Dino destiny: How Toronto Raptors clawed their way to an NBA title
It took 24 years for the Raptors to become the Kings of the North
They started from the bottom, now they're champs.
The Toronto Raptors are the NBA champions after beating the Golden State Warriors in a dramatic series that wrapped up Thursday night.
It took a long time to get here — nearly a quarter-century of play, as well as the struggle to establish the larger organization to build to this historic moment.
First Toronto had to land a team, then they had to map out every part of it — and meet criteria set out by the NBA.
What it would look like, what it would be called. (If things had turned out differently, fans could be cheering for the Hogs right now. Seriously.)
- CBC Sports | How the 2019 NBA champion Toronto Raptors were built
- CBC Archives | The Toronto Terriers could have been the city's NBA team
- CBC Archives | The early days of selling NBA basketball in Canada
The year after Jurassic Park hit movie screens, Toronto learned its team would be called the Raptors. The year after that, the city got a first look at what their jerseys would look like.
Then it was up to the Raptors to assemble the team that would wear the purple-and-white jerseys on a nightly basis.
That meant two drafts in June 1995 — an expansion draft, which pulled players from teams across the league, as well as participation in the regular college draft, which was held in Toronto that year. Then they had to see how things went on the court.
Dino-sized growing pains
The first season? Well, it was a start.
The Raptors played 82 games, just like the rest of the NBA teams — though the expansion team didn't win very many of them.
- CBC Archives | Why gambling almost kept the NBA out of Canada
And they played their home games in the SkyDome, as they would until they moved into their new digs at the Air Canada Centre on Bay Street a few years later.
At season's end, Toronto had a record of 21-61, giving them a winning percentage of just over 25 per cent.
- CBC Archives | Be the North: Raptors who have embraced life in Canada
But it wasn't necessarily a daily downer for the people running up and down the court.
"You know, it's not like we got our heads beat in that year," said original Raptors member Tracy Murray, when recalling those early days on CBC Radio's The Current recently.
"We lost a lot of games but most of 'em was within five and 10 [points]. They weren't like 25 point blow-outs like you would think with expansion teams."
'Their way or there's no way'
Coach Brendan Malone was let go after that inaugural season. According to CBC's reporting, he had fallen out with both management and the players he was coaching.
"It's almost impossible to make everybody happy on an NBA roster," Malone told reporters after being fired.
"You know, Brendan, I think he had the way he wanted to do things and our organization had another way they wanted to do it," said player Damon Stoudamire, who would be named as the NBA's rookie of the year the following month.
"And, you know, I've said it before — if you're a coach, you've either got to do it their way or there's no way."
Player Oliver Miller told reporters that there was "just a lot of friction" between himself and the coach.
"At the beginning of the year, me and Brendan had our falling out but then at the end, he tried to come back around, but in my eyes, it was too late," said Miller.
Malone accepted that his time was done with the Raptors. He reportedly got a buyout in the neighbourhood of $500,000.
"Now it's time to move on," Malone said.
'I wouldn't say I'm a puppet'
Isiah Thomas, the former NBA star who was then a Raptors executive, predicted the incoming coach — Darrell Walker, who served as an assistant coach under Malone — would be a great fit.
"I trust Darrell, I have complete confidence in his basketball knowledge that he'll be able to carry on and do the things that we want to do in this organization," he told reporters, while putting an arm around Walker's shoulder.
Thomas and Walker had previously been teammates with the Detroit Pistons before they had worked together in Toronto.
The CBC's Barbara Ondrusek reported that Walker knew "for months" that Thomas would promote him in place of Malone.
"I wouldn't say I'm a puppet," Walker told reporters. "I'm saying I'm going to be running the basketball team."
'I don't see any light'
Walker led the Raptors through their second season, when they finished with a 30-52 record. That was the year that Marcus Camby began his career after being drafted second overall by Toronto.
Partway through the next season, however, Walker abruptly resigned his position after the team traded Stoudamire — the Raptors' leading scorer since joining the team as a rookie — to the Portland Trail Blazers.
Glen Grunwald, the Raptors' general manager, said the trade was made because the team believed it would not be able to hang onto Stoudamire.
Walker didn't want any part of it.
"I just thought that if they were going to trade Damon [Stoudamire], they were going in a different direction than I wanted to," Walker said, according to an Associated Press report on his departure from the organization.
"I don't mind coaching an expansion team, but I wanted to see some light at the end of the tunnel. I don't see any light."
It had already been a tough season up to that point: the team had a 11-38 record at the time that Walker left.
Two guys named Carter
Next to lead the Raptors was Butch Carter. As with the previous coaching change, it was a case of the assistant taking over. The team would finish the season with a 16-66 record — still the lowest season-win total in franchise history.
