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From the archives

The Other Side of “Irish Eyes”

Brian Mulroney abroad and at home

The Ramble

Memories from the PMO

Vintage Years

Two political memoirs

They Bred Raptors

How basketball won over a hockey town

Andrew Benjamin Bricker

Prehistoric: The Audacious and Improbable Origin Story of the Toronto Raptors

Alex Wong

Triumph Books

320 pages, hardcover and ebook

On June 24, 1995, the newly founded Toronto Raptors selected B. J. Armstrong as the first pick of the NBA expansion draft. On the surface, the twenty-seven-year-old point guard was an ideal choice in the draft, which allowed the league’s newest franchises to select “unprotected” players from existing teams to build out their rosters. Armstrong had just entered his basketball prime, was injury free, and made a reasonable salary as a dependable starter who had played all eighty-two games the previous season. The Chicago Bulls, who chose not to include Armstrong among their eight “protected” players, would have happily retained the guard, but they were also eager to shore up their front court, having recently lost in the second round of the playoffs to the Orlando Magic and the unstoppable Shaquille O’Neal.

At first, Armstrong said all the right things. “I’m looking forward to the challenge,” he told reporters the night before the expansion draft. Just a few days later, after being selected, Armstrong landed in Toronto to get a first-hand look at his new team and home, once again playing the good recruit. In almost no time, however, he approached Isiah Thomas, the former Pistons “Bad Boy” and executive vice-president of basketball operations for the Raptors at the time, to request a trade. Armstrong was hesitant to squander his prime when “we were going to lose 60 games a year.” Before the season started, Toronto shipped Armstrong off to the Golden State Warriors in exchange for a slew of players, only a few of whom ever suited up for the Raptors.

That’s just one tale in Prehistoric: The Audacious and Improbable Origin Story of the Toronto Raptors, Alex Wong’s fascinating history of the team’s first years, from the ownership group’s initial bid for a franchise to the close of the inaugural season. But the Armstrong affair is also a story symptomatic of the Charlie Brown life of the early Raptors. The team was hapless, hopeless, and for the most part homeless, playing its first few seasons in the cavernous SkyDome (now known as the Rogers Centre), a baseball and football venue so ill-adapted to professional basketball that fans in the nosebleed seats needed to rent binoculars to follow the action. Early on, the Raptors simply struggled for legitimacy, as an oddball organization trying to find its feet in Toronto, in Canada, and in the National Basketball Association.

Even in Toronto, professional basketball found a way.

Toronto Star, 1996; Getty Images

Along the way, the Raptors, with their fellow expansion team, the Vancouver Grizzlies, faced all the typical challenges of a new franchise. But both organizations also had to contend with structural disadvantages baked directly into their expansion agreements. Take the NBA draft, a mechanism that ensures league equilibrium and parity, at least theoretically, by offering losing squads a chance at top prospects and by extension a path to a winning record, a playoff berth, and maybe even a championship.

If only. During their first four seasons, neither the Raptors nor the Grizzlies were eligible to win the NBA draft “lottery”— a recondite system only true gamblers could love in a league that, until Adam Silver became commissioner in 2014, paradoxically took a hardline stance against in state wagering on its teams. (This policy also proved a problem for the Raptors, who had to do some costly horse-trading to get Pro Line, the Ontario Lottery and Gaming Corporation’s sports lottery, to drop betting on the NBA.) A lottery-style draft supposedly disincentivized open tanking yet still offered teams with losing records the glimmering prospect of a top pick.

The 1995 expansion agreements stood in contrast to the NBA’s previous expansion, in 1989, when the league added the Orlando Magic and the Minnesota Timberwolves, allowing both to win the draft lottery after only three seasons. That system eventually worked its wagering witchcraft. Orlando won it in 1992 and scooped up Shaq first overall. Even more shockingly, with only a 1.52 percent chance of winning the lottery the following year, Orlando once again landed the first overall pick. The Magic then selected Chris Webber but immediately shipped the Michigan star off to Golden State in exchange for three future draft picks and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway, a traditional point guard to pair with Shaq.

