in store in the Eastern Conference Finals. Toronto lost the first two games against Milwaukee before storming back to win four straight and sending the team to its first-ever NBA Finals.
The Raptors faced the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors, and the teams split the first two games in Toronto. The Raptors then handily won game three (123–109) and game four (105–92) before narrowly losing game five (105–106). But with a 114–110 victory in a wild game six in Oakland, the Raptors claimed their first-ever NBA championship, becoming the first team outside the US to do so. Kawhi Leonard was named Finals MVP for the second time in his career, becoming only the third player (after Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James) to win the award with multiple teams. Kyle Lowry, the Raptors’ longest tenured player who scored the team’s first 11 points in game six, said after the game, “Words can’t explain how I feel. It’s been 13 years of NBA basketball. To be able to say I’m a world champion feels great…. it’s been a long time coming.”
Fan Culture and “We The North”
One of the most remarkable traits of the Toronto Raptors franchise is the passion displayed by its fans. This is particularly notable given the team’s struggles and the fact that, regardless of their performance on the court, local media tend to give other teams, like the NHL’s Toronto Maple Leafs and MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays, top billing.
But in spite of all this — or perhaps because of it — the team has always had an ardent fan base, one that has created its own system of online fan sites. These include some of the first-ever sports-team-specific fan blogs on the Internet, such as Raptors Cage and Raptors HQ. Even in the franchise’s lean years, when the club failed to make the playoffs year after year, attendance was still fairly strong. In 2005–06, for example, an average of 17,056 fans attended Raptors home games — 17th out of the 30 teams in the league. Ten years later, during the winning 2015–16 season, the franchise had the league’s fourth-highest attendance, with an average of 19,825 for home games.
In 2014, the franchise captured the essence of this passionate fandom with its “We The North” campaign. Developed by the team’s creative agency, Sid Lee, in late 2013, the campaign embraced Raptors fans’ belief that the U.S. (and even Canadian media) frequently marginalizes and disrespects their basketball team. It showcased a gritty us-against-everyone mentality and included views of Toronto’s authentic basketball culture and odes to “basketball Canadiana,” from cold weather to the use of a husky in the TV spots.
The “We The North” slogan has become the team and fan base’s rallying cry, one that is now synonymous with the ardent Raptors’ fan base and known league-wide. Throughout the 2015 and 2016 NBA playoffs, “We The North” signs could be seen in opposing teams’ arenas and in the Raptors’ second-round series versus the Miami Heat in 2016. Heat fans even donned “We The South” T-shirts in opposition to their northern opponents.
The campaign was supported by some prominent cultural figures, most notably musician and actor Drake, the Canadian rapper who became the Toronto Raptors’ Global Ambassador in September 2013. Drake’s rise to stardom internationally and his professed love for the Raptors and the city of Toronto tied in perfectly with the campaign. Drake has since become a key figure in the Raptors’ marketing and merchandising efforts.
The club also capitalized on this fandom by creating a viewing area outside the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) where fans can congregate to watch Raptors’ games on a giant TV screen. Officially named the “Ford Fan Zone,” fans quickly dubbed it “Jurassic Park.” TV shots of a packed Jurassic Park during Raptors games became an NBA playoff staple.
Hall of Famers
The following were inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Tenure with Raptors
Leonard R. “Lenny” Wilkens
Wayne R. Embry
|Tracy McGrady||Shooting Guard||1997–2000||2017|