Q&A: Raptors’ John Wiggins on building a more diverse, inclusive franchise

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During last week’s end-of-season media availability with Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, he declared that Scotiabank Arena would be opened up to be used as a centre for U.S. citizens living in Canada to register to vote in the upcoming U.S. presidential election.

Nurse and assistant coach Jim Sann have been leading the charge for the Raptors, encouraging American expatriates living abroad to go to FVAP.gov to get themselves registered to vote, and the event at Scotiabank Arena was supposed to be the big push in this initiative.

“We are continuing with our thoughts and plans about trying to get as many United States citizens living here in Canada registered to vote. Again, there’s almost 650,000-ish, give-or-take, and 35,000 of ’em voted in the last election which is about five per cent, right around five,” said Nurse last week. “It’s gotta be better than that.

“A lot of the teams are using their arenas as voting centres. We obviously can’t use that, but we are gonna open Scotiabank [Arena] later on next week — don’t have the exact dates, maybe one or two dates next week — for U.S. citizens to come in and register and I’ll certainly be a part of that and we’ll get those dates out as soon as we have them, we should have them shortly and that’ll be some time later in the week so that’s very cool on everybody’s part to do that and that’s where we’re pushing our next objective toward Scotiabank later on next week.”

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John Wiggins, the Raptors’ new vice president of organizational culture and inclusion, was helping Nurse organize this event. But unfortunately, as cases of COVID-19 rose again in Ontario and the GTA, Wiggins, Nurse and the Raptors were forced to cancel the event for the sake of public safety.

“I know firsthand how easy it is to register for an absentee ballot — I did it on my computer during our time in the NBA bubble and it was really fast and simple,” Nurse said in a release issued by the Raptors Thursday about the event’s cancellation. “The FVAP.gov site walks you through the steps and it pretty much takes no time at all. We would have loved to have had the chance to see voters in person, but it’s important to remember that we’re still facing a global pandemic, and we have to look out for the well-being of our community.”

Added Wiggins in that same release: “We all know from these past months that it’s possible to make a big impact online — and that’s what U.S. citizens living in Canada can do, simply by visiting FVAP.gov, requesting their absentee ballot and making their voices heard. Yes, we’re disappointed about not moving forward with our in-person event. But we hope this reminds would-be voters that they can request their ballot without leaving their homes, while staying safe and healthy.”

Disappointed but not deterred, Wiggins, who helped launch the Raptors 905 in the NBA G League and prior to that the Oshawa Power in the National Basketball League of Canada, is now turning attention to other ways the Raptors may help continue the fight for social justice and with getting more American ex-pats living outside of the States to vote in the upcoming election in his new role.

Sportsnet recently caught up with Wiggins where, among other topics, he talked about this new gig of his and other ways the Raptors are looking to help get more people to vote in the U.S. election, despite being a Canadian organization.

Editors’ Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sportsnet: Your role as Raptors vice president, inclusion and diversity is a brand new one, and you’ve only been in it since late July. But it sounds like it entails a lot. What does your day-to-day look like?

Yeah, that’s 100 per cent right. It does entail a lot, and I think that was kind of the purpose of putting a little more focus on who we are as an organization, how our people are involved and being treated and how we’re setting ourselves up. Just to be able to be a little more inclusive and diverse. And when you add all the groups that are involved and the perspective, the intersectionality between gender and race, and the more you kind of go down and look, it becomes a pretty big undertaking.

For me, that meant I wanted to look at enhancing and reshaping our culture at the Raptors. We’ve got a great organization and I know we lead in many different aspects, but we can get better as well. And that means taking a look at our entire organization with a fine-tooth comb and a different lens and saying, ‘Are there other things we can do better? Can we can we be a little more deliberate with making sure we are diverse and inclusive and trying to be an equitable organization?’ So, yeah, that’s kind of the title.

And this last little while has really been about assessing our organization and talking to the community about where the Raptors can help make an impact, and now we’re starting to pull together kind of a work plan, a business plan, that will let us get out there and really make some positive change.