- CBC Archives | Rapper who got closer than Drake to joining Raptors
Four months after Carter took the reins of the Raptors, the team ended up with a draft pick who shared the coach's last name.
That would be Vince Carter, the master slam-dunker and eventual all star player.
'It all went south'
The Raptors finally managed to claw their way to a playoff appearance in the 1999-2000 season — their fifth in the NBA.
And it was a brief one: They got swept by the Knicks in three games.
The Raptors' swift departure from the playoffs was a topic of discussion on CBC's Midday the next day. Journalist Mary Ormsby was at the game and she shared her observations with the show.
"They'd gone toe-to-toe with the Knicks all season and done well, but when it counted most [they lost]," Ormsby told Midday.
"You know, there's some coaching to blame, the players were to blame … so it all went south," said Ormsby who summed it up as "a sour end to their season."
The season would be Butch Carter's last as coach. He was replaced by NBA Hall of Famer Lenny Wilkens.
Almost, but not quite
A year later, the Raptors made it to the second round of the playoffs and fought hard against the Philadelphia 76ers.
The seventh game of that year's Eastern Conference Semifinals saw Vince Carter make a shot at the buzzer.
It didn't land.
Fans would have to wait for another generation of Raptors players to take the team to the next level.
(And yes, they made it back to the playoffs in 2002, but the Pistons pushed them out in the first round.)
The broken lamp
After 2002, the Raptors went four years without making a playoff appearance, but that doesn't mean the team didn't provide any drama for fans to follow in the interim.
Such as the 2003-2004 season, which featured the short-lived coaching tenure of Kevin O'Neill.
"I'm not for everybody. I'm not a guy that walks down the hallway and is warm and fuzzy," O'Neill said. "If being dedicated to winning is abrasive, I'm abrasive."
The Raptors had a 33-49 record under O'Neill.
Two weeks before O'Neill's firing, Raptors fans learned GM Glen Grunwald wouldn't be back with the team either.
A chance to 'make it right'
Doug Smith, a longtime Raptors beat reporter for the Toronto Star who still covers the team today, said the team found itself in "another mess."
In addition to hiring a GM and coach, Smith said new players would have to be brought in and then they'd have to work out how to play together. Again.
"They've gone into scorched earth — it's ground zero now and they've got this chance to make it right or they're in a lot of trouble," said Smith.
One highlight that season was Chris Bosh's rookie campaign as a Raptor. Drafted fourth overall by Toronto, the future all-star played in 75 games that year, averaging 11.5 points per game.
Success with Sam
The following season, the Raptors had a new coach, Sam Mitchell, as well as a new GM, Rob Babcock.
Mitchell, who spent 13 years in the NBA as a player, first coached the team during a couple of not-so-successful years.
His first year, Vince Carter demanded a trade and got it and the Raptors finished the 2004-2005 season with a 33-49 record — just like the year before.
The next season, they won six fewer games, finished at 27-55 and saw their GM fired mid-season.
But a year later, under Mitchell and new GM Bryan Colangelo, the Raptors improved their record by 20 wins, won their division and a playoff berth.
The Raptors fell to the Knicks in six games in the first round, but the season was overall a welcome improvement. Mitchell ended up being named the NBA's coach of the year.
Mitchell's Raptors had a .500 finish in 2008, but played in the post-season for a second straight year — though they lost to the Magic in five games.
A chance to break through
It took 15 years for the Raptors to make it back to the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
And when they did, in the spring of 2016, they pushed through to the Conference Finals — putting them closer than ever to making an NBA final.
But it wasn't to be that year, as the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers beat the Raptors in six games. The Cavs would go on to claim the NBA championship that year, defeating the Golden State Warriors.
Toronto coach Dwane Casey saw how good the Raptors were going to be in the near future.
"We're not where [the Cavaliers] are right now," he said. "We're going to be."
He was right — though the Raptors wouldn't get back to that level with Casey, even though they made it to the Eastern Conference Semifinals for each of the next two years.
The Raptors gain new Klaw
Last July, the Raptors announced a blockbuster trade that was going to bring a superstar — Kawhi Leonard — to Toronto. Danny Green was also on his way to the 6ix as well.
The downside? The Raptors had to send all-star DeMar DeRozan the other way to make it happen, as well as Jakob Poeltl and a draft pick.
Fans were upset to see DeRozan — a loyal Raptor who'd spent his nine-year career in Toronto — go.
But Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri said the trade was made with an eye to the goal of all pro sports.
"On paper, we feel we have a team that can compete in the East and maybe, hopefully ... compete for a championship in this way," he told reporters when discussing the trade in July of last year.
"That's why we play, that's why we play sports ... to win and to compete for a championship."
It seems Ujiri was right: The Raptors accomplished their long-sought goal in 2019, with Leonard, the eventual MVP of Toronto's championship team, leading the way.