F *ck Brooklyn.
Nah, I’m just kidding. For the absolute record: I love Brooklyn. Great franchise, great city. But also: F*ck Brooklyn. That means something — ask any Raptors fan. Or rather, tell them. Just tell ’em those two words … and they’re going to know exactly what you’re talking about.
It was Saturday, April 19, 2014, and we were in the locker room at the Air Canada Centre getting ready for our playoff series against the Nets. I’m sure for some teams in the league, those teams that make the playoffs every year, Game 1 of the first round can be almost routine. But for us … man … it was a huge deal. As a franchise, the Raptors hadn’t made the playoffs in six years. And as players, well, many of us had never even made the playoffs at all. So we already knew — as we were sitting there, in the locker room, getting ready for Game 1 against the Nets — that nothing about this was routine. We already knew it was a big deal.
But we had no idea.
The way the Air Canada Centre is structured, the locker rooms are pretty deep out of the way — kind of down below, buried underneath everything. So once you’re in there, it’s like, you’re not really hearing or seeing much. And that’s how we were that afternoon: prepping for the game, listening to some music, getting ourselves into that focused headspace.
And then, all of a sudden, I hear something. It’s the volume on the TV in the locker room. Someone has the remote and they’re turning the sound all the way up. And a few of the guys are slowly starting to gather around the big screen, checking it out. It’s on whatever channel has our game later — it’s the pregame show. And they’re replaying this video clip … of some guy … standing outside the arena … in front of this crowd of people … and … Wait, what? I turn off my music. I get up and walk over to the TV. And as I get closer, I see that this guy they’re playing the clip of … it’s not just some guy. It’s Masai Ujiri. Our GM. And the clip they’re playing of him … well, I can hear it, loud and clear. The whole locker room can.
Masai said those words, and the whole crowd just … erupted. It was insane. I couldn’t get over how loud it was. How pumped up they all were. Yo, for real, I remember thinking. How many people must that be? And then, as if the camera was reading my mind, the shot zoomed out … and panned over to the crowd … and, man, I swear, I will never forget it. It was just this massive … endless … sea of red and white: waves on waves of Raptors fans, gathered there together, in Jurassic Park. It was more hype than I’d ever seen it. Honestly, it might have been more hype than I’d seen any crowd ever. Must have been thousands deep. And they were all there for us. Well — for us, but for more than just us.
They were there for our city.
Seriously: How many places do you know where the players gather around the TV … to watch the fans?! It was surreal. But on that afternoon, for us, it felt exactly right. And it was at that moment — our whole team, in the locker room, just standing there in awe, watching Jurassic Park show up for us — that it dawned on me what we were building here in Toronto. It was at that moment that I realized we weren’t just building a quality team … or a division winner … or a title contender.
We were building a movement.
When I first found out earlier this month that I was getting traded to Orlando, man, I won’t lie to you: It definitely hurt. Everything that I was a part of in Toronto, with this team, and these fans, and this journey that we were all on together … it meant so much to me. And the reason it meant so much to me, I think, was that my Toronto journey has really been the journey of my adult life so far.
When I came to Toronto, I was just a kid: 21 years old, with only two years of college under my belt, and (yeah, we can admit it, I’ve seen my rookie tapes) not much polish. But now, as I say goodbye at 26, and look back on my time with the Raptors … I feel like I’ve truly grown up. As a player, I’m still not quite where I want to be — a high-impact contributor on an NBA champion — but I’m working hard to be on my way. And as a person … well … I just hope I’ve grown into a man that you all can be proud of.
It’s been a crazy couple of weeks. I’ve done a lot of reflecting. And in the days since the trade, the disappointment that I first felt has gradually turned into an acceptance, and an understanding, and an excitement. And I mean excitement in multiple ways: I feel excited, still, about where y’all’s journey in Toronto is headed. But I also feel excited for myself, in a way that’s brand new — about where my own journey in Orlando is going to take me.