Unsurprisingly, established franchises bristled at Orlando’s double lottery win — even though their co-expandee T Wolves had proven less lucky, spending nearly the entirety of their first decade with a losing record. In response, the league categorically barred both the Raptors and the Grizzlies from winning the draft during their first four seasons. The restriction had additional benefits for the league’s other owners, GMs, coaches, and players. Nearly every trip to Canada was a near-guaranteed win during those early seasons, offering relatively easy road victories in a league where the home team historically enjoyed a sometimes staggering advantage, at least until the crowdless games of the pandemic in 2020. Only once did either team finish better than last in its own division during those first four seasons. Toronto ended up winning ninety games and losing 206; Vancouver did even worse, tallying a mere fifty-six wins during the same period. (Two seasons later, the Grizzlies decamped to Memphis.)

One way to gain potentially high-impact players is through the draft; another is through free agency. But even there the Raptors and the Grizzlies faced a structural disadvantage. The expansion agreements not only had barred access to the draft lottery but had also placed an arbitrary ceiling on their salaries. For the 1995–96 season, the league salary cap was set at the now quaint sum of $23 million (U.S.) per team (for reference, that’s nearly as much as Mississauga-born Dillon Brooks makes today as a fourteen-point-per-game starter on the Houston Rockets, whose 2023–24 cap total sits at $142 million). Under the expansion agreement, however, the Raptors could spend only two-thirds of that total: a paltry $15.2 million. As a result, they eventually lost Tracy Murray, their sharpshooting small forward, who had played in all eighty-two games of the team’s first season, when they could offer him only a miserly 20 percent raise on his league minimum salary of $250,000. Despite wanting to stay in Toronto, Murray ended up signing with the Washington Bullets (later renamed the Wizards) on a seven-year deal worth $17 million. Just as the bar on the draft lottery was put in place to keep newbies from scooping prime draft talent from the old guard, so too was the cap-on-a-cap rule used to prevent already disadvantaged franchises from bidding competitively on the open market for quality free agents.

The effect of the expansion teams’ artificial salary cap was not merely less access to free-market talent but also diminished returns on a supposed advantage. Unlike the older teams, who were limited to twenty players, expansion teams could bring up to thirty to training camp. But with a relatively severe payroll cap, those same teams had to make less go even further. The result was a series of bad short-term decisions to secure even the smallest amount of medium-term flexibility. The Raptors had managed to pick up twenty-four-year-old Chris Whitney in free agency as a potential backup guard to their top draft pick, Damon Stoudamire, but cut Whitney at the end of camp to avoid the risk of waiving him later and remaining liable for a multi-year salary.

Happenstance hindered team coherence. An NBA lockout hit on July 1, 1995, prohibiting contact between players and staff, and ran until September 12. The result was a mere month, when training camp finally started in October, to devise a team concept — one, the hard-nosed coach Brendan Malone claimed, that would rely on complicated defensive schemes — and to select the players who would ultimately fill the opening-day roster from the broken-toys bin of draftees, late-round picks, free-agent signings, and unwanted trade pieces. As an expansion franchise, the Raptors were literally a team without any continuity — from the bench to the front office. At least in the fall of 1995, there was nothing to build on.

Another headache was the supposed problem of basketball in Canada. At least publicly, B. J. Armstrong wanted out of a Raptors uniform before he even put one on because he didn’t want to squander his best years on a losing squad. But Armstrong was simply the first of several players who resisted moving to Canada, including Kenny Anderson in 1998 and later Alonzo Mourning, both of whom failed to report to Toronto after being traded to the Raptors. That all changed a few years later, or so the story goes.

Remember Orlando’s Penny-for-Webber trade back in 1993? In a twist of basketball fate, one of those picks shipped from Golden State to Orlando was a future 1998 first-rounder. That pick was then traded from Orlando to Washington in 1994, and then from Washington back to Golden State that same year in exchange for Webber. Eventually, the pick became the fifth overall selection of the 1998 draft, which Golden State spent on Vince Carter, who was immediately shipped to Toronto for cash and Antawn Jamison.

Carter was an instant sensation not only in Toronto and Canada but also across the league, winning Rookie of the Year and then becoming a perennial All-Star. Much has been made of the supposed Vince effect: the belief that Carter both changed how the NBA and its players viewed Toronto and, in the process, shaped how the city and the country came to think about the sport. That’s a narrative you hear from fans and reporters even today: that Vince did magical things both on the court, including winning the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest, and off the court, turning hockey-mad Canada into the Land of Vinsanity.

