The news came down like the bolt of lightning the city has been missing for so many months: The Toronto Raptors, 2019 NBA Champions, would be making Tampa Bay their home base for at least the beginning of the 2020-21 basketball season. Because the Canadian government requires a 14-day quarantine upon returning from outside the country, it would have been virtually impossible for Canada’s only NBA team to participate in the season as normal. Possible city names were tossed around, from Nashville to Buffalo (where the Toronto Blue Jays played the MLB season earlier in 2020), but just before Thanksgiving, it became clear that Raptors players preferred to spend their winter months in the Tampa sunshine.
So whether you’re a devoted NBA fan or a total neophyte, you may have some questions about Tampa’s newest pro sports team. Are they any good? (Yes.) Is that “Raptors” as in the dinosaur? (Also yes.) Can I score a courtside seat? (No). Read on for everything you need to know about the Toronto Raptors.
A FAST BREAK TO SAINT LEO UNIVERSITY
While it was surprising enough to many that the Toronto Raptors would be playing in Tampa, it was perhaps more intriguing that they chose Saint Leo University — a fairly remote location, 45 minutes away from Amalie Arena — to host their training camp. How did the 18,000-student Catholic university in Pasco County even come across the team’s radar?
As most things go, it’s all about who you know. Saint Leo’s men’s basketball coach, Lance Randall, is friends with Raptors assistant coach Chris Finch and had worked with Raptors head coach Nick Nurse many years ago in an English basketball league, explains Saint Leo’s athletic director, Fran Reidy. Once the team brought people to Tampa to begin exaloring potential training camp sites, Randall showed them around Saint Leo the week before Thanksgiving, and a deal was struck.
“A couple of things, I think, made us attractive,” Reidy says. “No. 1, we were willing to grant them exclusive rights to the building,” with athletics staff working from home, the basketball team using another campus facility and students already scheduled to learn virtually for the remainder of the semester, so the Raptors could maintain their COVID-19 protocols.
The university facility’s 10 baskets allowed players to work on individual or small group drills, while its balcony above the court meant scouts or other personnel who were not part of the team’s testing protocol could enter through a separate entrance and still observe practices from a safe distance. Raptors staff came in before camp to brand the facility with team colors and logos, and Saint Leo staff cleaned every piece of touched equipment between sessions (including the rims and backboards), with a full antiviral fogging of the facility every night.
“They worked out, did what they needed to do, and departed,” Reidy says. “It ended up being exactly what they needed, and we were thrilled to have them.”
“Hosting the Toronto Raptors was a great experience for Saint Leo University,” says university president Jeffrey D. Senese. “We were able to showcase our wonderful facilities and beautiful campus to a national and international audience.”
“I think for our athletes, especially our basketball players, they were just thrilled that a professional team that won the championship in 2019 thought enough of our facility to have it as a place to practice,” Reidy adds.
TORONTO RAPTORS STARTING LINEUP
PASCAL SIAKAM, FORWARD
Raised in Cameroon, Siakam didn’t start playing organized basketball until he was 18, but he’s already a star on the rise. He won the league’s Most Improved Player award in 2019 and was named an All-Star the following season, when he led the Raptors in points per game. Most importantly, his nickname is “Spicy P.”
FRED VANVLEET, GUARD
VanVleet just keeps beating the odds. Last season he put up more average points per game than any other undrafted player since the 2005-06 NBA season. Then in November, VanVleet set a new NBA record for the largest contract signed by an undrafted player when he secured a four-year, $85 million deal to stay with the team that ﬁrst signed him in 2016. On social media, VanVleet likes to say “bet on yourself.” We wouldn’t disagree.
KYLE LOWRY, GUARD
The six-time All Star is 34 years old but still a team leader in assists, free throws and points per game. After the 2020-21 season, Lowry will be a free agent, so as of the time this issue went to print, rumors were swirling he (and his $30.5 million salary) could become part of a blockbuster trade. Off the court, he gives back to Toronto and his hometown of Philadelphia through the Lowry Love Foundation he created with his wife, Ayahna.
The Toronto-born rapper is the Raptors’ most famous fan, and his constant courtside presence at Scotiabank Arena has been the source of numerous memes. He is their global ambassador, and together, Drake and the Raptors have also donated millions of dollars to Toronto-area charities and youth basketball organizations. Could we possibly be in for a Drake appearance at the Raptors’ adopted home arena?
NICK NURSE, HEAD COACH
The head coach of the Raptors started with the team as an assistant coach in 2013 and was promoted to the top job in 2018. He led the squad to the championship the following year. In 2020, he was honored with the NBA Coach of the Year award.
NBA awards Toronto the league’s 28th franchise.
The Toronto team holds a nationwide contest to help develop its name and colors. From 11 ﬁnalists, the ownership group chooses the “Raptors,” short for “velociraptor” (yes, the dinosaur). It’s believed the popularity of the movie Jurassic Park, released the previous year, along with the hope that the nickname would appeal to young kids who would grow up to support the team, were major reasons behind the pick.
Team is founded as part of the NBA’s Canadian expansion alongside the Vancouver (now Memphis) Grizzlies.
The Raptors play their ﬁrst game in the Air Canada Center, now Scotiabank Arena, their typical home arena.
Raptors make their ﬁrst NBA Playoffs appearance. They are blown out in three games by the New York Knicks, but their 87-80 loss in game 3 is the ﬁrst-ever NBA playoff game held in the Great White North.
Raptors win their ﬁrst NBA Playoff games.
Led by superstar Chris Bosh, the Raptors make it to the playoffs for the ﬁrst time since 2001 and win the Atlantic Division.
Raptors win the first of three consecutive Atlantic Division titles. They have won their division six of the past seven years.
General manager Masai Ujiri fires head coach Dwane Casey, trades DeMar DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green, and acquires Marc Gasol in a major shakeup for the successful but not-yet-winning Raptors.
The Raptors make it to their first-ever NBA Finals and defeated the Golden State Warriors 4–2 to win the NBA Championship. They are the first non-American team to win the title and the first to win a championship in any of the four major professional sports leagues since 1993, when the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series.
Travel and quarantine restrictions set by the Canadian government to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 lead the Raptors to begin searching for an American city to temporarily host them for the 2021 NBA season, set to begin in December 2020.
NOV 20, 2020
Canadian government denies Raptors’ plan to travel back and forth across the border as normal during the NBA season. The same day, the team announces it would open its season in Tampa, with Amalie Arena serving as its home arena.
DEC 1, 2020
Raptors open training camp at Saint Leo University in Pasco County.
DEC 23, 2020
The Raptors play their first “home” game at Amalie Arena against the New Orleans Pelicans (Tampa’s first-ever NBA game).
Editor’s note: The print version of this story was sent to press before Amalie Arena changed its fan attendance policies. Currently, fans are not allowed to attend Toronto Raptors or Tampa Bay Lightning games in person.