Before I get too far along on that journey, though, I wanted to take a second to write down some thoughts. Most of those thoughts can be summed up in a few, short words:
Thank you, Toronto.
But here are the rest of them.
Shouts to CANADA.
I’m sure I’m not the first player to say this, but: When I got drafted, I really didn’t know much about Canada at all. I knew it was cold, and I knew … did I mention I knew it was cold?
But when I think about the biggest differences between my initial idea of what playing for the Raptors would be like, and then my actual experience over these last five years … representing a whole damn country is easily the thing that I underrated the most. The fact that the Raptors are Canada’s Team is one of those things that guys in the league don’t fully grasp, I think, until they’re actually part of it. But I always thought of it this way: There are single states with two, three, four NBA teams. Meanwhile, all of Canada — as an entire country — only has one.
And you feel it, for sure — and I mean that in the best possible way. Being a country’s only team … there’s a responsibility that comes with that. It’s almost like every season, for Raptors fans, is its own mini Olympics. There’s something to prove. Which … maybe that sounds a little dramatic, if you’re not from there. But I’m telling you: It isn’t. People really do underestimate just how much Canadians are about this hoops life. And I loved that — all of it: both being underestimated, and being around people whose passion for the game of basketball was as strong as my own.
And the truth is: Five years later, I’ve started to feel a little like an honorary Canadian myself. The culture, the lifestyle, the people of Toronto … I’ve really grown to love all of it. It’s such a melting pot, and — maybe because of that — people there tend to have this beautiful … I don’t know … sense of self. People in Toronto know who they are, and they know where they’re from. It’s hard to explain, but I’ve really come to admire that.
Anyway, for now, I guess I’ll just drop an “eh?” or two in Orlando, and see what kind of reaction I get. But long-term … I gotta say: I could definitely see myself coming back to Toronto, at some point, to live there. To me, Canada — it’s become like a home away from home.
Thank you to the Raptors organization for giving me this chance.
I remember on draft night, sitting in the green room during the lottery. I hadn’t really been projected to go very high … but I still wanted to be there. It was such a cool and unique experience, and I was just trying to soak it all in. Actually, you know what — now that I’m leaving, I guess can be honest: When the cameras started coming over to our table, and we found out that I was going to Toronto at No. 8 … I think I was in the middle of, like, charging my phone. Yeah: Soaking it in is cool and all, but I was pretty much just minding my business.
Once I got that call, though … from then on, it was unbelievable. Even in 2012 — as a 21-year-old kid — I knew how valuable top 10 picks were. And I felt truly blessed that the Raptors were taking a chance on me with theirs. I also knew that some of the TV experts didn’t love the pick … but I didn’t care: I vowed to myself on that night that no one was going to work harder than me to justify his draft spot. A franchise had put their faith in me … and now I was going to give my all to them. From now on the Raptors and I were in this together.
And I’ve felt like that ever since.
Man, with the Raptors — it goes deep. This is a first-class organization, top to bottom. And when I think about all of the people from Toronto who I want to acknowledge … well, I think it says a lot about this franchise that the names start piling up real quick. There are my teammates, of course, who I’ll get to. And there’s Coach Casey, of course, who has been with me every step of the way. But there are also all of these people you may never have heard of.
Like, when we’re out on the road … our equipment manager; our travel manager; our video coordinator … I’ll hang out with all those guys. Whether it’s getting a good dinner in whatever city we’re in that night; or chopping it up about comics with the trainers in the training room; or cracking jokes with our security manager, and hearing stories about his old cop days; or playing some game — Ping-Pong, or a darts tournament (it gets serious), or a Foosball death match, or whatever — back at the hotel. This is a franchise where it really isn’t “the players” and then “everyone else.” We were all Raptors, man.
It was all family. And we had a lot of fun.