However, it’s worth putting Vince’s high-flying exploits into the larger context. For all of the cuddly-wuddly multi-culti aspirations of Canada, Toronto in the mid ’90s was still a majority-white city. When naysayers voiced skepticism about the feasibility of a local professional basketball team, they often reverted to a sly cliché: “It’s a hockey town.” True enough. Hockey was — and still is — king in Hogtown. But “hockey” was also often code for “white.” What critics were actually saying was something more insidious: Can you get a majority-white city to root for a majority-Black sport?

The answer, ultimately, was yes, but Toronto’s love for the Raptors also swelled alongside the maturing of a young fan base, as visible-minority populations grew into the majority demographic of a now minority-white city.

Canada wasn’t alone in its coded racial queasiness, of course. In 1979, the new owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ted Stepien, said the quiet thing out loud, telling a reporter that “the Cavaliers have too many Blacks” and that “white people have to have white heroes.” In the ’90s and early aughts, there was more of the same, but such commentary mostly took the form of dog-whistley worries about the game being “respected” and “played the right way.” Think only of the absurd controversy around the Fab Five — Chris Webber’s team at the University of Michigan — which included both Jimmy King, whom the Raptors took in the second round of the 1995 draft, and Jalen Rose, who played for Toronto from 2003 to 2006. The group of starting freshmen was composed of young Black men who dressed in baggy shorts, black shoes, and black socks, and whose trash-talking and on-court showmanship simply didn’t play well in the anal-retentive world of college basketball.

In the NBA, the coddling of white audiences was also part of the league’s ongoing efforts to clean up its once cocaine-fuelled image. But it was easy to see how a push for legitimacy sometimes transmogrified into a solicitous catering to the opinions of white fans. Today, the pre-game fashion shows and runway walks of outlandishly festooned players are prime fodder on social media and even feature on the NBA’s official website and app. In 2005, though, under David Stern, the long-time commissioner, such sartorial flourishes were declared verboten. By then, Allen Iverson had become a major face of the league. But his gold chains, baggy jeans, and exposed tattoos rubbed Stern the wrong way, leading to a schoolboy dress code that forced towering stars into oversized suits, as if each player had stolen the curtains from the full-length windows of their luxury condos. Gone were short sleeves and shorts; in their stead was an almost Bauhausian rejection of adornment: no do rags, no hats, no headphones, no sunglasses, and certainly no chains, pendants, or medallions.

This too we might call a dog whistle, if it weren’t for the fact that everybody could hear it. Golden State’s Jason Richardson saw it for what it was: the targeting of specifically Black aesthetics in a majority-Black league. “One thing to me that was kind of racist was you can’t wear chains outside your clothing,” Richardson explained to ESPN at the time. “I don’t understand what that has to do with being business approachable. . . . You wear a suit, you still could be a crook. You see all what happened with Enron and Martha Stewart.”

The undertones of the skepticism around basketball in Canada were not lost on Randi Bitove, the wife of the Raptors owner John Bitove Jr. She caught a whiff of something rotten, noting that the “negative press” around the team and specifically basketball always carried “a derogatory connotation.” In private, sales executives for the Raptors were taken aback by the brazen racism of potential corporate sponsors. One such employee, Tom Pistore, remembers harrowing conversations with his contacts on Bay Street. “There were guys who would hang up or tell me, ‘I’m a hockey guy,’ ” he recalled. “Guys would use racial slurs when they talked about the NBA.”

The Raptors organization clearly recognized the challenges that any new team would face in an already sports-saturated city like Toronto. That challenge, though, wasn’t convincing diehards to trade in Maple Leafs blue for Raptors purple but accessing and appealing to the potential fan base that the Leafs had never bothered to cultivate in the first place. As Sharon Edwards, the young team’s special event and game operations coordinator, told Wong, “Every time someone said, ‘This is a hockey town. Nobody knows anything about basketball,’ I would say, ‘Yeah, but that’s the audience you’re used to talking to.’ ” Edwards would explain, “The audience you’re not used to talking to, most of them understand the game. They’re interested in the game. You never hear from them because you never focused on them.”

The demographic of fans that the team was actively catering to even had an in house name. John Bitove called them “New Canada”— the immigrants and second-generation Canadians who rarely sat in the stands in Maple Leaf Gardens and who almost never saw themselves reflected in the players on the ice. It was Al Quance, head of the community relations department, in cooperation with Basketball Canada, who helped the team target the multicultural enclaves spread across the city. “I set about identifying a well-known personality in each cultural community,” Quance explained, “and empowered them as a spokesperson for the team and helped give us a direct line to those communities.”

