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Welcome back: Inside the first Raptors home game since 2020

It wasn’t exactly a playoff-like atmosphere inside Scotiabank Arena, but it was pretty dang cool to be back home. 

Toronto Raptors play the Philadelphia 76ers in preseason action Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors welcomed the Philadelphia 76ers into Scotiabank Arena last night (and promptly beat them down) but more importantly, they also welcomed fans back for the first time since February of 2020!

Raptors HQ was in the house too, and if you couldn’t make it out to the arena, well, we can’t blame you — it’s preseason and it’s still a pandemic after all. But never fear! We’re here tell you all about the vibes inside the arena for the first Raptors game since February of 2020.

It was… pretty cool!

Now, it wasn’t quite normal. There was the vaccination screenings to get in of course, and everyone was in masks at all times.

The weirdest thing of all, though, was the crowd… it was tiny. Far less than the 10,000 the team permitted; the announced attendance was over 8,000, but that seems high to me. I would guess maybe 6,000 were in the house, and there was probably half of that for tip-off (typical late arriving Toronto crowd!).

I haven’t seen a crowd that small for a Raptors game, ever… even in the bad days (16 wins at SkyDome bad) the place always seemed at least close to full (well, as full as a basketball game in a domed baseball stadium could ever seem).

I can’t blame the fans for not turning out; paying those prices for preseason hoops is a lot to ask, especially in a pandemic. Hopefully it ticks up for the regular season.

Now, I don’t know if, after 19 months I’m just not used to being in places that, like, play music kinda loudly, or if it was just because there weren’t enough human bodies to absorb any sound… but holy cow was the music deafening in there last night. You could feel every bit of bass vibrating the place! In related news, I am also really old.

In terms of what else is old, Herbie Kuhn and Mark “Strizzzy” Strong are back in their usual places, as is DJ 4 Korners. Doug Tranquata sang the anthems — of course. But in-arena host Kat Stefankiewicz has been replaced by longtime dancer Mariah Amber; I’ll miss Kat but Mariah was great. (Although it was pretty hilarious to see Stirzzy and Mariah trying to get a pre-game crowd of maybe 4,000 people, in a 20,000 seat arena, warmed up by exhorting them to make some noise.)

As for Herbie, he sounds exactly the same, and that was hugely comforting. One thing I did notice, though, is that Herbie has stopped saying “ladies and gentlemen” in an effort to be more inclusive; he now just says “fans”. He caught himself once at the end of the fist half which is the only reason I noticed! It’s a little thing, but I’m all for anything that makes the in-arena experience feel more inclusive.

And speaking of inclusions, the team has finally added a proper extended Indigenous land acknowledgement to the pre-game, which I really appreciated hearing. It even included a commitment from the Raptors to use their platform to advance relations with indigenous people; we’ll have to see exactly what that means but I suspect they’re not empty words, not with Masai Ujiri in charge.

Oh yeah, the Raptors!

So how did it feel to see the team on the floor? Well, the crowd did its best during intros to make some noise; Fred VanVleet got the final spot and the loudest ovation, but the crowd definitely made some noise for Scottie Barnes, who led the team out of the tunnel, and then did a crab walk for some low fives during player intros. I mean, how could you not make noise for this guy?

I think Sean Woodley, sitting next to me, might have been the happiest person in the building at that point.

On the other side, Danny Green, back in the building for the first time since he was a Raptor himself, got a pretty decent hand.

Yuta Watanabe got a huge (again, huge being relative here) cheer when he checked in for the first time in front of the Toronto fans, but the loudest cheers were surely for local boy Dalano Banton — who immediately picked up a rebound, led a fast break and found Svi Mykhailiuk for a breakaway layup all in his first 15 seconds. He then followed that up taking another rebound coast to coast for an and-1.

Yeah, he’s a day-one fan favourite, no doubt about it.

One cool thing about the silent arena, is that you could hear Scottie Barnes yelling out defensive instructions from the bench! Even all the way from up in the press box. He is definitely as much of a talker as everyone says he is.

Post-game, Nick Nurse was appreciative of the crowd and the energy — he said he didn’t realize it was “that bad” down there in Tampa, but it the vibe and the energy was definitely there for the team, back home in Toronto. Fred VanVleet, for his part, said it was great to see familiar faces, to make eye contact with real people — but that it wasn’t enough, and he can’t wait to see the crowd back to full capacity.

And when that day does come — yeah, it’s gonna feel pretty great.

All in all it was very strange to be back in the building, but not strange in a bad way — just in an, “oh, this is familiar, I just need to get acclimated way.” Once I got settled in, the sights and sounds started to seem familiar, and once the Raptors were rolling — pretty much running the 76ers off the floor in the second quarter — it all felt, well, pretty normal. And safe.

And that’s almost as exciting and welcoming as seeing the Raptors get a win in their first game back on their home floor.