‘It’s just a beautiful place to be’
Raptors thankful they’re back at a familiar, if dusty, Scotiabank Arena
They’re home, the Raptors are, once again in and of Toronto, and they wear the city like a comfortable old suit of clothes. Quite literally.
Back at Scotiabank Arena for the first time in 19 months and back in the city after a long pandemic-induced road trip — once again familiarizing themselves with the city, its charms, its energy, its feeling of home — coach Nick Nurse walked into his office in the bowels of the arena and it was like he’d never left.
“Everything was still there,” Nurse said Monday morning. “I forgot all the stuff I had in there, but it was all still there.
“I went to my locker, still was a blue suit in there. Had a bunch of dust on it. Couldn’t wear it today, (but) it just feels good to be back and taking those things you’re more familiar with.”
That more than anything has created a flow of fresh air around the team that spent most of the last year and a half playing and living in Orlando and Tampa, Fla., which are light years removed from the vibe of Toronto.
The veterans are in familiar surroundings, and the new players are discovering just how energizing the city and its fans can be. It’s given the group this collective feeling of belonging again.
Orlando and the playoff bubble in 2020 was weird; Tampa and the entire 2020-21 season was a necessary evil. Toronto is home.
“I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed living here,” guard Fred VanVleet said. “And so when I came back I knew I missed the city, but you don’t really know why … it’s just a beautiful place to be.
“It’s the longest I’ve ever lived (anywhere) other than Rockford (Illinois) and it’s the first big city that I’ve lived in, so I have an extreme connection with the city for many reasons — from my story to winning the championship to just being in the NBA. And it’s really become my second home, and me and my family are just really happy to be back.”
The sense of renewal and rebirth permeates the franchise at so many different levels. The vets are back in a city they appreciate; the rookies and second-year players and others added in the summer are discovering things for the first time. That takes care of the esoteric, off-the-court part of things. On the court, it’s a rebirth of sorts, too.
Kyle Lowry — considered by many the best player in franchise history, and by others the most forceful personality to grace the locker room in many a year — is gone, and there’s a feeling of change wafting over the on-court product as well.
VanVleet will be the leader — he was co-leader with Lowry for the past couple of seasons — while Pascal Siakam will be a hugely important piece when he’s fully over off-season shoulder surgery, and OG Anunoby is thought of as the big breakout possibility as he begins his fifth season.
But there are a lot of new players, new possibilities and new theories for Nurse and his staff to explore.
“I think there’s always some wheels turning about how to get the best out of what team you have,” Nurse said. “Some of the changes, once you’ve seen them, you think, ‘Oh no, maybe we should do this.’
“It’s like a really fun part of the job to not really know what we’re going to look like in April. Things that we test that don’t work, we chuck them. Things that do, we polish them. We just kind of keep trying to build and try to make it suit this group of players the best we can.”
The players are more than confident, regardless of what others say about them, and they treasure the chance to prove their value — whether they’re coming off a championship year or a draft lottery appearance.
“I stopped valuing non-basketball people’s opinions a long time ago,” VanVleet said. “My list of basketball people is like Masai (Ujiri), Bobby (Webster), Nick, Kyle Lowry, those guys … Other than that, it doesn’t really matter.
“We’ve got to go compete. If people want to count us out, great … So hopefully every team that comes in here thinks we suck and they don’t play hard and we win a bunch of games.”
And it’s perfectly fitting that they somehow seem to be reenergizing the on-court product as they reintegrate into the off-court life.
“So we’ll try to pick up the slack that (Lowry) left behind — the greatest Raptor to do it,” VanVleet said. “I read a quote the other day that said, ‘There are things that have never been done being done every day.’
“So I’m up for the challenge and the team is ready for the challenge. We have a young, hungry group that are looking to prove themselves. So I think we’re all pretty excited for the season to start.”