“Basketball, NBA-style, is a simple, elegant sport played by big, tall men in baggy shorts. Players are rough yet graceful and athletic, and they bring a new language to Toronto. Get ready for hoopology that goes beyond mere pick-and-roll, double-dribble, travelling, and a jump shot. The NBA gives you alley-oops and tomahawk jams, and above the rim, gravity-defying, ballet-like manoeuvres, ending in rim-rattling slam dunks. Welcome, Raptors.” — Toronto Star editorial, November 3, 1995
Before the Raptors debuted on November 3, 1995, there was plenty of awkward commentary about pro basketball in Toronto media — reflecting the city’s mixed track record with the sport. While Maple Leaf Gardens in 1946 hosted the first game of the league that would later become the NBA, the Toronto Huskies barely lasted a season. Poor attendance plagued a series of home games at the Gardens for the Buffalo Braves during the 1970s. Attempts to move several franchises to Toronto failed during the 1980s and early 1990s. There were also questions as to where an NBA team would fit amid the fan bases of the Blue Jays and Maple Leafs.
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The two years between the granting of the franchise in 1993 and its first official game saw many rocky moments. Steep license fees on season tickets kept many in the hands of the corporate world. The franchise met the league’s season-ticket requirement after Shoppers Drug Mart bought up blocks to sell in its stores. While plans were formulated for a new arena, the team would temporarily play in the not-even-remotely-intimate setting of the SkyDome (now Rogers Centre), where the court would be set up in space normally patrolled by Blue Jays outfielders.
When the college draft was held at SkyDome on June 28, the crowd booed when University of Arizona point guard Damon Stoudamire was chosen as the Raptors’ first pick. They had hoped the team would pick Ed O’Bannon, who had just led UCLA to the national college title. “They’re weren’t aware of him, that’s all,” general manager Isiah Thomas told Sports Illustrated. The skepticism proved ill-founded: despite only being 5’10”, Stoudamire justified Thomas’s faith in him by becoming the league’s rookie of the year. While Stoudamire, who remained with the Raptors until 1998, went on to enjoy a 13-year NBA career, O’Bannon, plagued by bad knees, played only two seasons in the league.
Shortly after the draft, the league locked out its players in a labour dispute, which cost the Raptors two critical months of preparation. When the season previews came out, most experts predicted a typical expansion-team finish: dead last in the Central Division, with around 20 wins.
But not everything was negative. By March 1995, the team ranked fifth in the league in merchandise sales — even though its uniforms hadn’t yet been introduced to the public. Stores couldn’t keep Raptors items in stock. And league officials believed there was plenty of room to grow from the $100 million of NBA merchandise Canadians bought during the 1994-95 season. During the summer, the team distributed free basketballs to more than 200 summer camps in the region and worked to promote youth basketball leagues throughout the province.
Both the press and the team’s PR team stressed that the Raptors had the potential to develop a multicultural fan base that reflected the city’s diversity better than other local professional sports teams. “Basketball has the ability to bring all races, religions and cultures together, put everyone in the same place and just have a ball,” Thomas told the Toronto Star. “It’s youthful. No matter how young or old you are, it touches you.”
During the pre-season, the Raptors had three wins and five losses. There was drama off the court on October 28 when guard Alvin Robertson, who was attempting a comeback after not having played for two seasons, was arrested and charged with assault following a domestic dispute with a woman at the SkyDome Hotel. Robertson, who had a track record of legal issues — including other charges related to assault and burglary — was released on bail. Although he had a court date on November 3, he would be available for the team’s debut that night.
“I’m sure there will be mixed emotions,” Robertson told the Financial Post. “I don’t know how people will receive me. Regardless, I’m still going to go out and play basketball.”
The day before the first game, the Financial Post asked Brendan Malone what he had learned so far in his first NBA head-coaching post. “I learned I’m very God-like,” he responded with a straight face. “I just took a walk on Lake Ontario this morning and I found out I can walk on water.”
Tickets for opening night officially ranged from $5 in the high reaches of the 500-section to $91 for prime seats. Unofficially, ticket brokers reported selling tickets for as much as $500 a seat. When the numbers were tallied, it turned out 33,306 people had filled the stadium.
The opening festivities saw a quartet of bodybuilders — described by Toronto Star columnist Rosie DiManno as “Chippendale lookalikes in caveman loincloths” — bring out onto the court a giant egg, from which the team mascot emerged. The Barenaked Ladies performed “O Canada,” receiving loud applause when they switched to the French lyrics (the reaction may have been spurred by a sense of relief following the tight results of the sovereignty referendum in Quebec a few days earlier). The American anthem was performed by the Temptations, who got fans in the executive boxes dancing when they performed “My Girl” at halftime. Other musical highlights of the evening included 13-year-old Danian Vickers’s rousing performance of Whitney Houston’s “The Greatest Love of All.” While Prime Minister Jean Chrétien cancelled his appearance due to other obligations, Premier Mike Harris, Toronto mayor Barbara Hall, and Metro Toronto chairman Alan Tonks enjoyed the game. Others in attendance included football players Pinball Clemons and Thurman Thomas, actor David Hasselhoff, and a descendant of basketball inventor James Naismith.
When the teams were introduced, hardly anyone paid attention to the New Jersey Nets, who were missing injured star Derrick Coleman. Stoudamire, though, whose pre-season performance had been impressive, was greeted with a roar. A 25-foot shot from Robertson (who would lead the team with 30 points that night) put the Raptors on the scoreboard for the first time. At the end of the first half, the Raptors were up by 16 points and on their way to a 94-79 win.
“With the lights dropped low around the awkward setup in the SkyDome for the first time, it seemed a little less cavernous, a little more intimate, a nearly okay place to watch a game,” Globe and Mail columnist Stephen Brunt observed.
As predicted, the Raptors had a typical expansion season, finishing last in the Central Division with 21 wins and 61 losses. After its debut, the team endured a seven-game losing streak. Malone was replaced by Darrell Walker the day after the season ended; Robertson encountered further legal issues and was not re-signed. But there were some bright spots: besides boasting the rookie of the year, the team could take pride in having won five more games than its fellow Canadian expansion team — the Vancouver Grizzlies.
Sources: Slam Dunk: The Raptors and the NBA in Canada by Brendan Connor and Nancy Russell (Scarborough: Prentice Hall, 1995); the November 2, 1995, November 3, 1995, and November 4, 1995, editions of the Financial Post; the October 30, 1995, and November 4, 1995, editions of the Globe and Mail; the November 13, 1995, edition of Sports Illustrated; and the November 3, 1995, and November 4, 1995, editions of the Toronto Star.