Before Mighty Mouse and Popeye Jones. Before Carter’s clank and Childs’ clock miscue. Before T-Mac and CB4. Before “It’s over ladies and gentlemen.” Before Hoffa and Bargs. Before “I got us” and We The North. Before Kobe’s 81 and DeMar’s 52. Before “F**k Brooklyn” and “F**k it, let’s get two.” Before Pierce’s block and LeBronto. Before KLOE and the Klaw. Before four bounces and 0.5 seconds. Before the clock ticked down to zero on June 13, 2019.
Before all of this, there was the game that started it all.
That said, the specific details of the game itself are fuzzy. I mean, it was 25 years ago. It’s hard enough these days to remember what happened 25 minutes ago. But there are few things I do recall.
A pack of muscle-bound men carrying in a large egg, wearing Fred Flintstone-themed loin cloths. The Raptor mascot bursting out of the egg with the energy and spirit of three cheerleaders. Herbie Kuhn announcing his presence, and the players, with his distinct pipes. Alvin Robertson sinking the franchise’s first ever basket. Damon Stoudamire, before we took to calling him Mighty Mouse, dishing his way to a double-double. And the Raptors actually winning a Game 1 at home — their very first.
Ever since that day, I’ve rarely missed a game. Though there were times I probably wish I did. I’ve seen it all — the good, the bad and the avert-your-eyes ugly, all the ups and downs and things that went sideways. It was rough at times, but it all made the Raptors’ eventual championship run that much sweeter.
I was fortunate enough to experience back-to-back Blue Jays World Series titles in 1992 and 1993. And while the Blue Jays hold an equal spot in my heart, I wasn’t there at the beginning. For the Raptors, however, I was. Even before the team had a name or a single player on the roster, I was already a fan.
In thinking about it, what could be more satisfying in sports than to follow a team from its very inception all the way to the pinnacle of success? The Raptors went from rock bottom to the mountain top. And those long-time fans, like myself, were then able to share that success with a huge and robust Raptors community, one that grew day by day, year by year.
Still, what was it like being a Raptors fan back in 1995, living in a Toronto suburb? Back when the Raptors were a brand new franchise playing professional basketball in a hockey town in the confines of a baseball stadium. To say things were different back then is an understatement. But before I talk about the Raptors at their start, we first need to travel back in time even further to the early 90s.
A Salute to the Admiral
It wasn’t Michael Jordan or Larry Bird or Magic Johnson or even Damon Stoudamire who drew me to basketball.
It all started with David Robinson — a hulking, athletic marvel who played centre for the San Antonio Spurs. This was before the Spurs were the Spurs. Before the five championships. Before Duncan, Parker, Ginóbili, and even Pop. They were good, but not great. But they had what many teams didn’t — a Hall of Fame-bound superstar.
I couldn’t tell you when or how I first saw Robinson play, especially since I lived millions of miles away in a Toronto suburb. But I did and it was enough to get me hooked on basketball forever. And so I became a Spurs fan.
The Coverage in Canada
Being an NBA fan in Canada in the early 90s was downright difficult. Games and daily content were just not readily available. You had to really seek it out.
At the time, the Canadian sports media landscape was barely the size of a rose bush. But what did exist, consisted of hockey, hockey, hockey, and more hockey. On TV. On the radio. In newspapers. Everywhere.
I was the rare Canadian who didn’t grow up playing or watching hockey. I was a diehard basketball fan living in the biggest hockey market in the world. Where basketball was so far from the mainstream that the stream looked like a tiny puddle.
The only NBA games we were privy to aired on NBC on the weekends. Given that there was no League Pass, the only way I could see the Spurs play was if, by chance, NBC decided to air their games. I was at their mercy.
The hockey-centricness of the Canadian media was still going strong in 1995 when the Raptors tipped off for the very first time on that historic November day. Good luck if you wanted to see any Raptors or NBA highlights or coverage. There was just no competing with hockey.