Athlete appearances also forged personal connections between the team and younger fans. As Wong writes, “Seeing players from the same backgrounds as them in the NBA was self-affirming for those who grew up dreaming of playing basketball.” Paul Jones, who still calls Raptors games on the radio, saw it first-hand. A former basketball star at York University, Jones had worked his way up through the Toronto District School Board, even keeping his vice-principal job while doing broadcasts part-time. “The kids, especially those in city schools, just jumped on it,” he told Wong. “For Black kids in the city, they saw people who looked like them. Suddenly, Damon Stoudamire, Oliver Miller, and people who looked like them were playing a sport they loved at a very high level.”

Hence too the canny Raptors branding, which pandered directly to kids through mostly overt allusions to Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, from 1993. The franchise even consulted with elementary and high school students when picking its name, which came from a list of ten fan-submitted candidates, specifically to discern “what appealed to the younger demographic.” (Admittedly, middle-school me was a “Beavers” man, an equally stupid option, but one whose full range of connotations was lost on my squishy adolescent brain.)

When the team finally settled on the Raptors name and eventually produced some of the most eyebrow-raising and eye-catching jerseys of the mid ’90s, some in the media voiced doubts. The team’s public relations manager, Tom Mayenknecht, didn’t back down, however, telling reporters, despite considerable paleontological evidence to the contrary, that “experts assure us dinosaurs have tremendous staying power.” At least the Raptors didn’t go the way of Vancouver, which ultimately landed on the Grizzlies brand but whose ownership toyed with calling the team the Mounties, an act of mid ’90s CanCon butch just a notch below a shirtless Bryan Adams.

During games and between quarters, the team presented an equally inclusive view. Tamara Mose, the manager of Toronto’s dance team, the Dance Pak (who had been offered a position as a Fly Girl on In Living Color before being denied a U.S. visa), actively sought out dancers who would “reflect the diversity of the city.” Perhaps no better embodiment of the fan base exists than Nav Bhatia, the team’s official “superfan,” a title given to him by the Raptors in 2018. From the very first game in 1995, Bhatia could be seen sitting courtside, often wearing a turban that he colour-coordinated to the team’s jersey. And it was Bhatia, a synecdoche for New Canada — a Sikh refugee from India who had found success in the Greater Toronto Area as the owner of multiple car dealerships and who attended every home game — whom the team featured in its broadcasts. As Brian Cooper, who ran the game operations department, recalled, “I kept telling our camera operator, ‘Keep going back to this guy.’ ”

Actively cultivating a new and young audience of basketball fans was a long-term strategy for securing the team’s future. But part of what helped to enlarge the audience for basketball in Canada was the relative accessibility of the sport to new immigrants and their children. Hockey might have been everywhere, but basketball was hardly jai alai. Courts, even in hockey-mad Canada, were omnipresent. In almost every school, public gym, community centre, church, or park, and scattered across multiple driveways in seemingly every street of the GTA’s suburbs, you could find at least one rim and often full courts for pickup. And all you needed to get up a few shots or even start a scrimmage was one ball and the summertime uniform of any child: shorts, a T shirt, and a pair of sneakers.

Hockey is a different proposition. Today, enrolling a six-year-old in the North Toronto Hockey Association’s House League program will cost you $750. That’s before you factor in the equipment, ranging from hundreds of dollars, even if rented, to thousands of dollars, and before you work out the costly logistics of getting Junior and his or her massive, stinking bag to the rink twice a week — an eight-month commitment from September to April that obliterates nearly every weekend for either work or leisure, with games on Saturdays and practices on Sundays.

Despite the hurdles and the need to cultivate an entirely new fan base, the inaugural season was not a total disaster for the Raptors. The team managed twenty-one wins, a relatively good start for an expansion franchise (but one game worse than B. J. Armstrong’s derisive prediction of sixty losses). Their first-round pick, Damon Stoudamire, was named Rookie of the Year. They even beat the Seattle SuperSonics, who finished first in the Pacific Division, and Michael Jordan’s seventy-two-and-ten Chicago Bulls, the eventual champions. Even more important, the Raptors ranked third for home-game attendance during that first season and were fifth in the league in merchandise sold. Taken together, these two stats offered perhaps the most positive sign of all: a glimpse of the future that lay ahead and of just what a basketball team might be able to do, even in a “hockey town” like Toronto.

Andrew Benjamin Bricker teaches literary studies at Ghent University. He wrote Libel and Lampoon: Satire in the Courts, 1670–1792.