And yeah, before I move on, I’ve gotta shout out a game I’ll miss the most. Actually, let’s not even call it a game. Let’s call it The Game. It was this thing between me and Jonny Lee, the Raptors weight coach, and we played it during every shootaround. The Game is basically three separate shooting games — one, then another, then another. And you keep track of who wins each of the three games. And here are the stakes: If you win two out of the three games, then you get the championship belt. And if you win all three games, then you get — wow, I shouldn’t even be writing this down, this is valuable I.P., don’t copy us — The Crown.
What’s The Crown? Well, it’s less an actual crown, than it is a state of mind.
Here’s what The Crown means: If I have The Crown, then I can go up to Jonny, anytime I want — it doesn’t matter when. He could be trying to sleep on the plane, or having an important conversation with his boss, or, listen: It could be the fourth quarter of a tight one, it just doesn’t matter. The Crown supersedes all. And all I’d have to do is say, “The King is here.” And then he’d have to blow trumpets.
Yeah, you heard right: blow trumpets. Those are the rules.
And that’s The Game.
And I just wanted to give Jonny and The Game a special shout-out: First of all, because it’s been so much fun, and I’ve loved beating him at it. But mostly, because it’s such a good example of the bonds that I had on the Raptors. We took our mission as a franchise seriously. But we also knew that, the best way for us to have success in that mission, was to build these relationships across the board. To become a family.
All those guys, man, they’re my guys. I’m going to miss ’em.
I also can’t leave without giving love to my teammates — specifically Kyle and DeMar.
Y’all are both great players, and better dudes. And I can’t tell you how much respect I have for the way that you’ve been able to put this franchise on your backs, and for what you’ve been able to accomplish together as leaders, over these last few years.
We had so much success, as a team, in the time since that first 2013 run … that I think sometimes people tended to forget how it all started. But I never did: We were coming off a 34-win season, last in our division, and a lot of analysts were saying that we needed to rebuild. Trade Kyle for draft picks. Trade DeMar for draft picks. That was their advice for us. They wanted us to rebuild, and then tank — yup, we heard ’em, they said they wanted us to tank. And then they wanted us to begin again from scratch. That’s how bad it was.
But those people calling for trades, and calling for tanking … they didn’t know what we knew: They didn’t know that, so often in this league, there are guys who get written off, over and over — who just need a chance. The right system, or the right coach, or the right healthy season, or the right players around them … sometimes, in this league, that’s all it takes. Sometimes the difference between last place and first place can really be as simple as catching the right break.
And there’s another thing those experts didn’t know: Kyle and DeMar are superstars. Straight up. Those guys, even back in 2013, were ready to take their place among the best one-two punches in the entire league. All they needed was a chance. And instead, everyone was calling for a trade. No one knew. But we knew.
And now everyone else knows as well.
I’m so proud of those guys, and I’ll continue to be proud of them as I move on to play for Orlando. To me, our relationship — it’s bigger than basketball now. Those guys are my older brothers.
And while reflection is one of the reasons I’ve had Kyle and DeMar’s growth as players on my mind these last couple of weeks … another reason is inspiration.
When I think about how far we came as a team in Toronto … when I think about how so many of the experts left us for dead, and kept talking this-and-that about how far away from playoff contention we were, and how we would finish last again … and when I think about how our front office ignored all of that, and gave us an honest chance to turn things around on our own … well, I can’t help but notice the similarities between our situation in Toronto, a few years ago, and our situation in Orlando now.
Man, believe me or don’t, but I love the situation we’re in. I love this roster we have: guys like Evan Fournier, and Nikola Vučević, and Elfrid Payton, and right on down the line — just young and hungry and talented players. I love the vibe around this team, of guys with big chips on their shoulders. And I love knowing that, as a collective unit, the Magic have something to prove. I hear a lot of “rebuilding” talk around Orlando … and I’m sure the other guys hear it too. But what I hope I can convey to our locker room this season, and into next — well, it’s the same thing that my big brother Kyle conveyed to our locker room in Toronto, at the beginning of that season four years ago: All you can ever ask for in this league is a chance. And here in Orlando … we’ve got a great one.
