'Our hearts are in Toronto': Raptors to play remainder of home games in Tampa
Ongoing challenges related to pandemic will keep team south of the border
The Raptors may be playing out the rest of the season in Tampa, Fla., but Kyle Lowry says that doesn't change the fact that the team still plays for Toronto and Canada.
The NBA team said Thursday it will complete its home schedule at Amalie Arena due to COVID-19 after initially announcing in November it would play half its home games in Tampa before making a decision on the second half of the season.
"[Toronto's] our home, that's where we play, that's our home city, the country we play for, at the end of the day, 'Toronto Raptors' is on the front of our jersey, we play for that," Lowry said Thursday night.
"We still know that the fans are supporting us the utmost that they can, we wish we were playing in front of those guys. It's unfortunate that the world is in this situation but as professionals, we have to do our job. We would love to be home, we would love to be in front of our fans and it just sucks that we can't be, but the connection is still there."
Coach Nick Nurse said in some ways playing out the season in Tampa makes life easier.
"I think that it took us a while to get settled in, I think to pick up shop and go back and try to re-settle in, kinda like you would at the start of the fall, you usually get guys in early so they can get settled in before training camp started," Nurse said from Boston, ahead of the Raptors' game versus the Celtics. "We're just kind of getting settled in, we might as well finish it out now.
"Hope we can get back [to Toronto] and start next season from Day 1."
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The lone NBA team from outside the U.S., the Raptors have joined several Canadian counterparts in having to play south of the border during the pandemic.
Major League Baseball's Toronto Blue Jays (Buffalo, N.Y.) and Major League Soccer's Toronto FC (East Hartford, Conn.), CF Montreal (Harrison, N.J.) and Vancouver Whitecaps (Portland) relocated for partial or full seasons in 2020. Major League Rugby's Toronto Arrows will start their 2021 season in Marietta, Ga.
"Obviously we want to be in Toronto," Pascal Siakam said. "We understand what's happening. We want to keep everyone safe and respect the rules. It's tough; 2020, I think the year taught us that we've got to be ready for anything.
"We're going to miss the Toronto fans. That's the type of year it's been. We've just got to stick with it and adapt."
A schedule release for the second half of the season is expected in the coming days.
In a city of champions
"Florida has been really welcoming to us and we're so grateful for the hospitality we've found in Tampa and at Amalie — we're living in a city of champions, and we intend to carry on the tradition of winning for our new friends and fans here," Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in a statement.
"But home is where the heart is, and our hearts are in Toronto. We think often of our fans, of our Scotiabank Arena family, and all those we are missing back home, and we can't wait until we can all be together again."
The Raptors are 6-5 in their "home" building this season, which they're sharing with the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning. Tampa also has the reigning Super Bowl champion Buccaneers and the Rays played in the World Series last season.
There have been reports the Blue Jays are considering playing home games in nearby Dunedin, Fla., site of their spring-training complex, this season.
The Raptors' decision is hardly unexpected given the state of the pandemic in the U.S. and Canada. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Tuesday that starting next week any non-essential travellers arriving in Canada by land will need to show a negative PCR-based COVID-19 test or face a fine if they don't have one.
That wouldn't be an issue for NBA teams; travelling parties are tested daily, players multiple times a day.
Toronto made the move south last fall, knowing Thursday's decision was a real possibility.
The Raptors tried to simulate the comforts the team has at home in Toronto, at least as much as possible. "We The North" — the team motto — signage is everywhere in the hotel that the Raptors are using as a practice facility in Tampa, from the elevator doors to the ballroom wall behind one of the baskets.
The court that the Raptors use for games was shipped down from Toronto. And there's a 2019 world championship banner swaying from the rafters, alongside the Lightning's retired jerseys for Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, at the same end of the court as the Raptors' bench.
"They did a great job," Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said earlier this season.
With files from The Associated Press