I hopped on the 96, transferred to the 89, boarded the UP, and made the short trek from Union to Scotiabank Arena. Everything about my trip was the same as it had been many times before, when I had jettisoned myself over there to cover games, shootaround and the like. Only, when I went to enter the arena, security guided my line of sight slightly to the right. A gated area, a stage, balloons, free ice cream - it was all there, and people had come to bear witness to the introduction of the Raptors new head coach, Darko Rajakovic.
I was pretty surprised to see so much pageantry, and I did the rounds with the veteran beat writers to ask if this had ever happened before, and it hadn't. Money leftover in the budget? Poorly allocated ice cream stock? Or, an expectation that Rajakovic -- and looming roster decisions -- will help course correct the Raptors back towards consistent winning, enjoyable basketball, and a positive culture? If it's the latter, why not start it off with a bang, and a bit of an event where people can come bask in it. Rajakovic certainly did.
The sun beam that was hitting O.G. Anunoby in the face during media day 9 months ago caused a grimace and it would've done the same to me, but Rajakovic was staring the full, gleaming sun right in it's face and smiling through all of it. The second ever European-born head coach in the NBA, for the only team that exists outside the USA, with a connection to international fans, international players, and here he was, basking in a seminal moment of his 28-year long coaching journey. He giggled and looked around every time there was applause, trying to make sense of the sheer amount of support.
A lot of the questions early on were introductory, of course. Did Masai and Darko know each other before this? Turns out, not really. Ujiri's time in Serbia was a bit too long ago for Rajakovic to be a figurehead, and the rigors of NBA life didn't see them crossing paths during seasons.
In a private scrum off to the side of things, Ujiri would later reveal that Rajakovic wasn't the favorite to kick things off, but impressed at every turn. Sergio Scariolo was the favorite for a time. Kenny Atkinson and Ujiri are very close, with a shared history as scouts, and a lot of dinners and conversations together. Rajakovic did it the hard way. He was interviewed a day after the Grizzlies were ousted from the playoffs. Ujiri highlighted the clear physical and mental toll that the then-assistant coach was wearing. Even still, he was extremely prepared, insightful, thoughtful, and impressive. He was the same during the second round of interviews where the Raptors cut into his vacation. And finally, the third round, which interrupted his anniversary.