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Let’s Remember Some Raptors: Toronto bets big on Michael Stewart

The man called Yogi joined the Raptors as the team’s fourth highest paid player. He spent four years in Toronto, ending his tenure as the team’s sixth highest paid player. Neveretheless, some may now be wondering: who is he?

Toronto Raptors v Charlotte Hornets

There’s something of a generational divide now in Raptors fandom. This is, of course, an ordinary thing, and in fact attests to the team’s longevity and continued relevance. There are fans of the team who were kids when they first appeared in 1995 — I, for example, was 11 — and thousands more who weren’t even born yet. Again, that’s fine. It just behooves the older generation to keep that in mind when explaining some Raptors-related situation of yesteryear.

So now, believe me when I tell you: it does not get more yesteryear than the Toronto legacy of Michael “Yogi” Stewart, the 6’10” power forward who adorned the Raptors’ bench for four seasons between 1998 and 2002. That’s right, at 23 years old he had a front row seat for the first successful era of basketball in this city. If nothing else, Stewart saw it all.

Now, for you younger fans, it’s fair to wonder why this big man merits such consideration. The Raptors have had plenty of players wasting away on the end of their bench, after all. We don’t need to recall every player who didn’t pan out. But to a certain generation, Stewart represents that early spirit of the ascendent Raptors — misplaced optimism mixed with dashed hopes.

His Raptors Run

We’ve been over this, and there’s perhaps no point in belabouring it, but to repeat: the early Raptors, from their inaugural year in 1995 right on through to 1998 were comically inept. They were an expansion team in Canada playing in a baseball stadium. Any established player they could get to Toronto in those early days — say, Alvin Robertson or John Salley — was on the obvious downslope of their career or had been flagged for other reasons. (Robertson, for example, had all sorts of grim legal trouble through the 90s.)

Toronto wasn’t handing out many big money contracts either, choosing (or forced) instead to construct their roster primary through trades and the draft. This highlights a strange turn of events preceding the lockout-shortened 1998-99 season. After the 16-66 disaster of the previous year, the Raptors were gearing up to be competitive. They’d traded for Charles Oakley, Kevin Willis, and Dee Brown, made earlier moves for Sharone Wright and Doug Christie, and were looking foward to continued growth from Tracy McGrady and their new rookie Vince Carter. For the most part, the team’s rotation was set. As unlikely as it should have been given their circumstances, there was renewed optimism around the Raptors.

And nowhere is that optimism more clearly seen than in Toronto’s one major free agent signing. Raptors GM Glen Grunwald, then in his second year on the job, studied the market in the summer of 1998 and finally settled on his man: second-year player Yogi Stewart, an undrafted forward whose rookie season saw him post averages of 4.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in 21.7 minutes per game for the 27-55 Sacramento Kings. For his efforts, Grunwald awarded Stewart a six-year, $24 million contract, making him the fourth highest player on the team. In effect, Yogi became Toronto’s first real free agent gamble.

Sadly, the bet never came close to paying off. Stewart would appear in 121 games across four seasons for Toronto and his numbers would never match even the modest figures of his rookie season. In fact, the only thing consistent about Stewart during his time with the Raptors was his ability to not excel in whatever role he was given. But of course, owing to that aforementied optimism, we were all pulling for Yogi to eventually put it all together. The Raptors kept improving in those years, so it felt safe to assume at some point he would too.

If nothing else — and believe me, there is nothing else — Stewart’s legacy in Toronto now takes on a broader spiritual meaning. He prepared fans for the next decade of Raptors free agent signings and draft picks, many of which ended in abject disappointment. It’s a dubious honour, but we’ll still take what we can get here.

The Wikipedia Fun-Fact Deep-Dive

There are a couple of points to make here. First, we can explain Stewart’s nickname: he was called Yogi by his older brother because of how much he liked Yogi Bear cartoons. That’s simple enough to explain. Second, we can highlight that his dad, Mike Stewart, was drafted into the NBA back in the 1970s (in both 1972 and 1973; things were different then), but instead went on to be a standout player in Europe for AS Monaco Basket. The elder Stewart would actually play his way into that team’s hall of fame. Third, it’s worth noting that Yogi was a shot-blocking machine in his college days, setting the single-season (59 blocks as a freshman) and all-time records at Berkeley. He’d also never miss a game while in college, appearing in 117 games across his four years there.

Finally, if we look at Stewart’s one year in Sacramento, there is a satisfying story to be found. Yogi went unselected in the 1997 NBA Draft but managed to sign a one-year deal with the Kings anyway. As it turns out, he had been a ballboy with the team as a kid, so it’s easy to imagine how it must have felt for young Stewart at the time. He’d made the NBA, and was playing for (almost) his hometown team! Of course, nothing would ever match that high for Stewart across the subsequent seven years of his career. But then again: he also made $25 million in that time, so, um, maybe it wasn’t a bad bit of business overall.

A Highlight

Obviously there aren’t a ton of actual Yogi Stewart Raptors highlights, so here’s a clip from Off the Hardwood, a basketball TV show hosted by Paul Jones. This is a real thing.

The, uh, incredibly chill opening segment of the show features Stewart and Jones at the Academy of Spherical Arts (RIP) talking about Yogi’s dad, the U.S Olympic team, and the status of Stewart’s French citizenship. Then Jones invites us all to watch him and Stewart “knock some stick” while discussing his NBA career. We’re told Yogi is a good pool player, which, well, who knows how true that could possibly be.

Where Are They Now?

Thanks to this random blog post on Celtics Life (Stewart ended up in Boston later in his career), we have a few answers here. We know Yogi has taken more than one photo with Grant Hill, and that he is indeed on Twitter. We can also assume he’s still spending some of his time raising his two kids and perhaps running his healthcare-related businesses. This post went up back in 2010 so who knows how much of that information is still relevant.

To add to the more solid and positive side of the ledger, Yogi donated to the campaign of Kendrick Meek, who ran and lost against shitheel Marco Rubio in the 2010 Senate race. And here’s the latest tweet from the man himself, sent off into the void during the on-going coronavirus quarantine, which gives us a sense of where Stewart’s head is at these days: