For Americans, representing the only Canadian team in the NBA comes with both its share of perks and inconveniences. There is the backing of an entire country versus a city, the extra All-Star votes that pile up as a result, and Raptors Twitter being ready to rush to the defence of a member of the organization at a moment’s notice.
On the flipside, there are the income tax complications, the lack of primetime coverage in the States, and the regular meetings with customs when travelling back and across the border. Over the years, as the Raptors have risen through the ranks, those weaknesses have become far less of a talking point. Winning changes everything. The Raptors have further entrenched themselves as Canada’s team, hold training camps on the West coast, and famously sparked Jurassic Parks all across the land as Toronto brought Canada its first NBA title.
Now, as the Raptors get set to resume the 2019-20 season and their quest for back-to-back championships, they recognize that the responsibility the league has in ensuring the battle against racial injustice maintains its momentum also brings an added responsibility for them as a Canadian team’s voice.
“We’ve talked about both sides of the spectrum,” Powell said when asked about the conversations the Raptors have had as a team. “Racial injustice is not just happening in America, it’s happening worldwide and I think the focus has been on the United States but, for us, it’s been a privilege to be the only team in Canada and to have that platform and to speak out about the inequalities and injustices in both State-side and in Toronto and Canada as a whole, we’re taking that very serious.”
Of the 17 players on the Raptors’ roster, 11 are American. Chris Boucher and Oshae Brissett are Canadian, Pascal Siakam is from Cameroon, Serge Ibaka from the Congo, Marc Gasol from Spain and OG Anunoby is the son of Nigerian parents and was born in the United Kingdom. The events of the past month or so have pushed all of them to share their experiences coming from different backgrounds and the team intends on sending a message that resonates with each member of the team and the countries they represent. Raising awareness about what they look to do not only in communities within Toronto but back in their respective homelands is another focus. Powell credited MLSE and the Raptors organization as a whole for listening to the front office, coaches, and players as to how everyone can come together to make a worldwide statement.
Nick Nurse has immersed himself in these conversations, and in addition to meeting within the organization, has been attending coaches’ meetings every Monday between all 30 head coaches in the league. Early plans include a rotating of coaches on each day providing an historical perspective in the shape of, ‘On this day in history’ but one of the notable results to have already transpired is Atlanta Hawks head coach Lloyd Pierce spearheading a move that has already garnered approval to transform State Farm Arena into a polling station for Georgia’s primary runoff election on Aug. 11 and early voting for the general election on Nov. 3.
Toronto’s head coach in the meantime is working alongside assistant coach Jim Sann to use their platform to appeal to the “650,000 to a million expats living in Canada” to vote in the upcoming American election. Part of using their platform, Nurse says, will be to speak to the importance of it in press conferences rather than just recap a basketball game or practice.
Canadian issues have been a part of the conversation for Nurse as well, and he has reached out to Scarborough, Ont., native and team Basketball Development Consultant Jamaal Magloire to share his experiences as a Black man in Canada.
“I am continuing to educate myself, but his historical perspective and his own personal experience was great insight for me,” Nurse said. “I think that was probably the key to a lot of these things. A lot of the players shared stories, personal situations that happened to them. And I had never heard some of those stories. Those were things people weren’t sharing and now they were, and there’s a level of, again, education and even closeness when you’re hearing some of the stuff these guys have gone through, but I think that’s it. We continue to have those conversations.”
Nurse has been praised for his ability to make basketball adjustments on the fly for some time now, having helped Toronto overturn series deficits in each of the first three playoff series during the championship run before pulling out all the stops from starting Fred VanVleet in second halves of Finals games to pulling out a box-and-one defensive strategy. But coping with the real stuff, managing the human side of his players has shed new light on Nurse as a head coach.
There was Kobe Bryant’s tragic death, when Nurse was the one to suggest dribbling out the clock for a 24 second shot clock violation in honour of Bryant’s number and then scheduled fewer practices and shootarounds thereafter so players could spend more time with their families. Bryant’s death not only shook them individually but provided a cold reminder of how fleeting life’s most precious moments can be. There was the league’s shutdown on March 11, after Rudy Gobert tested positive for COVID-19, where Nurse’s response was to give the players a week to 10 days to just process everything that was happening and the reality of the virus and global pandemic at hand. And then, with the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Nurse recognized that it was time to step back and listen.
“Lots of silence, but lots of sharing… lots of just heavy air, even though we’re all on computer screens you can just feel the weight on everybody with it,” Nurse said. “And it has… that’s all I can say. It’s been heavy to deal with and you try to just listen, give them a platform to share with each other, lean on each other.
“What do you do? You lean on your family; you lean on your team. We all try to take care of each other, check in and see how we are, and then just try to do something. Try to do something to affect both of those things. I think a lot of our guys were active in trying to help both situations and will continue to do so.”
The family vibe these Raptors have exuded has been very transparent. They care deeply about each other and the willingness to share some of their most difficult personal experiences reflects that. Nurse is a long way from his office at the OVO Athletic Centre in Toronto, but the elephant in the room strategy that paid dividends by having open conversations that left no stone unturned in pursuit of a championship is yielding positive gains once again as he lets those who are inextricably linked to the fight against racial injustice take the mic.
With a team that offers as many perspectives as Toronto’s, all signs point towards the messages being delivered when the time comes being reflective of the just country and world we want to see.