John Wiggins, Toronto Raptors VP, Organizational Culture and Inclusion. (Raptors/Twitter)

From launching the Power in the NBLC to helping with the launch of Raptors 905 in the G League and even becoming vice president of the 905, you’ve worn many different hats in your life as a basketball executive. Did any of those prior experiences help prepare you for this role?

I’m really excited for the opportunity but I don’t know that anything in particular could have prepared me. I’ve noticed a liking simply to starting up something new, a new initiative, which I have done several times over my career. Whether it was launching teams with the National Basketball League of Canada, or even launching the NBA G League.

And the parallels are that I’ve got to learn it. I’ve got to see the nuances of what makes an organization successful based on protocols that are going to come from the NBA, or come from MLSE, or even just the directors — from Masai [Ujiri] — and take a look at where we’re at and where we want to go, and how successful we want to be, and put some metrics and measurables in place to say ‘This is what it means to be a leader or to be a successful organization.’

It’s bringing people together, which I absolutely love — I did a lot of that with 905 with short resources. So you really need to get to know your people. You need to be able to identify good people and I love the fact that with 905, we were contributing back to the community and I think my role is going to be doing the same now.

Again, it’s revisiting our organization and it’s almost like trying to build up a new one. This is a key focus for us — just the way 905 was five years ago — we want to build up the Raptors to be an equitable, world-class, diverse and inclusive organization. So, you know, I get a chance to look at every aspect of our business. Whether it’s scouting, whether it’s hiring. It could be just even the way we look at our performance, look at the players, look at our staff and say, ‘What can we do to make sure we’re in a prime position?’ And I get to reach out, bring people together, our marketing teams, our community teams, our global partnership teams.

I’m reading up on stuff from the NBA with the new foundation they’ve created and how that’s going to help us out. I guess for me, what has prepared me is just bringing things together, taking a fresh perspective and a big-picture vision of where we want to be in the future.

What was that conversation like with Raptors president Ujiri when he first presented you with this opportunity?

It was in the wake of the George Floyd killing and at the time, obviously, it was a heavy-hearted atmosphere and environment with the Raptors. We all felt it — I definitely felt it as a Black man — and this presented an opportunity to do something. A lot of the frustration that we felt, especially because we were at home dealing with COVID and seeing these horrific acts happen to Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery it was, ‘What can we do?’ That’s just me as a person.

I’m not someone who kind of mulls things over. I’m very much a person of action. And I kept thinking, ‘Wow! We’ve got this platform with the Raptors and we’ve got the mighty MLSE and there’s got to be something we can do.’ And here goes Masai and he says, ‘Why don’t you lead the change that we’re trying to invoke?’ That gives me a sense of purpose every day, every morning. I get to wake up and actually do something about what’s happening out there and whether it’s one email at a time or one phone call at a time. The change won’t happen right away, but there is a sense of accomplishment that says we get to do something about it.

I think that first conversation with Masai was kind of getting a gauge on how far do we want to take this? How involved do we want to be? How much do we want to dedicate a commitment to all of this? And I think we came out of it saying this is very important, it’s something that’s been needed and, as always, we want to champion the movement forward.

You mentioned in this new role you’d need to look things over with a “fine-tooth comb,” it sounds almost like you’re doing an audit of the organization. Does that get uncomfortable to do at times?

I’d say ‘assessment’ of the organization, not ‘audit,’ necessarily, but I guess the words are interchangeable in that sense. And it might get uncomfortable — and not purposely — but I think there’s things that we are now thinking about differently, and we’re looking at things with a different lens. And when you do that, you start to uncover and unearth, ‘Oh, maybe I didn’t realize that this was happening? Maybe I didn’t realize that I was thinking this way? Maybe I didn’t realize that I was affecting other people in a certain form?’

I think that’s where it’s just refreshing to have a new set of eyes come into your organization and start to open discussion and dialog, and maybe make recommendations, and really just look at a way forward.

We’re obviously a championship-winning organization and sometimes you might forget to think, ‘Well, how can we get better? And how can we be different?’ And I think the conversation around equity, diversity and inclusion now is starting to show people that there might be things that you can do better and differently — and I think that’s where I love the fact that, if we’re an eight, can we get to a 10? That’s really where I think we’re going with it.

