TORONTO — It was the last day of September, the Raptors' 2013-14 media day, and the focus was anywhere but on the court. Incoming NBA commissioner Adam Silver stood at a podium at the Air Canada Centre. He turned to a grinning Drake and said, "I know you got a new album that just came out."
Next to the Raptors' new, Grammy-winning global ambassador, Toronto mayor Rob Ford -- post-crack video, pre-crack admission -- clapped his hands.
Silver was there to officially announce that Toronto would host the All-Star Game in 2016. Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri and Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president and CEO Tim Leiweke spoke of the front office's responsibility to improve the club's standing by then, to take advantage of the moment when all the NBA's eyes would be on Toronto. The team's 20th anniversary was coming up, and Drake would be involved in what the team was calling a rebranding process. No one was talking playoffs.
No one, that is, except the players. But that was the same old preseason story.
"I'm tired of going home early, watching everybody else play, watching my friends play," swingman DeMar DeRozan said that day. "It's sickening to me. I get tired of it. Me personally, I work my ass off so we can play in that moment, be a team in that eight, seven, six, whatever spot it is to have an opportunity to play. That's my goal and I'm sure everybody on this team feels the same way."
It turned out DeRozan could've aimed higher. The Raptors are the Eastern Conference's big surprise, and they'll be the third or fourth seed when the postseason begins. How they got there was nothing short of extraordinary, especially in this city where expectations and bold plans have never lived up to the hype.
To understand what this Raptors team has accomplished and what it means to the city of Toronto, you first have to understand some of their history. In 2001, the Raptors came as close as a Vince Carter turnaround jumper from reaching the conference finals. General manager Glen Grunwald subsequently spent $250 million to keep Carter, Alvin Williams, Jerome Williams and Antonio Davis in town while adding 38-year-old Hakeem Olajuwon.
They were supposed to be the East's new powerhouse, but Toronto barely squeaked into the playoffs the next season and lost in the first round. It took four years to get back there, with Grunwald's successor Rob Babcock trading Carter for spare parts and squandering a lottery pick on Rafael Araujo after inheriting Chris Bosh.
Bryan Colangelo was next in the GM line and he managed to hit some solid singles leading the Raptors back to the playoffs. The problem with Colangelo was that he was always swinging for the fences. Jermaine O'Neal and Hedo Turkoglu took turns as the proverbial missing piece of the puzzle and Bosh left to win titles in Miami.
Colangelo's final act before Ujiri took over last summer was acquiring Rudy Gay and his maximum contract. Fans were fed up with big splashes, empty promises and the five-year playoff drought. Yet they never stopped showing up to the Air Canada Centre.
"They've been very patient," Toronto head coach Dwane Casey said. "I would compare them a lot like the Golden State fans. Before they became good, they were patient. They sold out every game. They were passionate. And that's the fans here in Toronto."
Ujiri's first big move was parting ways with Andrea Bargnani, the defense and rebounding-averse 7-footer Colangelo drafted first overall in 2006. Many fans were surprised he didn't tear down the whole roster, and most would have been fine with that. They didn't need to be sold on the deep draft class headlined by Andrew Wiggins, the best pro prospect to ever come out of Toronto.
But Ujiri wasn't about quick fixes. He promised that he would evaluate everything and he challenged the players and the coaching staff to show what they could accomplish.
"At the beginning of the year, he made clear his vision and goals of the team," Casey said. "There's no hidden agenda with Masai. Everyone knew. All the players knew, the coaches knew what was in front of us and what our goals were and what our charge was."
Despite talk of DeRozan, Gay and Kyle Lowry's offseason improvement, the start of the season felt frighteningly familiar. DeRozan and Gay shot a combined 17-for-62 on Nov. 11 in Houston, the Raptors' fourth loss in five games. The Toronto Star's headline read, "Raptors should trade Kyle Lowry now, stop this treadmill ride before we puke."
DeRozan wore frustration on his face after a string of defeats at home in early December, and the National Post wondered if he should be shipped away. If the team was trying to convince management to keep it together, it was doing a poor job.
