Nomads no more: Raptors finally back in Toronto

Toronto Raptors coach Nick Nurse ventured into his office at Scotiabank Arena on Monday morning for the first time since Feb. 28 of 2020, and found it was almost exactly how he’d left it.

A layer of dust had settled on the blue suit hanging in his locker.

The Raptors are finally home, kicking off NBA training camp with the traditional media day live and in the flesh — and blessedly absent of Zoom calls — at Scotiabank Arena on Monday. They’re nomads no longer.

“It feels really good . . . way more comfortable,” Nurse said. “I think it feels great for the staff, as well, just having the office that you’re used to working in. I can’t really tell ya, it just feels really, really good, way more comfortable.”

The Raptors had been based south of the border over the past 19 months due to COVID-19 restrictions, making Tampa, Fla., their home last season. While in previous years they’ve held camp in other Canadian cities such as Vancouver, Victoria and Halifax, GM Bobby Webster said they were keen to stay home this season.

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“We thought it was really important to re-establish our base here and get everyone familiar with the city,” Webster said. “A lot of our players, a lot of our staff, haven’t been here so we thought that was really important for us to do that.”

Only four players — Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and Chris Boucher — were on the roster the last time the Raptors played at Scotiabank, a couple of weeks before the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered the global sports world.

Some 19 months later, COVID-19 issues continue to plague the NBA, with several players making headlines for their anti-vaccination beliefs, including Brooklyn’s Kyrie Irving and Canadian and Golden State forward Andrew Wiggins.

Toronto’s players and staff, said Webster, are just “one second dose away” from being fully vaccinated and will be at 100 per cent by opening night on Oct. 20.

Visiting players who are unvaccinated can still play in Toronto this season under a National Interest Exemption, meaning they will be restricted to Scotiabank Arena and the team hotel, and will have to pass COVID-19 test when they arrive in Canada.

“I think the NBA has been incredibly progressive and at the forefront of a lot of this. And so, whether it was the bubble (at Orlando to finish the 2020 season) and the daily testing, I know there is a group of people that is choosing not to be vaccinated, but I think the percentage of NBA players and staff is really high, in comparison to other groups,” Webster said.

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“I view it more as we’re continuing to push the envelope, we’re continuing to educate everybody. You can probably imagine the conversations we had internally with people who may have been hesitant at first, and a lot of it was education and supporting them.”

VanVleet is thankful the Raptors don’t have to deal with distractions around vaccines.

“I’m not touching any vaccinated/unvaccinated questions,” he said. “I see that’s become a media whirlwind in the last couple of days so I’m going to respectfully stay out of that.

“We’re in a time where all of that stuff is new, it’s happening every day, there’s good information, bad information, good media, bad media, it’s such a divisive topic right now, I’m happy that our team can just be locked in and not have to have that split of having to figure out what we’re doing to do with this guy when we travel to this city. Whoever is unvaccinated, it’s their own personal journey and they have to deal with whatever comes their way.”

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VanVleet, who assumes starting point guard duties after Kyle Lowry’s departure for Miami in the off-season, said he’s happy to be home.

“I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed living here,” he said. “I knew I missed the city, but you don’t really know why because it’s just a beautiful place to be.

“I have an extreme connection with the city for many reasons, from my story to winning the championship to just being in the NBA . . . But there’s also this anticipation of what each game is going to be like to get these fans back in the arena and being back where we belong.”

On a jovial media day full of smiles and re-introductory fist bumps — even the Raptor mascot stopped to chat with reporters — Siakam echoed his team’s good-to-be-back sentiments. He said he’d even ridden the TTC streetcar for the first time because he wanted an authentic Toronto experience.

“Coming to the arena, feeling the cold air and everything, it feels normal, I’m super excited to be back. . . I can’t wait to get back on the court and play in front of our fans,” he said.

Siakam underwent shoulder surgery in the off-season and hasn’t been cleared to practise fully, but has been doing individual work at the team’s OVO Athletic Centre practice facility. Nurse said he looks “really good.”

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Nurse, meanwhile, has 11 newcomers in camp, so it’s not a huge surprise that pre-season predictions around the league don’t have the rebuilding Raptors making much noise this year.

“I got up this morning and saw the new power rankings were out (and we’re) 19th in the league and maybe 11th in the East,” Nurse said. “But I don’t know, I don’t really approach the season with thoughts other than trying to win and win big. There’s got to be a way and we’ve got to figure it out. And if we’ve got to work a little harder then we’re going to work a little harder and if we’ve got to play a little smarter then we’ve got to coach a little better to get them to play a little smarter.”

One newcomer who’s already made a big impression on his new team is Scottie Barnes.

Nurse said Barnes’ role is going to be “huge” this season, and plans to give the No. 4 draft pick as many minutes of playing time early on as he can handle.

Barnes’ gregarious demeanour had players laughing on Monday.

“I was walking out (of team physicals) and he was in the hallway, and he was trying to give me one of those like high (chest) bumps like we do in the game, and I’m like walking in the facility, it’s like I hit some game-winner or something,” Siakam chuckled. “He’s just an exciting kid, he’s exciting to be around and just has a great presence and it’s really fun to see.”

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Newcomer Goran Dragic added on Barnes: “He’s hilarious. He’s so funny. Good kid. Works hard, you know you’re going to see him to be first in the gym, last to go out. He got that personality that it’s unique, and I really like him.”

Raptors fans will get their first glimpse of the new-look roster when Toronto hosts Philadelphia 76ers in the pre-season opener on Monday. Provincial and city protocols allow for 10,000 fans.

That moment when the ball finally goes up again in Toronto?

“It’s gonna be a movie,” VanVleet said. “There’s gonna be so much energy. That’s that raw feel that you can’t really describe or anticipate. . . this is what it’s supposed to be more than anything during this pandemic and the last 12, 18 months. And I know that we felt it down in Tampa and I know the fans felt it not seeing us here at home, which is one of the best home courts in the NBA.”

Webster said the team can’t wait for that first run out onto the court.

“The amount of support even being back in the city this past month I’ve, you just notice the amount of Raptors fans on the street and Raptors memorabilia and apparel. I think it will be a pretty good atmosphere,” he said.

The Raptors also host Houston on Oct. 11. They open the regular season on Oct. 20 when they host Washington.

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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Sept. 27, 2021.

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