It’s been 24 years since the Toronto Raptors first introduced themselves as an NBA franchise. John Bitove Jr. remembers those days vividly. He, along with a group of business partners, were part of the original ownership group which brought professional basketball to Toronto. Bitove still attends Raptors games and still runs into fans who recognize him on the street and thank him for making all of this possible.
A lot has changed about the city’s relationship with the game of basketball, and certainly plenty has changed about the expectations of this Raptors team, compared to the early days when a victory over the 72-win Chicago Bulls at SkyDome was the highlight of an entire season.
The Raptors are one win away from their first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history. Ahead of Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks, here’s my conversation with Bitove about the past, present and future of the Raptors.
What has watching this postseason run meant to you?
I’m trying to think of the right one word to describe it. I would say sensational. The way the team is playing, the way the city and the entire country is embracing the team and the sport of basketball, it’s what we dreamed about. And for the record, I think what Drake is doing is great.
It’s interesting you mention that, I know everyone’s weighed in with their opinions about Drake in the last couple of days.
We always complain about how we’re too nice, too polite and how all we do is say sorry. Last night, he goes to Jurassic Park, hangs out with the crowd, tells everyone how important this is, and how the Raptors are our college team, and how we’re all so loyal and shouting at the top of our lungs. We need that stuff. It’s great. That’s the new Canada. That’s the new Toronto.
Aside from the Kawhi Leonard Game 7 buzzer-beater, what are the moments that have stood out to you during this run?
First of all, I have to compliment Masai Ujiri for sticking his neck out and making some unbelievably risky trades. I remember Paul Beeston telling me in the early 1990’s when he and Pat Gillick were with the Toronto Blue Jays. They met with Labatts, who were the owners at the time, and they told them, we’re on the cusp, we need a couple guys, just give us the leeway to do it. And they won back-to-back World Series.
I also think Nick Nurse has made some unbelievable adjustments and proved that he’s a real NBA head coach. The average person might not see some of the stuff he’s doing, but it’s smart coaching and it’s what you need to win these kinds of close games in the playoffs. You just go game-by-game and everyone is stepping up. Serge Ibaka. Fred VanVleet. Kyle Lowry. Marc Gasol is just shutting down the big guys. We’ve never seen this kind of in-the-paint presence, especially the defensive pressure he’s brought and forcing guys to adjust their shots. Pascal Siakam is showing flashes of brilliance.
And what can you say about Kawhi? He’s the closest thing to Michael Jordan I’ve ever seen in my life.
You’ve talked about the vision you had for the Raptors when they first joined the NBA, how you wanted it to be different from the Toronto Maple Leafs and you wanted it to be an international brand that people would recognize around the world. Seeing what the Raptors have grown into, what’s that like for you personally?
You beam with pride. It’s like any parent being proud of their child. What I’m really excited about is the whole city, every day, the water cooler talk is about the Raptors. For any real sports fan, this is the kind of team and home crowd you want to identify with. It’s all part of the culture that we started.
It’s funny, Damon Stoudamire shouted me out on social media this week. They’re all part of it. We’re becoming family. We’re becoming a program. We’re becoming something everyone is happy to be identified with. That’s what you want when you’re running a basketball team.
What was it like back in 1995 to convince the city to care about basketball?
I remember our PR guys would come in all the time and say, you have to go to this school, you have to go to this CEO function. They were continually putting Isiah [Thomas] and I out there to sell the sport, to sell the Raptors, and Isiah never said no. He always agreed to it, because that’s part of our job. Our job was to grow the sport. I didn’t expect the city to just accept us because we started a team. Everyone knew their part in those early days was to grow the sport and create a loyalty to the team.
And the fans in those days would sometimes cheer and make noise even when the home team was shooting free throws.
They were! People don’t remember in the early days, Herbie Kuhn [PA announcer] would have to go shhhhhh-shooting two because we had to tell everyone to be quiet. We’re still not 100 percent. We still have some people who think they’re supposed to shout, but 98 percent of the crowd knows, when we’re shooting, you shut up.
And back then, everyone kept saying no player wanted to come play in Toronto.
That’s all crap. It was either the U.S. media or some story for their self interest. I know this even today, for MLB and NBA players, this is their favorite visiting city to go to. That’s why Charles Barkley loves it. That’s why the players love it. Do they get upset when the QMJHL highlights comes on TSN before the NBA game? I mean, people don’t even watch television to the same extent as they did before. People tried whatever they could to nitpick and attack us, and I think Masai has done a brilliant job especially bringing Drake on board as an endorser to make us even more relevant to the younger culture.
What about the branding of the Raptors now, with the “We the North” campaign?
They’ve taken it to a new level. They’ve done a sensational job. It’s always been about how can we do better and how can we differentiate.
I wish they would have more purple though.
I wish they would have more purple too. We all miss the purple.
That’s the Raptors. The purple is part of their identity.
I know. Even the fans miss the purple. Everyone misses the purple.
What do you think it would mean to the city if Kawhi stays?
I’ve always believed if the team does well and he gets along with Nick, he would stay. I think with what’s gone on, I really do believe he’s staying. If he leaves, that’s his own choice. I think he’s realizing now that this is a special place to work and to play basketball. Even though he’s quiet, I think he’s an emotional person, he loves how we’ve embraced him and his family.
Where have you been watching the games?
Well, so far, I’m 8-0 live. I’ve been to two road games and six home games.
And now they’re one win away from the NBA Finals. How do you feel?
I’m nervous like every other fan. They can do it.
Will there be tears of joy if the Raptors win Game 6?
There won’t be. I’ll tell you what Kawhi has brought to this team, is that the only time you can celebrate is to win a championship. I was at the game against the Orlando Magic when they clinched the first round, and people asked me why aren’t they celebrating, and Kawhi was like this is just the start. I hope they have that attitude tomorrow.
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