The Raptors were the only NBA team forced to play outside of its home city this season, and team president Masai Ujiri spoke Wednesday about the frustrations of playing away from Toronto and the competitive disadvantage he believes it created.
While playing in Tampa because they couldn’t in Toronto due to Canadian travel restrictions, the Raptors’ seven-year playoff streak was snapped. It certainly did not feel like home from the start for a number of reasons, including limited capacity — and at one point no fans — at Amalie Arena for home games, as well as a tricky TV situation that didn’t allow many locals to watch games at home.
Ujiri said the atmosphere at home games was markedly different, especially with many fans visiting Amalie to root for the Raptors’ opponents.
“I’ll give you an example,” he said. “Coming to a game, I’ve seen everybody support another team. That’s never been done in Toronto, I don’t care who’s coming into Toronto, I couldn’t care less what team it is. When you come here, you feel it, everybody has seen it, everybody knows. So when you go to a game there and people come to support other teams, I know it’s not a basketball town. But it’s hard to understand.”
Players noticed it, too, but said they expected it simply because they weren’t in Toronto.
“Everyone we dealt with was great,” said Raptors guard Fred VanVleet. “We didn’t have the biggest fan turnout, but I’m not sure that would have happened anywhere unless we get closer to Canada. And, you know, it is what it is.
“I moved past whether it was good or not a long time ago, maybe in December, once I was able to move into my house for the year. It’s not home is not where we’re supposed to be. And I think that’s just the best way to describe it for me, personally.”
The beginning of next season is five months away, and a slow vaccine rollout in Canada has made it uncertain whether the Raptors will be able to play in Toronto. As the NBA’s only team playing outside the United States, they are familiar with that uncertainty.
For now, the front office and staff will work on draft preparation and offseason work in Tampa. But the team is focused on a return north and doesn’t want to even consider the possibility of finding a temporary home again.
As for Ujiri, whose contract is up this offseason, he said the Tampa experience was a memorable one, nonetheless.
“The Tampa experience was remarkable,” Ujiri said “When we talk about adversity, it’s just the displacement. As we got on and as we got through the whole experience, we started to enjoy it, we started to feel it. It’s the things that happen to you the first time or you don’t know how to adjust or you don’t know which way to go, that’s the part that’s tough, and then relating it to home and then relating it to what other (teams) are doing and the disadvantages.”