So that does require some uncomfortableness. It requires people to step outside of their norm a little bit. But the great thing about our organization is everybody is open to it. Everybody wants to get better. No one believes they’re perfect. No one believes that they are set in their ways. And so, for me, it’s now identifying how do we unearth those things? Where are the experts and consultants? Or where are the trainers or the programs or the courses? What are the conversations that we need to have just to be able to say, ‘Hey, are you aware?’ Or ‘Did you know?’ Or ‘Is this something you think about on a day-to-day basis and how do we move forward with it?’

The Toronto Raptors kneel during the national anthem before Game 3 of an NBA basketball first-round playoff series against the Brooklyn Nets, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Lake Buena Vista, Fla. (Kim Klement/Pool Photo via AP)

Turning attention to some of what you’ve been doing since you got the role, looking back on the NBA’s bubble experience as a whole, the moment that will always stand out to me will be on Aug. 26, when the Milwaukee Bucks players staged a strike and refused to come out onto the court for Game 5 of their first-round playoff series with the Orlando Magic in protest of the shooting of Jacob Blake. Where were you when that moment happened and what was your reaction?

I was here in Toronto, but the day before, or earlier that day, I pulled together a conversation with our players, myself and Alex Auerbach, our new director of wellness and development. And, I mean, we saw what happened to Jacob Blake and we knew it was going to have an effect on the players and we wanted to talk to them right away. So we pulled a call together with them in the morning on video with all the players in a room — as well as the coaches, Masai and Bobby [Webster] — just to talk and see how everybody was feeling. And that was kind of the first time that we realized how heavy this situation was for them and in just getting their perspective, hearing their frustration and wanting to see some change more [valuable] than a t-shirt or a hat or a sign. They wanted something impactful and I think they walked away saying something’s got to be done, something different needs to happen.

Subsequently, if you if look at the timeline, we spoke to them right before practice and after that practice is when Fred [VanVleet] came on and that’s when he first mentioned boycotting. And then after that is when we saw the Milwaukee Bucks walk off. So it was interesting and almost a proud [feeling] because I think although we weren’t the first ones to action it, I know for certain we were the first ones to start talking about it. And I was happy for the players because I think they needed to do something. I’m not happy for why they had to do it or the circumstances that it happened under, but if it gave them some kind of stress release with respect to that – and I think they really just needed a break, to be honest with you. Like between day-to-day activism and day-to-day trying to win a championship, I think the guys needed a break. But I think they wanted to send a message and they did.

So, seeing that, watching it here from Toronto, it was much needed and I’m happy that in some part we were involved in it and I’m hoping that this kind of impactful change continues. I think people know what is on our t-shirts and the messages we’re saying, and I think people are aware and we’ve got to go from awareness to action. We’ve got to really see some action start taking place.

On the topic of action, coach Nurse was pushing the need to get U.S. citizens abroad registered to vote in the upcoming election nearly the entire time the Raptors were down in Florida. How involved were you in that particular initiative?

To be honest, not very because I think Nick started it before I came on board with the Raptors. So he’s been actually talking about that and building that initiative as early as, I want to say, June, when they first went down to Florida and I came on board in July.

So it’s definitely something I picked up and tried to help and support with as he’s been doing it, but in terms of getting it off the ground, that was entirely Nick and Jim Sann – I want to make sure Jim gets that credit as well because they were very passionate about understanding the magnitude of influence that the expatriates here in Canada could have, especially when you see the low response rate of people that were actually registering to vote and doing so from abroad.

So kudos to them for starting the initiative and the organization. We want to promote and push it with them as well.

In the aftermath of the Bucks’ strike, the league postponed games and came out with three commitments that organizations and players alike will look to accomplish. Among these commitments is using team facilities as voting locations in the upcoming presidential election. As a team from Canada you’re obviously limited in this department, but is this where the idea of turning Scotiabank Arena into a registration centre came from?

We’re on an NBA social justice task force call with respect to any action the league wants to take, and I think when they came out with that statement it was obvious that they were looking for change, that the players were looking for more than just Black Lives Matter painted on the court. So the passion and the sentiment around the importance of voting was huge and you could see that.

