Raptors, fans set for historic night of celebration as new season begins

During the past 25 years of Toronto Raptors basketball, nights like tonight’s season opener have represented an array of emotions and expectations, a clean slate with the promise of something magical happening only to have disappointment quickly creep in.

For more than two decades, the reality of this team’s existence going into a season was that making the playoffs, maybe even winning a series or two, was a great success. It hasn’t been until recently that fans of the team truly believed a championship was in the franchise’s future.

On Tuesday, the defending NBA champion Raptors will raise a title banner to the rafters. It’s historic. It still seems a little surreal. It’s been a long, sometimes dark journey getting to this point.

The players, coaches and supporting cast are getting their championship rings. Fans attending the game against the New Orleans Pelicans are getting a piece of the prize too — replica rings will be handed out to everyone in attendance. The Raptors are sparing no expense on a celebration that hasn’t stopped since the final buzzer sounded on June 13 in Oakland against the Golden State Warriors, signalling victory for Toronto and sending Canadians into a frenzy.

It seems like yesterday those remarkable scenes of fans celebrating across the country were playing out — Jurassic Parks were popping up in all parts of Canada. People were going crazy for the Raptors. The team captivated the nation.

In the wake of the historic championship, there have been stories from communities across the land about young boys and girls picking up a basketball for the first time — families installing hoops on their homes and garages. For many, the Raptors brought basketball into their homes for the first time.

What the 2018-19 Raptors did for the sport in Canada is immeasurable and sure to spawn the next generation of basketballers, sparking hard-court dreams from coast to coast.

And so it’s for good reason this opening night promises to be an extraordinary evening inside Scotiabank Arena. Upward of 20,000 fans will be packed inside, marking the team’s 237th consecutive sellout. Outside, thousands of fans will once again pack Jurassic Park and downtown streets to party.

The celebration tour starts Tuesday and will seemingly stretch through the 82 games this season. A defending championship season that coincides with 25 years of Raptors basketball is a prime opportunity for the team to cash in. These are the good old days for a team and fan base that could only dream of moments like this.

For all those opening nights when Raptors’ supporters wondered if this would be the year, this year’s doesn’t carry any of those concerns. Sure, people would enjoy another successful Raptors campaign — but there isn’t the intense feeling of must win anymore.

The Raptors are champions, and nobody can ever take that away.

When all of this started in early November 1995, inside the cavernous confines of the then named SkyDome, nobody really knew what to make of pro basketball in Canada’s biggest city. There was a small, core group of diehards who were finally getting the sweet taste of the big league. But outside of that small, committed group, many didn’t know what to make of the Raptors.

More than 33,000 attended the Isiah Thomas-led Raptors’ inaugural game, a 97-79 victory over the New Jersey Nets. Fans, many watching basketball live for the first time, roared wildly as the purple-dinosaur clad Raptors started their professional endeavour. But after that opening-night win, it got ugly — Toronto lost its next seven games and finished that  first season 21-61.

The team hit rock bottom in its third year of existence. A 19-game losing streak and 16-66 record in the 1997-98 season marked the darkest point in Raptors basketball. When it ended, general manager Glen Grunwald stood at midcourt at Maple Leaf Gardens, apologizing. Fans booed wildly.

A championship wasn’t on the mind of anyone at that time. Surviving the offseason was the only concern. Attracting players to Toronto was no small feat.

Then Vince Carter arrived — in a draft-night trade in June 1998 — and everything changed. His dunk during the 2000 all-star game in Oakland was the coming out party for the Raptors — Toronto was finally on the basketball map. It started a newfound confidence in the team all leading to their first-ever playoff appearance. And who can forget that memorable run in 2001, ended too soon by Carter’s miss in Philadelphia?

Since 2013, the Raptors have been steady participants in the post-season. For too many of those playoffs, the season came to a crashing halt at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. But with James gone to the Lakers last season and the Eastern Conference wide open, the Raptors knew their time was now and made no mistake.

So now the next chapter of Raptors basketball begins and it couldn’t be more different than how the first began. Obviously, this is a different looking team from the one that began the season one year ago — that glaring difference, the absence of Kawhi Leonard, the NBA Finals MVP who wound up with the L.A. Clippers in the offseason.

Nick Nurse prides himself on getting the most out of whatever player is on the court. Who fits where and in what position will no doubt be an ongoing experiment for Nurse, entering his second season as head coach after five years as an assistant on previous coach Dwane Casey’s staff.

The core of the team remains intact — Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, Fred VanVleet are all back. OG Anunoby is back, too, after an emergency appendectomy sidelined him for the entire post-season.

There are newcomers who could play an important role in the team’s success this season — three new additions in Matt Thomas, Stanley Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, all vying for minutes at the back of the Raptors’ rotation, for now.

Then there’s team president Masai Ujiri, who made it clear he wants to stay in Toronto and continue winning in Toronto. He has been bold and uncompromising in his pursuit of bringing basketball glory to the city and country.

And perhaps that’s what’s most important about what’s changed with this franchise over all the seasons. In the past 25 years, they’ve gone from those awkward and timid dinosaurs to fierce and fearless competitors — an attitude, swagger and confidence instilled in the team by Ujiri.

“We want to experience this moment here again, and again and again,” Ujiri said.

The quest to make that happen starts now.

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