Raptors hope to leave local legacy in Tampa

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TAMPA — Raptors veteran guard Fred VanVleet has no regrets about the team’s decision to make Tampa its temporary home.

Sure, he did a double take when he saw his first alligator, but the weather was nice, the food was good, his family enjoyed it, the locals were friendly and the facilities were top-notch.

“It could have been awesome and we could have made the playoffs and we could have won a couple of rounds,” VanVleet said. “It still would not have been Toronto. It’s just not Toronto. It’s not where we were supposed to be.”

The Raptors’ time in Tampa, however, did not net success on the court. Toronto had its worst season in a decade, snapping a seven-year postseason run that included the NBA title in 2018-19.

Forced to play outside Toronto because of coronavirus-related Canadian travel restrictions, the team made the temporary move to Tampa, bringing regular-season NBA basketball to the bay area for the first time. But the players and staff were hit by the virus in the middle of the season, and the team spiraled on the court.

“We were playing pretty good basketball until the COVID hit and we kind of spun out of control from there and we never really recovered,” coach Nick Nurse said.

A 110-103 win over the 76ers at Amalie Arena on Feb. 21, their ninth win in a 12-game span, evened the Raptors’ record at .500 after a 2-8 start. Three games later, Nurse and five of his assistants missed a home game against the Rockets after being placed in COVID-19 protocol quarantine. Forward Pascal Siakam sat out the game with an inconclusive PCR test.

That was just the beginning. The coronavirus ravaged the Raptors locker room, costing the team key players such as VanVleet, Siakam and OG Anunoby for significant time, making it difficult to field a competitive roster on a daily basis. By the end of March, the Raptors were 12 games under .500, out of the playoff race and pretty much playing out the remainder of the season. They finished on a seven-game losing streak, dropping 12 of their last 13.

“I think we all kind of want it behind us,” VanVleet said. “It’s kind of like a blowout game, you get blown out by 13, the fourth quarter is taking all day. That’s what, you know, these last few weeks have felt like it.”

The Raptors hope they can return to Toronto, where they haven’t played since February 2020, when the next NBA season begins in five months, but that’s not a certainty. SI.com reported Nurse will remain in Tampa for the short term to conduct exit interviews and continue draft preparations.

But as the Raptors leave, their time here was affected by the reason that brought them here. Amalie Arena was initially open to a limited number of fans when the season began Dec. 23, then shut down due to spiking numbers in January before reopening in March, so they never felt much of any home-arena atmosphere. They found that a lot of fans were coming to watch their opponents.

“From what I could tell, it was nothing at all like being at an NBA game when the house is full or when there’s a really good crowd, and that feeds to the person next to you and the row next to you,” Nurse said.

“It feeds the energy, creates a momentum. You come into your arena and you see all these people and you just look around and all of a sudden everybody lifts up. So that was too bad I think that people didn’t get to experience that.”

The coronavirus protocols prevented Raptors players from interacting with Tampa fans as much as they’d like. They couldn’t do in-person community events in the Tampa Bay area. But they formed a partnership with The Skills Center, an organization in east Tampa focused on academic and leadership success for young people through sports. The Raptors donated tickets so the center’s kids could attend games, and did some virtual clinics with Raptors coaches.

And to leave a lasting impact to the area they called their temporary home, the Raptors donated $350,000 to The Skills Center that will fund building three courts and a multipurpose room at the organization’s $9 million new facility slated to open in early 2022. The organization offers kids the opportunity to play seven different sports, including a basketball program that includes a 200-player internal league and 19 travel teams, and even an e-Gaming program. The new center will feature academic cafes where students can receive tutoring homework assistance and ACT prep help among other things.

The Raptors saw a similarity in The Skills Center’s vision and that of the Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment LaunchPad, a place in downtown Toronto where youth facing barriers can use sports to reach their potential. The two centers plan to form a lasting partnership that will bond the two cities through their connection to the Raptors.

“What we’re trying to accomplish is using the power of sports to create change through education, through health and through workforce training,” said Celeste Roberts, The Skills Center’s executive director. “And that’s the exact same mission as the LaunchPad. The two organizations have so much in common. To us, sports is just the draw. It’s just the hook to get them in. But the most important part of it is attaining skills.”

The Raptors’ donation was player-initiated, the team said.

“It meant the world for us to contribute something,” VanVleet said. “We couldn’t do as much community outreach as we probably all would have liked to just to put our roots down here, but to be able to leave with that donation to that program is going to be great. Hopefully, it has a lasting impact on the kids, and that’s something that we’ve just felt like we needed to do as kind of a parting gift. And who knows, it’s good to lay your roots down where you can and never know what they might bear for you.”