The Raptors’ weird, virtual goodbye to a long strange season

10 mins read

The Toronto Raptors are paraded in front of the camera one final time. Many don’t wear their masks, after having been forced to wear masks — not for safety, but to model good behavior — when they’re on camera for the entirety of the bubble. After all, what is the NBA going to do now? Kick them out?

The NBA-Disney World Bubble has been, by and large, strange. Like a summer camp mixed with a corporate retreat. And, oh yeah, mixed with a dystopian sci-fi plot where the rich are separated from the rest of us and survive a pandemic in comfort. But, where they’re televised? For the entertainment of everyone else? Like I said, it’s been strange.

And that strangeness was reflected in every inch of life in the bubble. The Raptors lived in the same hotel, the Gran Destino, as the Boston Celtics, their on-court opponents for 12 harsh days. The Raptors and Celtics corresponded before the series in great depth about how to use their collective power to cause change, to help Black Americans. Both teams joined a wildcat strike that earned political concessions from owners to further support social justice. And after a physical game six, a member of the Raptors predicted that there would be a fight back at the hotel that night.

“This was a weird and unique scenario,” Nick Nurse says, ostensibly about how the bubble affected Pascal Siakam’s game. But really it can be applied to the whole thing. The Raptors went out with heads held high, and they went out weird, but they’re out now, and that’s the thing that matters in the end.

So, the Raptors are paraded in front of the cameras. They lost to the Celtics. Lost a game that they should have won. The players are clearly hurting, as they’ve been hurting for much of the duration of the bubble, but in very different ways. Journalists ask Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry: how do you feel? They do not feel good. Are you proud of the season? Maybe they will be at some point, but it’s hard to feel that way now. VanVleet wipes his eyes several times during the availability. Lowry too.

Exit interviews are weird at the best of times, but they’re especially weird when players can’t see the people asking questions. Media members do not have their cameras on, so players see the camera filming them, and nothing else. Exit interviews are weird when media members can’t see the body language of players, can’t feel the emotions, can’t read the room. Our couches and offices are, after all, approximately 2000 kilometers away from Disney World. It’s hard to read a room half a world away.

But the Raptors don’t turn on each other, don’t show any negativity beyond frustration and sadness about the loss. They remain loyal. VanVleet is asked what he said to Siakam after the series.

I said I’m proud of him and I love him and he’s my brother and I’ll go to war with him any day,” offers VanVleet. Every other Raptors, as well as Nick Nurse, is asked about Siakam in one fashion or another. They all repeat the line. And it’s true. The bond is deeper than basketball. 

Someone asks Nurse whether he will miss this team — as, in the NBA, teams are never the same from year to year.

“I already miss this team,” says Nurse.

Lowry is asked about his memories from the season, and he starts by saying how happy he is that his guys like VanVleet will earn gigantic swathes of money, and use it to support their families, to be better partners and parents. Lowry gets it. He’s a good person. He’s the softest tough guy on the planet — or the toughest soft guy? He pretends to be a jerk, particularly to media, but he’s kind and knows what’s important in life and what isn’t. He says how proud he was to play with the team, to have led them. He ends on a nostalgic note.

Fourteen years have gone by so fast, you want to cherish every moment,” says Lowry. “Now I’m going on and on, it’s kind of a rant. But you miss out on these moments that you don’t win a championship. You miss out an opportunity to keep continuing to play with these great fucking guys.”

Marc Gasol and Siakam are asked about their struggles in the series. They both say that they’ll learn from the difficulties. Stepping stones. Siakam is a budding star, about to begin a new, max contract. He’s learning. This is a stage of development. Gasol is 35 years old, near the end of his career, but he’s a free agent this off-season. He, too, talks about learning from his mistakes. Humans never stop learning, at no age, at no stage in their careers. Not the good ones, anyway, and these are two good ones.

There are multiple rooms, and players cycle. VanVleet finishes and Siakam takes his seat, is asked many of the same questions, gives honest and thoughtful answers like VanVleet before him. The Raptors lost, but they’re not sore losers. They show respect to the Celtics and to everyone asking them questions. Many of the Toronto writers preface or suffix their own questions with thank-yous, little tokens of appreciation for the time the players have given over the season to media. If this had taken place in Toronto, those little moments of humanity, separate from basketball other than that they’re necessitated by the game ending, would be longer, would be more personal. But this game was not in Toronto, so they’re only post-scripts to questions about the game, about the off-season, about teammates.

TNT is doing a last-day-of-camp segment across all the zoom interviews for every team’s final game. A last words on the bubble type of thing. Really, what are the Raptors supposed to say? Thanks for letting us fulfill our TV contracts, and sorry about that wildcat strike, but we accomplished stuff that matters more than basketball, with or without your help, and it sucks to lose, and I miss my family? There’s a lot there to unpack. Because the bubble was composed of so many diverse, sometimes competing, elements, it’s hard to capture in a few words.

But Lowry does it.

It was challenging,” says Lowry. “It was well put together. The NBA and the teams and the players did a hell of a job sacrificing. We used our platform for our voices to be heard, and the social injustices, getting guys to go out there and vote. Justice for Breonna Taylor. Justice for everybody, every Black American out there that are being harmed by police and police brutality. So I think the bubble was a success. And yeah. Time to leave this motherfucker.”

The camera clicks off after the last interview, fades to black as the sound dies, photo negative. Writers thank the media relations staff, and vice versa. Again, the offers would be longer and more heartfelt in person. But the zoom interviews are done. I don’t have to take the subway home. I don’t have a last-day-of-camp farewell with other writers. I’m already home. The season was indeed strange.

But it’s time to leave this motherfucker.

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