In celebration of the Toronto Raptors' 20th season, we'll be taking a look at some key moments in the team's history. What was the context of the moment? What was its significance? And what song were you listening to as it happened? Welcome to the XX-Files.
March 24, 1996: The Toronto Raptors play the Chicago Bulls in the SkyDome. Toronto wins 109-108.
Coming into the game in Toronto, the Chicago Bulls were sitting on a 60-7 record. They were in the midst of one of the most ruthless seasons in basketball history. They would go on to an all-time best record of 72-10 and the NBA title. They had Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever, and Phil Jackson, the sport's most successful coach.
The Raptors, at 17-49 in their inaugural season, were just trying to prove they belonged.
For the game, Jordan went off for one of his customary 30+ point games (he had 36 on 14-for-22 shooting, plus nine rebounds). Toni Kukoc potted a cool 23 points (to go with his nine rebounds). And while Scottie Pippen had a fairly quiet game (as the box score suggests; I'm not going from memory here, I was 12), Steve Kerr lit it up for 17 points (on 7-for-10 shooting). The Bulls were very good at the time, is my point.
The Raptors won the game despite playing only seven (seven?!) players. The starting lineup that night: eventual Rookie of the Year Damon Stoudamire, consummate journeymen Tracy Murray and Carlos Rogers, veteran Alvin Robertson, playing after missing two years due to injury, and holy shit Oliver Miller. Coming off the bench was the dynamite one-two punch of Doug Christie and the immortal Zan Tabak. This team beat the best iteration of the Chicago Bulls dynasty. Basketball is magic.
Enjoy the final seconds (at the 7:10 mark), and please note the awesome purple floor:
From November 26, 1995 to March 16, 1996, you were listening to Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men croon about "One Sweet Day." That was the prelude to the Raptors' actualization of its title. But then, during the week of their win over the Bulls, a new song topped the charts:
And Toronto was vindicated. Sometimes real life really does work out perfectly.
Never mind that future classic Fargo had been released a couple weeks earlier. The world was still enthralled by Robin Williams (RIP) in The Birdcage. The 90s, man.
Special note: Space Jam would come out later that year on November 15.
In the big picture of NBA history the Raptors beating the Bulls in the 1995-96 season is a footnote at best. It's the answer to a trivia question. The Bulls ended up losing only five more games that year (two in the regular season, and three in the playoffs) on their way to their fourth championship and first since Jordan's un-retirement. I'm fairly confident the loss did not exactly keep anyone on the Bulls up at night. (Though with Jordan, you never know.)
But oh goodness, the small picture. It bears repeating that this was the Raptors' first season in the NBA. They were an expansion team, named after a movie, playing in pin-striped jerseys that featured a cartoon dinosaur, housed in a cavernous baseball stadium, based in Canada. To overcome one or two of these things, well, that would have been something. To survive all five at once? That's a monumental achievement.
The Raptors would go on to win only three more games and finish with a 21-61 record. It was not successful season. But for that one night, the Raptors were a legitimate basketball team.
"We finally beat them," Stoudamire said. "We came close three times and we finally did it. This is the best because we stayed close for 48 minutes and beat the best team in basketball."
Free of visions of the half-decade to come, the disastrous 16-66 season, the implosion of the team's management, for that one night the Raptors were on top of the world.