February 12, 2006 is barely a footnote in Raptors history. Toronto defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 114-81 at home, improving their record to 19-32 in a rudderless season.
Morris Peterson led all scorers with 22 points followed by Mike James and Charlie Villanueva. Soon to be Hall-of-Fame inductee Chris Bosh was the face of a franchise that was drowning in its fourth straight losing season, unable to get out of its own way. It was only a few weeks prior that Kobe Bryant dropped 81 points on Sam Mitchell’s team.
Still, Khem Birch was a huge fan, courtesy of the many nights he and his dad, Dervincent Birch, would spend watching the team, and that cold February night has a special place in his heart. It was Birch’s first in-arena experience watching the team he loved and his father—who he lived with in Ottawa for three years due to his mother Wendy Sparks’ desire to have them spend time together—got the tickets and made the four-plus hour drive with the then 13-year-old.
“I knew probably a couple weeks before [the game] and I was really excited,” Birch told Complex. “I remember going to my uncle’s house in Ajax before the game and just being super excited. It’s funny because it wasn’t even a fun game because the Raptors blew them out.”
The only sense of drama that night was on the drive back home, as Dervincent had to ensure he was back in time to begin a 4 a.m. shift on a paper route. Driving in Canada in February is a burden at the best of times, and he almost met with an accident on the way. When the two of them got back just past 3 a.m., Khem pulled an all-nighter to help out his dad since he had the Monday off from school.
“I remember I just had so much respect for him because he brought me to the game and went right back to work,” Khem said. “It was really cold and I realized his job is harder than you expect; sending newspapers in people’s mailboxes. It’s minus-20 outside and everyone’s sleeping and you’re up so I had a lot of respect for that.
“But I always had my mind on being someone who did big things, so that made me realize I didn’t want to do a paper route.”
Growing up in Canada, becoming a die-hard fan of the Raptors, there’s nothing bigger than having the chance to play for the home team. And after grinding his way through the D-League and Europe to the NBA, Birch’s dream of playing for Toronto was realized when he was signed on April 10, 2021 after being waived by the Orlando Magic. In fact, he was so excited about the opportunity that he announced it before the team or the usual suspects Adrian Wojnarowski or Shams Charania could.
“I always had my mind on being someone who did big things.”
Beyond just a dream fulfilled, Birch knew the Raptors made sense as a business decision when he played under Nick Nurse for Team Canada at the 2019 FIBA World Cup. When the Magic acquired Birch, they saw him as a raw, bruising big who could best serve the team crashing the glass and protecting the rim. That summer of 2019, though, Nurse saw a player who could get up and down the floor and so encouraged him to bring the ball up the floor off a rebound if the guards were face guarded and he had space. Nurse saw a decent shooting stroke and encouraged him to shoot the ball if he was open. Nothing to go crazy over but just enough to keep the defence honest from time to time and help create space for others attacking the rim.
“He let me do things I’ve never been able to experience before,” Birch said. “That was just something new, so I knew I had a lot of potential playing for him. He discovered potential I didn’t even know I had, so I knew once he coached me again I would get that.”
His performances presented a player who had completely shed his Orlando skin, and even surprised Nurse to an extent because he initially viewed Birch as someone who could be a quality backup big. Birch ended up starting 17 of 19 games for the Raptors and averaged 11.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 blocks, and almost a steal per game while shooting over 55 percent from the field. Defensively, Birch fought hard to fit into Nurse’s defensive schemes, exhibiting some malleability across different coverages and switching onto athletic wing players when called upon.
With free agency coming up, Birch understands that he has controlled what he could and soon it will be time to let the chips fall where they may. Freddie Gillespie showed promise in a backup role as well and Nurse is encouraged by what both could potentially bring to the table if given the opportunity next season.
“I feel pretty good about who they are and their development,” Nurse said. “I’m not all the way there yet, they need to have good summers. They need to have a good fall. I think with our development people and our coaching staff, they will. I see tremendous upside in both of them. Khem shows you flashes of all kinds of stuff. Can we get some of those flashes to be a little more frequent? Just drives to the basket, offensive rebounds that turn into dunks.
“With that kind of stuff, you’re like, ‘Wow, Khem, where did that come from?’ We need that to be part of who he is rather than flashes. We need to see more of that.”
It is fascinating that a player who has bounced around a little bit and is approaching free agency is unbothered by the uncertainty. Birch credits a lot of it to his mother, who—in addition to running her own podcast Courtside Moms—has always maintained the focus on being the best basketball player he can be and not necessarily setting the NBA as a target and measuring success accordingly. Birch can remember wanting to just have fun as a kid and his mom pushing him to go tournaments away from home, constantly challenging him to get better due to the belief that the best way to do so was to play. And what he appreciates about the Raptors and Nurse is that the only way you play is if you do it the right way.
“It’s funny because you can get subbed out for not making the right play, you can score but you can get subbed out for the wrong play,” Birch said. “Coach Nurse doesn’t like that type of stuff.”
With the Raptors ending their seven-year playoff run, Birch will have the opportunity to learn more about what Nurse wants and how he can further tap into his potential when Canada’s Senior Men’s National Team plays their Olympic Qualifying Tournament beginning June 29 in Victoria, BC. Birch has assured that barring a freak injury he has every intention of participating and helping the men’s team to its first Olympic berth since 2000. He’s already accepted a training camp invite.
Whether he’s chosen, whether he re-signs with the Raps, whether Canada qualifies, it can all be up in the air, but as long as Birch is playing basketball somewhere, he is happy to make the most of the opportunity given to him.