Unlike today’s multi-channel universe, only a single dedicated sports network existed in Canada — TSN. And it was essentially a 24-hour hockey channel. The evening programming consisted of the following: a hockey show followed by a news show with hockey highlights and a hockey panel discussing hockey, followed by a hockey game or another hockey show.
Headline Sports (which became theScore) and Sportsnet wouldn’t launch until 1997 and 1998, respectively. But even then, Sportsnet at the time might as well have been called Hockeynet. Only theScore gave any attention to the NBA.
To add to this overall media problem, you couldn’t just load up YouTube channels, like ESPN or House of Highlights, on your phone or computer — because, of course, there was no YouTube. (And no smartphones.) There was also no social media or apps to watch plays or catch game recaps. In fact, as some of you may recall, the Internet was barely a thing in 1995.
Reading about the Raptors and the NBA at large proved to be just as difficult. And by “difficult” I mean “downright impossible.” There were no dedicated writers working the basketball beat except for the Toronto Star’s Doug Smith. Sites like Raptors HQ and Raptors Republic didn’t exist. Nor did websites for TSN, Sportsnet, or theScore. And there was definitely no access to U.S. sports media like there is now.
To illustrate just how excessive and singular focussed the hockey coverage was in this country at the time, consider this. During the 1994-95 NHL lockout, Canadian sports outlets talked more about a sport that wasn’t playing games than a sport that was. And still, almost 20 years later, the same scenario played out during the 2012-13 NHL lockout.
The Raptors Community
In the land of hockey, the Raptors felt like an outcast. So, if you were a fan of the team, you pretty much felt the same way. You were an outsider who belonged to a small, niche group.
And with no social media — no Twitter or Reddit — there was no way to connect with other Raptors fans and like-minded people. The Raptors community did not exist. There were no heated discussions over who should start and who should sit. No communal slandering of a rival team. No ridiculous trade proposals to pick apart. There were no Hoop Talks or other basketball-related events. Just a small number of isolated fans.
To be a diehard Raptors fan at this time was to live a lonely existence, akin to Will Smith’s character in I Am Legend.
Views from the Dome
Scotiabank Arena (then the Air Canada Centre) didn’t open its doors until February 1999. So in 1995, with no viable basketball arena in place, the Raptors needed a home. And that home was the stadium of the Blue Jays.
Watching the Raptors play in the then-SkyDome (now Rogers Centre) was quite the experience. But not in a good way. It was just something you had to accept if you wanted to see the team play live. Just part of the deal, like having to clean up after your pet. You don’t like doing it, but the overall joy you get from having a pet is well worth it.
For those who never saw a Raptors game in the Dome, allow me to set the scene. Imagine more than half of the Dome, a 50,000-capacity baseball stadium, shrouded in darkness — just a cavernous wasteland of nothingness — and off to one side is a basketball court with movable stands. It was if as though someone decided to set up court inside a large cave.
Also, unless you were courtside, you couldn’t hear a damn thing. It was like watching a game on mute. No coaches calling out plays. No squeaking of shoes. No rhythmic staccato of a bouncing ball. Just the occasional “Ja-ja-ja jamming, Carlos” from Herbie or his patented “Shhhhooting two” free-throw preamble.
Unlike today, where the Raptors have reached a level of respectability as a winning franchise, in 1995, they very much a joke. And they would remain so until a high-flying wing named Vince Carter showed up.
The team averaged just 22 wins in their first three seasons. And their only claim to fame was miraculously beating the Michael Jordan-led 72-win Chicago Bulls as an expansion squad. Of course, the name and striped dinosaur jerseys made the team an easy target. Even though the Raptors’ dino was red, it didn’t take long for people to equate it with a certain purple dinosaur. To this day, I believe the Milwaukee Bucks still play the Barney theme song every time the Raptors visit. (Though you’d think they’d want to change their tune now.)
From national coverage to Raptors Twitter to endless NBA content that’s just a tap or click away to respectability, so much has changed in 25 years. Although it was frustrating at times to be a Raptors fan in 1995, I’m still glad I was there from the jump.