Toronto was 6-12 when Ujiri made his next big move. Gay was en route to Staples Center for a game against the Lakers when he heard the news. Reserve big men Quincy Acy and Aaron Gray were already at the arena. After an emotional goodbye, they left and joined Gay on a flight to Sacramento. Casey told the remaining Raptors that this was the business of basketball and they had to prove themselves to the organization and the league.
At the press conference the next day, Ujiri talked about fit and financial flexibility. There were barely any questions about the incoming players -- Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, John Salmons and Chuck Hayes. Ujiri was engaged in other trade discussions, and over the next few days, reports indicated that New York Knicks owner James Dolan backed out of a Lowry deal.
"We could have been terrible. But everybody in that locker room wanted to win."
"I think when the trade happened, we really looked at each other and said either we got to take advantage of this or we're going to be terrible," DeRozan said. "We're going to be back to ground zero, honestly. We're going to start all the way back over, and we're going to be that same team where teams come in here and just know it's going to be a win.
"I think a sense of pride came in effect when it happened because anything could have happened," DeRozan continued. "We could have been terrible. But everybody in that locker room wanted to win. As soon as the new guys got implemented, they were on the same track with everybody else, and we just ran with it."
Less than two weeks after the shakeup, the Raptors fell behind by 19 in the first half in Dallas. It was more of the same old story. But the new group went on a 27-6 run to make a game of it. On the final possession of overtime, Lowry, DeRozan and big man Amir Johnson fell on each other trying to secure a rebound as time ran out. Teammates old and new ran over and helped each of them up, unlikely owners of a one-point victory. The bond was already building.
Two nights later, the Raptors trailed by 11 late in the third against the Oklahoma City Thunder, who owned the league's second-best record and were undefeated at home. Again, Toronto didn't quit. The Raptors led by two when Russell Westbrook went coast to coast with 30 seconds left in the fourth, and Toronto's big men hustled back. Both Johnson and second-year center Jonas Valanciunas got their hands on his layup attempt, and Johnson dove on the ball to call timeout. The Raptors earned another road win and a ton of confidence.
"That road trip was when I started saying, ‘Hey, we can actually be top-five in the East.'" Patterson said. "We can make the playoffs, we can have something special here."
The Indiana Pacers visited Toronto on New Year's Day. The game was tight through three and a half quarters, then DeRozan led a run and Toronto pulled away to win by 13 points. Sophomore swingman Terrence Ross held Paul George to 12 points on 5-for-14 shooting.
"Anytime you get rid of a big-time player such as Rudy Gay, it can go either way," George said. "It can really tank a team or it can cause a team to come together. For them, they came together. Terrence really stepped up in that role. They just showed the belief that they had in their two wings in DeMar and Terrence. I think that's what happened. They got rid of Rudy and those two guys really stepped up, really took ownership of this team."
After traveling to Washington and winning its fifth game in a row, Toronto was over .500 on the season and 10-3 since the trade. Fans dreaming of Wiggins were waking up to a new reality. The Raptors were making a push for the playoffs.
Music was on everyone's mind on Jan. 11 when the Nets came to town because it was Drake Night. Everyone in attendance received long-sleeved t-shirts with the Raptors logo in black and gold on the front, and the owl representing Drake's "October's Very Own" record label on the back. The place was packed. Old-school coach that he is, Casey name-dropped James Brown, Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight & The Pips.
With a throwback Vince Carter jersey lining his blazer, Drake charmed the media and appeared on NBA TV Canada's pregame show. He introduced the Raptors' starters and "the dashingly handsome Dwane Casey." He joined the broadcast booth, DJ'd at halftime, gave away limited-edition shoes and celebrated the 96-80 victory with Ujiri and Leiweke in the video coordinators' office.
As is often the case when Drake is involved, the production was met with snarky comments. Players, however, view Drake much differently. Patterson remembers joining him on stage with his Kentucky teammates in Lexington in 2010. He referred to Drake as someone he idolized, someone he looked up to.
"Whenever he's in town, whenever he's not on tour and doing his job, he's here," Patterson said. "He's been in the locker room, he's been courtside sitting in the seats, screaming, yelling, passionate. That Drake Night was phenomenal with all the passionate fans and the people wearing the OVO shirts. And then for him to help us out -- I think he just gave us [OVO] jackets, for him to do something as simple as that, it means a lot to us. Those things don't go overlooked."
