As a Raptors season ticket holder for 11 years, I’ve had my share of memories, both good and bad.
I was in the building for the Raps first ever home-playoff game. My buddy Jeff, the only person I knew with an American Express card, was allowed to jump the line and get tickets — only to watch Larry f-ing Johnson bank in the dagger. (I may have said a few things.)
I painfully remember Game 7 against Philly (the first time) not just because Vince Carter missed, but because I had to sneak away from the family dinner table to watch the action in two-minute bursts because we had guests in from Europe (they were my friends, I should have been allowed to ignore them, damnit!) That night I vowed to never miss a playoff game like that again, and two years later I had my pair of season’s tickets.
Despite having given up my seats years before, I was there for Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals when the crowd chanted ‘Let’s Go Raptors’ so loud it caused The King to pause in his interview with Doris Burke (I’m not crying, you’re crying!). Through a series of flukes, I was somehow at Game 1 of the Finals and explaining the possible logic for why Patrick McCaw was in the game. He immediately hit a three, and, for one brief moment I was a God-level fan.
Then there were the little things. Darrick Martin’s literal, last-second shot that kept the Raptors’ then record three-point shooting streak alive against Dallas. The Ben Uzoh game. Carlos Rogers and “4 Rene”. Damon Stoudamire getting a national ad-campaign. The Raptor — always The Raptor — falling down stairs, flying through the air, in that delightful blow-up costume.
I’m an old man now, so my memories skew older as well, so maybe it’s not surprising that the one Raps memory that still burns most brightly comes from their inaugural season, March 24th, 1996: the night the Raptors upset the mighty Chicago Bulls.
Given The Last Dance just ended, I doubt the context is needed, but just in case, this was the first full year of Jordan’s return. The Bulls became a 72-win juggernaut and are now often considered the best team in NBA history.
The Raptors were a surprisingly scrappy expansion team, they finished with 21 wins — one off the NBA record for first year teams. They had shown the ability to rise to the occasion, racking up shocking wins over the other two 60-win teams in the league — Orlando and Seattle. And, perhaps in a bit of foreshadowing, the Raptors had managed to keep their three previous games with the Bulls reasonably close — losing by a combined 21 points across those three other contests. The Bulls average margin of victory that year? A shade over 12 a game.
There was drama coming into the game, although as a fan I didn’t know it by then. Raptors coach Brendan Malone had just been told by GM Isiah Thomas (after learning through a reporter) that he was going to be fired at the end of the season. The move came despite — or probably because of — the Raptors’ success. Malone often played eight or less players as he approached the season with a win-now style that Thomas felt was at odds with long-term results.
The SkyDome was rocking for this one, with an announced crowd of 36,131. It was an absolute zoo in the building. Like so many great Raptors moments over the years, I wasn’t supposed to be able to catch this one live. I was taping the game, but a cancelled practice later and I was in front of the TV to take it all in.
I remember the game starting with two absolutely hellacious dunks from Carlos Rogers that almost ripped the roof off the place. Fans were there to see Michael, but if the locals could make it a game, at least for a bit, why not?
Toronto led 28-23 after the first, a combo of hot-shooting, and, let’s be honest, probably disinterest from Chicago (the Bulls’ John Salley — who began the year in Toronto — said they’d been out to party the night before). Still, the Bulls quickly righted the ship in the second going on a 18-9 run to take a 41-37 lead before a three from Damon Stoudamire closed it to one. The Raps would keep fighting back and head into halftime up a bucket.
After that, the game took on the feel of a playoff contest. The Bulls, led by the pathologically competitive Jordan in his comeback revenge season, were not going to lose to an expansion team. But the Raptors played at their highest level of the season — and perhaps for years to come.
True to form, Malone leaned on seven guys all game: Tracy Murray, Stoudamire, Alvin Robertson, Oliver Miller, Rogers, Doug Christie, and the immortal Zan Tabak. All of them had absolutely everything in their bag of tricks working that night. All of them would finish in double figures except for Robertson who shot only 1-for-5, but showed why he’d once upon a time been the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
Murray was especially big in the game scoring 23 points and grabbing a career high 12 rebounds, while Oliver Miller piled up a 14-12-5 line — plus one long baseball-pass that perfectly encapsulated his ahead-of-its-time gift for play-making as a centre. In today’s era, especially with the focus on nutrition, I think The Big O could have had a Boris Diaw sort of career. He had incredibly soft and quick hands, decent shooting range, and at times truly shocking vision.
Stoudamire, of course, was the straw that stirred the drink for Toronto. He finished with a then career-high of his own, 30 points — hitting an unheard of six triples, half of which came in the final quarter. He constantly knifed into the teeth of the Bulls defense (especially with Kerr guarding him, but even against Jordan) and repeatedly found Miller, Tabak and Rogers with little shovel passes that they turned into point-blank baskets. (I was going to say dunks, but Tabak seemed afraid to cram, often relying on a series of byzantine spin-moves that led to high-degree of difficulty hook shots.)
That attention also freed up the other Raps to grab 20 offensive rebounds, four more than the Bulls had, allowing Toronto second chance opportunities to keep the Bulls from ever grabbing hold of the game.
In the end, it was Toronto’s 1-5 pick-and-roll — the same play used to kill the Warriors in the 2019 Finals — that nailed down the upset. The Bulls simply couldn’t stay in front of Stoudamire who didn’t force a bad shot all night en route to an 11-assist game.
In the end though, it was Oliver Miller who salted the game away. He threw a perfect in-bound pass to a cutting Murray to give the Raps a brief lead with 30 seconds left. Then on the Bulls second last possession he used his incredibly quick hands to poke the ball away from Jordan from behind — yes, that happened — keeping the game tied. He was then fouled getting a late rebound and he hit the go-ahead free throw (before badly shanking the second). And then Miller again poked the ball out of Jordan’s hands on the final possession.
Of course, even on a nothing night against an expansion team, Michael Jordan was going to play. He put up fifteen of his game-high 36 points in the fourth quarter, had an incredible block on Stoudamire in the last minute, and after Miller’s second great defensive play, he memorably banked in an impossible-angle turnaround fadeaway — one that just happened to leave his hand maybe one half-second after the buzzer sounded.
After Jordan’s shot was waved off, the Skydome went nuts. Rod Black’s voice broke as he told a nation watching across the country that he hadn’t heard a Skydome crowd like it since the World Series. Toronto had just become one of nine teams to beat the Bulls that year. (Indiana beat them twice, foreshadowing that incredible 1998 Eastern Conference Finals.)
As an added bonus for me, since I was expecting to miss the game, it was all saved on videotape. Yes, there was a VHS tape that I would play periodically, when the spirit hit me, to relive what was, for those first few years, the biggest game in Raptor’s history. Looking back, it’s easy to laugh at a team whose most significant victory came in February. And when things got lean before (and after) the Carter years, many did indeed laugh.
I never saw it that way. That inaugural Raptor’s team fought and clawed all season long — 18 of their losses came in overtime or by five points or less. They played hard when they were a veteran-laden team early in the season, and they played hard in February when they were one of the youngest.
They set the stage for a surprisingly professional franchise (especially given the initial Adam Slaight-John Bitove fallout), that made the playoffs in their fifth season, and is one of just two NBA expansion teams in the past thirty years to win a title.
It took 25 years, and even if at times it looked shaky, I’ve always felt the 1995-96 Raptors team put down the roots for that championship. That night against Chicago was when they began to take hold.