USA TODAY Sports’ Mark Medina breaks down the future of the NBA heading into the 2021 season.
Junior Bridgeman is not bringing the Toronto Raptors to town. Not even temporarily.
The 67-year-old entrepreneur, who built an empire worth an estimated $600 million following a distinguished basketball career, said Thursday “the time has passed” for his pursuit of an NBA franchise for Louisville.
“Two years ago, I asked the league about expansion,” Bridgeman said. “They responded that they were not looking at expansion, but if they would, the top two cities would be Seattle and Mexico City. I have not heard anything since then.”
Though he is in partnership with Toronto team governor Larry Tanenbaum in a Coca-Cola bottling business, Bridgeman said there was “absolutely no truth” to the Yahoo story, which was worded in such a way as to imply (without directly stating) that his contact with the league had been recent and was related to the Raptors.
“I’m not even sure where that came from,” he said.
Yahoo’s Vincent Goodwill did not identify the league sources who said Louisville had been broached as an alternative location should the Raptors be forced to seek temporary asylum in the United States, but such speculation would not seem outlandish.
Baseball’s Toronto Blue Jays played their 2020 home games in Buffalo, New York, in response to the Canadian government’s refusal to permit games in Rogers Centre. Similarly, Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC was compelled to compete in East Hartford, Connecticut.
As an NBA-caliber arena with no professional sports tenants, Louisville’s KFC Yum Center would be on a short list of logical options for any basketball team in need of a place to play, along with Las Vegas, Kansas City, Missouri, and existing NBA arenas with enough open dates to accommodate a second tenant.
Yet if the Raptors’ contingency plans have progressed beyond preliminary exploration, Bridgeman, Yum Center General Manager Eric Granger and NBA2LOU President Dan Issel all said they have not been included in those discussions.
“If we don’t know anything about it and Junior doesn’t know anything about it, I would say as of right now there isn’t much to it,” Issel said.
Raptors spokeswoman Jennifer Quinn declined to detail the team’s “what-if” scenarios.
“Our focus,” she said Thursday, “is on Toronto.”
Been there, done that: Not the first time Louisville mentioned as NBA site
That focus may have narrowed slightly Thursday with the announcement of a pilot program for rapid COVID-19 testing at the Calgary International Airport, a program aimed at reducing and eventually eliminating Canada’s 14-day quarantine period for international air passengers. But whether that program can be refined and expanded in time for the start of the NBA season — reportedly planned for mid-January — poses another logistical hurdle for the Raptors to clear.
“This could be game-changing for pro sports teams in (Canada),” tweeted Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons. “But if it doesn’t get approved in Toronto, the muddled situation for pro teams would continue.”
Given the continuing uncertainties concerning COVID-19, and the varying protocols of different NBA markets, it’s possible the league might place some teams in a protective “bubble” in Orlando, Florida, or elsewhere, as it did during the season just concluded.
It’s also possible that some cities may not be receptive to housing an NBA team on a temporary basis. Before baseball’s Blue Jays settled on Buffalo as their 2020 home, the city of Pittsburgh declined to share PNC Park and Baltimore team doctors expressed concerns about the health issues arising from two teams occupying Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
Louisville’s long-standing love of basketball would be a prominent point in its favor should the Raptors be looking for a place to land. A potential source of friction might be found in the University of Louisville’s lease with the KFC Yum Center.
“I don’t even want to speculate on what that might mean since it doesn’t appear to have any legs,” U of L athletic director Vince Tyra said of his willingness to share the arena with the Raptors. “We’ve got plenty on our plate right now to contemplate.”