We’ve got the chance to prove everyone wrong.
If Masai’s “shout-out” to Brooklyn back in 2014 was the — sorry, I’m a comics guy — origin story of this new era of Toronto basketball, then maybe losing to Cleveland last year was the second-act conflict. You know: the turning point, right in the middle, when the heroes take a tough loss. The moment before they find a way to regroup, and come back stronger, and defeat their opponents.
And I really do believe that will be the case for the Raptors. Honestly, I’ve believed it ever since Game 6 ended.
Losing that game was tough for us. Not only to lose a series that we’d believed we could win … but also to lose it on our home floor. We took so much pride in that home floor, and in the relationship that we had built there with our fans. It was like we had a deal: We protected home court … and it protected us. And anytime we lost a home game, we felt like we hadn’t held up our end. We felt like we had let them down.
And we felt like we had let them down that night.
But then, as Game 6 progressed … the most amazing thing happened.
Our fans kept going.
“LET’S GO, RAPTORS. LET’S GO, RAPTORS. LET’S GO, RAPTORS.”
They kept chanting that, louder and louder, at the top of their lungs. And they just … kept … going. When we were losing early, our fans kept going. When we started letting the game get out of reach before halftime, our fans kept going. When we were down real big, late in the fourth quarter, and the Cavs were just milking the clock on their way to a win … our fans kept going. And even when the buzzer sounded, and we’d officially lost the game — and the season was over. Even then: our fans kept going.
“LET’S GO, RAPTORS. LET’S GO, RAPTORS. LET’S GO, RAPTORS.”
Even though we let them down … our fans still showed up. And even though we didn’t protect home court … it still protected us.
After the game, I remember LeBron getting interviewed courtside. It was a great night for him, and a great moment for the Cavs — they’d won the Eastern Conference and were back in the Finals. But before he could even answer his first interview question….
“LET’S GO, RAPTORS. LET’S GO, RAPTORS. LET’S GO, RAPTORS.”
It was unreal. Even during postgame, our fans were still at it. They were at it so hard that the best basketball player in the world had to stop himself, mid-sentence, just to acknowledge their presence.
“Can you hear this?” I remember him asking Doris. “Can you hear this? Unbelievable … I’ve never been a part of something like this in my 13-year career.”
I hated to lose that game so much — man, more than anything. But I have to admit: That moment with LeBron made me smile. Just a little bit. Just, like, how there’s this all-time great player … who’s done it all … who’s played in six NBA Finals, and three Olympics, and too many conference finals to count … who’s been everywhere, and seen everything … but then it’s Toronto — Toronto — that stops him dead in his tracks.
I took pride in that. And I hope our fans did, too.
Walking off the court that night … I never in a million years thought it would be my last playoff game with those guys.
And I’m disappointed, of course, to know that it was. But I wanted to write this letter to you all, to let you know how much my time as a member of your franchise meant to me. The country, the city, the front office, the team, the fans … everyone was always so good to me, and made me feel like I belonged. Like I was a part of this movement that we were all building together. And though I’m a member of another franchise now, just know: In my heart, in my own way, I will always be a part of that movement.
As for Orlando — like I said: I’m excited. I really do feel like I’m at the start of something special here. But I know it won’t be easy. We’ve got a long way to go … and some great teams to get past to make it to the top.
Later in March, right at the end of the month, we’re actually scheduled to play a road game against a contender up North. I hope we’re on a winning streak by then, with some positive momentum. I hope we’re making a few waves — maybe knocking on the door of the eighth seed, or somewhere close to it. I hope we’re doing alright.
But wherever we are that night in the standings … I know what I’m going to say to the guys in the locker room.
“Hey,” I’ll tell them, “we need to focus. Because our goal right now is to win the East.”
“And the East,” I’ll tell them — I’ll promise them: “It goes through this team. Through this city.”
“It goes through Toronto.”