It was around that time when the team started discussing the postseason among themselves. A couple of days after the Nets game, Casey cautioned against getting carried away.
"As Drake says, we started at the bottom," a smiling Casey said at shootaround for a game against Milwaukee. "I'm telling you. And still, we're trying to get there. And if anybody in this room feels like we have arrived or we're on the same level as Indiana, Miami -- you're fooling yourself. Or you're just looking for something to write, whatever. But we have not got there yet."
When Doc Rivers asked his Clipper players to name the Raptors' shooters before their game in Toronto on Jan. 25, he had to admonish them for leaving Ross out. Mostly known for winning the dunk contest the previous season, he was making 39 percent of his three-point attempts. Rivers' message didn't exactly get through. The Clippers continually left Ross open on the perimeter. He made five threes in the opening quarter and piled up 23 points by halftime.
"He was hot as a firecracker," Casey said. "Probably the basket looked like the Pacific Ocean to him."
The sold-out crowd got louder with each of his makes in the third quarter, and he set a new career high in scoring with a pair of powerful dunks in a 20-second span halfway through the period.
Ross, who averaged 9.3 points per game coming into the game, finished with 51, tying Carter's franchise record. He shot 16-for-29 from the field and 10-for-17 from behind the arc. The Clippers won by eight, but Ross' performance left Lowry almost speechless when asked to describe it. Over in Sacramento, another point guard watched in amazement.
"It was all in the flow, he didn't really take bad shots," Ross' ex-Washington Huskies teammate Isaiah Thomas said. "If he was looking for himself, he would have had maybe 60. It was a surreal moment."
Some attribute the Raptors' improvement to being rid of Gay's inefficient shooting, but that underestimates the players they received in return. Toronto didn't just remove Gay, it upgraded its bench and injected new life into the locker room.
Two days after Ross' explosion, Brooklyn led Toronto by one at the Barclays Center with 12 seconds on the clock. DeRozan, who would be named an All-Star reserve a few nights later, was sitting out with a sprained ankle.
A pair of layups from Vasquez and Salmons had given the Raptors a small shot at victory. Deron Williams inbounded from halfcourt, and Patterson stole the ball. He dished it to Lowry, who immediately fired a pass back. Patterson's ball-fake and jumper gave Toronto the win. No one was ignoring the ex-Kings anymore.
"No disrespect, we didn't get All-Stars in the trade," Casey said. "But we got very high-level basketball players with very high-level basketball IQs that play hard, that were also looking to show the league what they can do."
Their impact was immense and obvious to their new teammates.
"I used to thank them every day for coming to this team," DeRozan said. "I just used to say, ‘Man, thank you,' because they really meant so much to this team. I think they brought us all together. As soon as the new guys came in, we all just got along. Nobody had egos, nobody cared who scored. Everybody just knows, man. I think they just put everything in perspective once they came. It's crazy."
DeRozan calmly dribbled a ball on the practice court where he's spent countless hours since arriving in Toronto as a first-round pick in 2009. Even with a large bandage over the three stitches above his left eye from a collision the night before, he'd never appeared more at ease with his station. Six months earlier, he'd stood in the same spot and recalled discussions with his mentor Gary Payton about what the playoffs were like. So much had changed and DeRozan was about to experience the postseason for the first time, but he hadn't forgotten having to answer questions about tanking during training camp.
"Me personally, it bothered me like shit, honestly," DeRozan said. "To be honest, I hated that word because that was disrespectful. Especially, to me, because I knew how hard every guy on this team worked. On days off, after practice, sometimes even after games when guys don't get enough minutes, they'll come and work on their game. You gotta respect that. You can't disrespect us by saying ‘tanking' when guys on this team are busting their butt every single day."
DeRozan and Johnson -- a workhorse with the rare distinction of being beloved equally by the analytics and heart-and-hustle crowds -- both arrived in Toronto the same year and are the only remaining Raptors who were around before last season.
"I think they more than anybody were sick of change, sick of seeing teammates come and go, sick of seeing the end of the season come and there was nothing really to show for it," forward Steve Novak said. "I think they really led that charge and that culture this season."
