It took about 45 minutes to take the Raptors to a Canadian basketball court for the first time in nearly a year and a half. A line retreated into the street, on one side, around the corner and the other outside Budweiser Gardens in London, Ont., on a beautiful autumn afternoon.
Throwback jerseys with Fred VanVallet jerseys and Pascal Siakam jerseys and some vintage white and purple pinstripes were thrown in for good measure. There was a wide assortment of team-oriented T-shirts and hats, and some camouflage jerseys that had otherwise been mercifully tossed into the dustbin of history.
They attract crowds, raptors do.
“One of the best parts of the training camp is getting in front of the fans which we probably don’t get to see that much. It’s a whole different level of excitement,” VanVleet said. “Just being back home, being in front of our real fans in Canada and not just what we experienced last year, is a huge blessing.”
As fun as it was to watch people cheer and run and play, there was a serious tone as well.
The message was deadly serious and extremely important, part of an MLSE-wide initiative Against All Hate that will also include Maple Leafs alumni games in the same building on Sunday.
“I think it’s just trying to share the values that we hold to ourselves,” VanValet said. “We can only do so much and be in so many places at once. But I thought it was just a nice gesture, to make our way down, a short drive down, to show where we stand on things.” And just to make it clear that we are against all forms of hate and we certainly stand with all people. But the Muslim community that was affected here in London – it was important for us to show that we stand up for them. And we stand against hate.
“Just to make it clear… this is us, this is us. Just to come and give some energy for the fans and a fun afternoon that maybe two hours away we don’t get to see much.”
That responsibility towards social justice pervades the organization and is never far from the mind. The weekend program – organized in the wake of a June terrorist attack that killed four members of a local Muslim family – is aimed at larger goals.
“I always have an organizational-wide meeting before I start training camp,” said coach Nick Nurse. “It’s always about the things we plan to do and the vision and on the basketball court, but we’ve gotten to the top there that we want to be the world leader for social justice.
“We think we’ve done some good work. We think we’re uniquely positioned. We have players from all over the world, and coaches and staff from all over the world.
“Somebody made Raptors basketballs and flags of everyone from all countries, and it’s great to see and watch. So I think it’s part of our fabric and who we are, and we think we should put that at the fore, we have a good reason to be here.
It was also a celebration of NBA basketball in the country after a pandemic-induced absence that began in February 2020.
More than 2,600 fans, who were allowed to enter the building under health guidelines, not only got to see a redesigned Raptors team for the first time. It reminded the players of how it feels to be in front of an appreciative Canadian audience.
The basketball portion of the day was not entirely secondary, as the Raptors need to prepare to open their exhibition season on Monday against the Philadelphia 76ers at the Scotiabank Arena.
Four players – Siakam (shoulder surgery rehab), Gary Trent Jr (quad pain), Chris Boucher (middle finger on his left hand) and Khem Burch (Health and Safety Protocol) – did not participate in the 90-minute session. . .
The play was, at times, predictably melee and unconvincing, but the speed and energy that the Raptors wanted to be their trademark was it. Freddie Gillespie, fighting for one of the previous roster spots, was the best player at scrimmage, and first-round draft pick Scotty Barnes received heavy loads as both a shooting forward and a ball handler.
This is a lot of work in progress, which can be expected after less than a week of practice.
“There’s a lot of running around and screaming and chaos,” said VanVleet, 27. “This year it’s a little different, but we have a lot of people with energy and length, a lot of people trying to figure it out all at once. It’s been interesting to say the least.
“I like where we are, where we’re going and the direction we’re headed. I can’t believe I’m one of the big guys; it’s weird for me.
“We will see how we look next week against someone else. We will keep trying to get better every day, but obviously the real goal is the start of the season.”