So the position that kind of left us in was, ‘OK, how do we help?’ Because, obviously, one of the first things they said was that they wanted us to look at using our venue as a voting location, and I think we knew that probably wasn’t going to happen in Canada. That’s where we pivoted to, ‘OK, well, what can we do?’ And when you [put forth] the efforts that Nick has to communicate and get people to register online — because there’s over 650,000 U.S. citizens in Canada and we did a little deeper dive and found out there’s over 80,000 just in the GTA — we said, ‘Look, if we can’t get everybody to vote we can at least do our part to get them to register to vote.’

An organization reached out from voteabroad.org and I said, ‘We can help you guys with the actual registration part because, obviously, it varies from state to state in the U.S., we’ve got the volunteers and the resources. But if you guys can help us with the venue that would be great.’ And so that’s exactly what we did. We kind of put together this plan to open up Scotiabank Arena under all protocols of COVID and safety and we would’ve opened our doors to bring everybody out to come and register to vote. There’s this hashtag that says, ‘November is now’ because, obviously, if you don’t register then you can’t go vote in November. So we want to put that urgency around it.

And we were all set to do that this [Friday], actually. We were all set to do it right up until we started seeing the cases rising in the GTA. And it’s really, really unfortunate, to be honest, because we were all excited and pumped, but we just don’t want to put anybody at risk and it didn’t feel like the right thing to do now to try and bring hundreds, maybe even thousands of people together. Although it’s for the right cause it was unfortunate we can’t do it just because we’d rather take care of our community and our city and stay aligned with Toronto public health and Mayor Tory and everyone.

The Premier was saying, ‘Stay home, stay in your bubble, stay in your circles.’ So I wish people would follow the rules a little bit more so that we can get back to some sort of normalcy, that we can gather and have events. I think on a daily basis people are asking me, ‘Hey, what’s the season going to look like next year?’ It’s gonna look like nothing if we keep on this trend. And we’ll play and there’ll be no fans, and that’s not what we want.

So we were super excited to open up and try and do our part in terms of getting people to register to vote. But we’ve got a couple of tricks up our sleeve. We’re gonna try to help maybe across the border. But that was kind of our initial thought.

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Cancelling the event in the interest of public safety makes complete sense. It must’ve been a hard decision for you, though. How long did you wait until you ultimately decided to pull the plug on the event?

We’ve probably been working on this for about a month now and I’m pretty sure we were set to go out with a press release Tuesday morning and Tuesday evening around six o’clock we all got on the phone and that’s when we started to hear that volunteers were calling with concerns about gathering and a couple of them had already pulled out and said they’re not comfortable coming to the event anymore. And that’s where my fear was as the cases continue to stay steady or maybe even increase.

We can’t run an event if people don’t show up to help us run it, and I don’t want to put those people at risk. So it’s really around Tuesday night, Wednesday morning, when we said we’re not going to be able to go forward with this.

Lastly, you mentioned some “tricks up your sleeve” about helping with the U.S. election. Would you be able to share any of these tricks with me?

I don’t want to talk about too much until I’ve got it locked in but let’s just say we obviously have a lot of people on staff who are from the U.S. and attended schools in the U.S. and maybe if we can’t open up our venue then maybe we can partner to open up some venues across the border.

So I’m chipping away at it because the point is you’ve got to get people out there voting. It probably is the most powerful tool that we can have in terms of effecting change and we don’t want to be the one team left out in supporting what’s going on simply because we’re across the border.

I think we’ve shown that we can do lots of things with the resources and power we have, so we’ve got a second phase to our voting plan that I’m hoping we’ll be able to talk about pretty soon.

Just before I let you go, do you have any closing remarks you’d like to get out there and make people aware of?

I think despite the fact that we weren’t able to open up Scotiabank Arena to get people to come and register to vote, you’ve still got the opportunity to do it online. FVAP.gov is there. We want to get as many people to register.

So let’s get registered and let’s get ready to vote. Let’s vote early just so that there isn’t any last-minute counting or discrepancies or anything to that effect. I think it’s important and I think we want to show that we’re doing our part. And so, if we can’t get together, we can get online.