Long lauded for his work ethic, DeRozan's production finally came closer to matching his persistence. He became one of the league's best at getting to the free throw line, improved his defense and handled increased attention by developing as a passer. Casey said he's still far from a finished product, but it's been gratifying to see him get results.
"He's a guy that I think loses sleep at night over losing games and loses sleep over what direction we're going," Novak said. "I don't think everybody's like that. I think he's a guy that people don't really understand how important winning is and how much Toronto, the Raptors, mean to him. That's something he's expressed very clearly to the team is that he wants to be successful, he wants to be successful here."
DeRozan and Johnson are Toronto's spiritual leaders and two of their most productive players, but it's been Lowry who has steered this ship up the standings. Yet, while DeRozan was selected for the All-Star Game, Lowry missed the cut. He had the stats and the wins, but not the right reputation. Coaches vote for the reserves, and the word was Lowry wasn't coachable.
Casey rejects that characterization, but he has joked with his point guard about coming to his practices and booing him from the stands when Lowry becomes a coach. Lowry brings a lot of ideas to the table, Casey said, and sometimes he wants to do things that the younger Raptors won't immediately understand.
"If we had a team full of 10-, 11-year vets, then some of the things that guys want to do, we could do it," Casey said. "So that's the balancing act with guys that are competitors, that see things differently, that are computers on the court. But they got to understand they might not have a computer on the court, they might have a small calculator that you want to play with."
As well as the career highs of 17.9 points, 7.4 assists and 4.7 rebounds per game, Lowry has earned praise as a teammate and a leader. DeRozan, for one, is always quick to credit Lowry for his own breakout season. While some might dismiss it as a mere contract year improvement, he's appeared to put it all together on and off the floor. Casey, an ex-Sonics assistant who is also in the last year of his contract, likened Lowry's growth to what he saw out of Payton in Seattle.
"When we started to win, things started to change, Gary started to buy into what George [Karl] was talking about," Casey said. "[Rajon] Rondo is the same way in Boston. I think it's just a process the high-strung, very competitive, talented point guards who have the ball in their hands have to go through. Because they may see things differently than the coaching staff or their teammates, whatever. It's not a bad thing, it's a good thing because that means they're thinking, they have a vision. The key is molding that vision into what it takes for your team to win, and Kyle is certainly doing that for us."
With Lowry guiding the Raptors, they are 42-21 since the trade, the top record in the East during that span and fourth in the league. They've clinched the Atlantic Division and are closing in on the No. 3 seed with the best regular season in Toronto's 19-year history.
It's a strange thing in this city, this optimism. Fans no longer worry about Wiggins and the rest of the college crop. Now their chief concern is whether or not Lowry will re-sign, and in a television interview, Leiweke recently assured them it would happen.
Johnson and DeRozan could probably run for mayor. Ross and Valanciunas -- averaging 17.1 points, 11.2 rebounds and shooting 60 percent in his last 11 games -- have made significant strides. The Toronto Star reported that the franchise has set its sights on Kevin Durant two years from now and that Drake will be involved in recruiting.
Shortly before the Toronto Maple Leafs were eliminated from playoff contention, a "Let's Go Raptors" chant broke out at a Leafs home game. There's a 50-by-80-foot video screen in Maple Leaf Square outside the atrium of the Air Canada Centre, and people will be piling in there to watch postseason basketball.
The Raptors are the only team in their conference in the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. They still see themselves as underdogs, though, pointing to the fact that they made no regular-season appearances on ABC, ESPN or TNT.
Opponents compliment their unselfishness and trust on defense, while Casey still says they need to get much better and play with desperation. With the Pacers' late-season collapse, the path to the conference finals is not entirely unrealistic. A cynic could say a first-round exit or Lowry's departure would make this whole year a waste, but for the first time in a long time, there aren't a lot of cynics around here.
"What do they say, ‘Don't call it a comeback?'" Patterson said. "For the Raptors to start off the way that they did, for people to talk about a team to tank so they can get a high draft pick and build on next year, for them to criticize certain players and call them out, and then the ability for Masai to make a trade and for the coaching staff to take the team under their wing and turn everything around and make the team a playoff team and one of the best teams in the East, I'd definitely call it a special story."