From expansion team to NBA champions

Book chronicles 25-years of Toronto Raptor basketball

When the Toronto Raptors won the National Basketball Association Championship in 2019 they did so with the eyes of a nation upon them.

There were Canadians jumping on the Raptor bandwagon who had probably not watched a game in the team's 25-year history, but were suddenly swept up in the mania of a team that had adopted 'We The North' as its rallying cry, firmly positioning itself as the heart of basketball in this country.

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While I admit I was not a massive basketball fan prior to the latest incarnation of the Raptors as they developed from mediocrity to championship over the half decade or so, the run of 2019 had me glued to the tube and I admit to being a bigger fan of the game as the NBA starts its 2020-21 season than I was before the spring of 'the run'.

It is one of those kismet moments that the Raptors ascended to the highest peak possible in basketball in their 25th year, setting a benchmark built on a foundation 25-years in the making.

With a quarter of century on history, and the pinnacle championship captured it was a rather obvious moment in time to look back on the franchise, and who better to do that than Toronto Star journalist Doug Smith who was there covering the team as it was announced as an NBA expansion team through the highs of Damon Stoudamire to Vince Cater to Demar Derozan to Kyle Lowry to Kawhi Leonard and a hundred low spots in between.

To that end Smith has released 'We The North' a history of the Raptors up to the championship.

What Smith has created is a book for the 'every fan'. I say that in the best way possible. The book is only 230 pages, so Smith does not bog the story down with who scored what on a given night, or even the record the team achieved most seasons.

This is in no way a definitive history of the Raptors, but it is better for that since it is a much more accessible telling of the tale.

Smith steps back as someone who followed the team closely to give a 'big picture' look at the Raptors and how it developed over the years, with chapters devoted to key players, to behind the scenes initiatives such as increasing the role of women to the key moments such as the arrival Masai Ujiri.

From the book jacket; “When the Toronto Raptors first took the court back in 1995, the world was a very different place. Michael Jordan was tearing up the NBA. No one had email. And a lot of people wondered whether basketball could survive in Toronto, the holy city of hockey.
“Twenty-five years later, the Raptors are the heroes not only of the 416, but of the entire country.”

In a brief chat with Smith he said “it was a lot of fun” gleaning through his personal memories of 25 years of Raptors basketball, and while there may have been questions about the viability of the sport in this country when the team launched, he said he anticipated it would find a fan base.

“I knew it was going to happen,” he said, adding the team's success “was reflective of changes in Canada.”

Smith said with an influx of new Canadians you had people who did not grow up automatically as fans of hockey, but were instead more familiar with sports such as soccer and basketball which he noted are “global sports”.

“And we live in a global community now,” adding Toronto has people “from every corner of the earth.”

It is from the diversity much of the Raptor fan base has been drawn.

For Smith the book was also a benchmark for a journalist who has been covering the same team from its birth to a crown. He said when the team was first talked about in 1993 basketball was little known in this country and sports writers were exactly lining up to cover the team, most wanting to cover hockey for obvious reasons.

Smith however, was intrigued by the arrival of the Raptors.

“I really liked the idea of being in on the history,” he said, adding there hadn't been a new pro sports franchise since the Blue Jays in 1977.

“It was a chance to cover history that was really intriguing to me,” said Smith, who added he had played the game, and had covered the American Dream Team at the 1992 Olympics “so the game was in my blood a little bit.”
While We The North is a must read for a Raptor fan, I had to ask Smith about what lies ahead for the team.

As for the new season Smith anticipates the Raptors will be playing at home for the latter half of the season, and in spite of losing the likes of Serge Ibaka and Marc Gasol, will be top four in the NBA east and then it's a roll of the dice come the playoffs.

Since Smith included a chapter on the Raptors efforts to increase the role of women in the organization, is it likely they will be involved in bringing a Woman's NBA team to TO?

“I think it will happen,” he said, adding the WNBA has to do some work to be more viable, but a woman's franchise can work in Toronto. “It might be three years away. It might be five years, or 18-months” but one day it will happen.

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