TAMPA — The Toronto Raptors landed in Tampa this week not entirely sure what to expect from their temporary home digs.
They certainly have experience playing away from home after last season’s restart in the bubble at Walt Disney World. But the only NBA team forced to start the upcoming season away from its home city (because of Canadian travel restrictions) is getting re-accustomed to life on the road.
“We’re back to living in hotels,” Raptors general manager Bobby Webster joked to a Toronto reporter at the beginning of his media video conferencing call Tuesday.
Tuesday marked the official opening of training camp, as the Raptors started individual workouts at Saint Leo University in Pasco County. And the team’s transition to Tampa will be a training camp of sorts both on and off the court.
“We chose Tampa,” Webster said. “We wanted to come here, so it wasn’t a situation where we were directed here. We needed to have an arena that could handle NBA games, we wanted to have a practice facility, we wanted to have medical facilities, we wanted to have living situations that were comfortable for everybody.
“So I think those are at the top of the list, and so having Amalie (Arena) here, having the convention center, having the two hotels downtown here in Water Street were really big draws for us as far as the flow and how a day-to-day would work for practice and for games.”
The Raptors’ setup in the Water Street district is well-structured. They are currently staying at a hotel steps from Amalie Arena, where they will play their home games. Once they complete their two weeks at Saint Leo, they will move to a practice facility custom built out of a ballroom at the new J.W. Marriott hotel right next to Amalie.
When the NBA resumed play this summer at Disney World, hotel ballrooms were transitioned into practice courts, so the Raptors knew it could be done and are building theirs to replicate their OVO Athletic Centre training facility in Toronto.
“Actually constructing ourselves is what we’re doing here,” Webster said. “And as you can imagine, it’s a world-class basketball court, a world-class training room, a world-class weight room. The idea here was to create a world-class practice facility in a place where there isn’t one.”
Three weeks ago, Saint Leo basketball coach Lance Randall received a text message out of the blue from Raptors head coach Nick Nurse — the two coached against each other overseas in the British Basketball League in the early 2000s — inquiring about the campus as a potential training site. The next day, Nurse and other Raptors personnel were touring it.
“It picked up some legs pretty quickly,” Randall said. “We have a great floor, and we have a great practice facility in that our gym has 10 baskets. Our floor is the model that was used in the Miami Heat practice facility.”
The university had a relatively low number of COVID-19 cases since opening in-person classes in August to its 2,250 students. Randall said there have been no cases on his basketball team.
Daily testing will continue, but the Raptors won’t be as protected in Tampa as they were in the Disney bubble. They will have everything they need within walking distance, but it will be far from the isolation they experienced during the restart.
Webster said the team will treat its first two weeks in Tampa like a feeling-out period. Nurse brought his family, which includes two young children, to Tampa, but others — like Webster — are waiting to see how the living situation shakes out.
“We’re all in kind of a bit of a no man’s land,” he said. “I think we all wanted to come down here and see what the setup is, even myself included — I have a family and two young kids. So to see what the setup is here, what our comfort level is.
“Obviously, finding housing or living in a hotel is different than living in a place where you have a routine. So I’m sure over the course of the next few days or weeks we’ll have a better sense of that.”
The players certainly like the scenery, with several of their Instagram stories showing the view from their Water Street hotel windows. And the warm Florida winter weather will be a welcome change. It was 31 degrees and snowing Tuesday in Toronto.
“Having the sunshine, having some Vitamin D, I think is just a boost for not only the players but for the staff,” Webster said. “They’re also making a huge sacrifice to come here. So a lot of those things together, I think, combined with, but first and foremost, it was the facility, the medical, the health and safety of the players and the staff.”
Raptors training camp roster
Name Position Height Weight
OG Anunoby F 6-8 232
Aron Baynes C 6-10 260
DeAndre’ Bembry F 6-5 210
Chris Boucher F 6-10 200
Oshae Brissett F 6-8 210
Terence Davis II G 6-4 205
Henry Ellenson C 6-10 240
Malachi Flynn G 6-1 185
Jalen Harris G 6-5 195
Alize Johnson F 6-9 212
Stanley Johnson F 6-7 245
Alex Len C 7-0 250
Kyle Lowry G 6-1 196
Patrick McCaw F 6-7 185
Norman Powell G 6-4 215
Pascal Siakam F 6-9 230
Matt Thomas G 6-4 190
Fred VanVleet G 6-0 195
Yuta Watanabe F 6-9 205
Paul Watson G-F 6-6 210
Note: One-on-one practices opened to players on Tuesday. If all players pass COVID-19 testing protocols, full practices can start as soon as Sunday. The Raptors will train at Saint Leo University through Dec. 11, then move to their practice facility at the J.W. Marriott.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.