As Drizzy Drake blasts out of the stereo system and players warm up on the court, fans in the concourse dressed in red, white, and black hustle between one another as they purchase adult beverages and hot dogs and consume them with big smiles wiped across their faces. Why? Not because the food is that good, but because after 585 days abroad, the Toronto Raptors are finally home.
The Raptors played host to the Philadelphia 76ers in their 2021-22 preseason opener on Monday evening. And while Scotiabank Arena was at just 50 percent capacity due to local COVID-19 regulations, the 8,016 fans in the stands in the building did all they physically could to welcome the Raptors home after a disastrous 19 months abroad between the NBA bubble and their displaced season in Tampa Bay, showing up as soon as the gates opened to the public at 6:00 pm and cheering on their feet from the get-go as the Raptors ran away with an impressive 123-107 win.
“I do say it sure feels good to be back. There’s a buzz, a level of comfort. There’s an energy that translates from that crowd to the players,” Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse said after the game. “I keep saying the same thing: It feels a lot better than I thought because, again, we didn’t think it was that bad down there (in Tampa Bay), but it feels a heck of a lot better to be back, let’s put it that way. It adds a little extra to the juice that is in the building. It helps us all.”
“Yeah, it was great, it was great to see our fans, make eye contact with people that you know have missed it just as much as we’ve missed it,” added Raptors’ point guard Fred VanVleet.
“It was great to just play at home, trying to interact with the fans, get their energy.” -Scottie Barnes
If the on-court product was reminiscent of a normal preseason game—a fast pace, botched layups, and minimal chemistry—the energy inside the arena was anything but normal, with Raptors’ fans treating it more like Game 7 of the NBA Finals than the ultimately meaningless preseason opener that it was. Even at 50 percent capacity, the arena was more full than most in the NBA on Monday, and the energy and excitement was one of a kind.
“I grew up in Toronto but I’ve been in Vancouver for a while, and we’ve had nothing: no live sports… So being able to come back, it’s been super exciting,” 53-year-old Chris, who went to the first ever Raptors game in 1995 in what is now the Rogers Center, told Complex Canada. “I think today’ll be a love fest. I think people are really excited to have them back for the first time and I think people are going to be cheering and standing up, you know, in almost every opportunity.”
“Oh, it was crazy, man… My excitement started this morning,” said 31-year-old Dan, who began coming to Raptors games as a teenager and is hoping to run into some friends he hasn’t seen in nearly two years. “I think we have one of the best fan bases in the NBA, so I have no doubt that this place is gonna be loud even though it’s only half capacity, it’s still gonna feel like full capacity in here.”
Danny Green, who now plays for the Sixers after helping the Raptors win a championship in 2018-19, expressed excitement for the city that he considers a second home, saying: “There’s nothing like it. I expect it to be crazy for preseason because it has been so long. They’re very passionate about their sports here, especially basketball and hockey. But yeah, there is nothing like it. I am excited for them. I am excited to be back in this building… It’s good to be back to normal. It’s kind of a fresh restart to things.”
And while it would be impossible to match the buzz of a fully packed arena with just half the patrons, the fans in the building did their best to make it feel full, picking their moments to get on their feet and roar: There it was when fourth overall draft pick Scottie Barnes got introduced in the starting lineup, when hometown kid Dalano Banton checked in for the first time and scored his first bucket, when fan-favourite Yuta Watanabe checked in, when Precious Achiuwa made his presence felt with big blocks, and when Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby hit threes.
“I think our guys were excited to play. We were certainly excited to get out there. I think the buzz in the place was probably a little bit more than you’re expecting in the preseason,” said Nurse. “I think there was a good buzz and it helped us with a little pep in our step tonight.”
“I would just say it was great to just play at home, trying to interact with the fans, get their energy. They probably got us going a little bit today,” said Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes, who was playing his first game in Scotiabank Arena. “We had a lot of good moments today. The fans showed me a lot of love after the game… We had a lot of fun.”
Doc Rivers, who coaches the 76ers and was reluctant to say anything nice about his opponent, admitted that Raptors’ fans are unique, saying: “I feel like I’m sucking up to Toronto right now and I don’t want to say it, but I just love the fans and they just have this different energy. You feel like it’s a hockey type of energy. Like the crowd is into the game and I just love how they approach the games. I do.”
“It’s nice coming back to fans, just period, around the league. It’s nice being booed, hearing obscenities. But it is, honestly. It’s kind of a nice feeling just to be back in the norm of life.”
“I feel like I’m sucking up to Toronto right now and I don’t want to say it, but I just love the fans and they just have this different energy.” -Doc Rivers
While that sense of normalcy obviously feels good for the players and coaches, the feeling is on steroids for Torontonian Raptors fans; after all, this is a city that underwent the longest COVID-19 lockdown in the entire world, when going to a live sporting event felt like a pipe dream for a long, long time. It was difficult for one of the most passionate fanbases in the NBA to watch their team lose game after game on TV while being booed by fans at their “home” arena in Tampa Bay. So for the fans, Monday’s preseason opener was much more than a game: it was a return to normalcy.
“I’ve been working the frontlines vaccinating people and, you know, finding out the Raptors were coming home was like the most surreal, exciting thing,” said Alicia, whose last Raptors game was their Game 3 double-overtime win over the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2019 playoffs. “It brings a sense of normalcy that all this (work) we’ve been doing to vaccinate the millions is finally paying off and we can do something like this.”
“It feels like Christmas morning,” her friend, Sue, chipped in. “I think we just took for it granted when we could just come and go, we didn’t really think about it. Now, we’re just so consciously aware of everything that I think it makes you kind of value this kind of thing a lot more than we used to. I mean, because before it was just like, we could go to a game anytime we wanted.”
“I think it shows you how much we’ve really missed it and maybe we won’t take it for granted like we used to.”
It might sound silly to some that a single basketball game can feel so meaningful to so many people, representing true progress after all those months of cabin fever. But it’s that and so much more for the thousands of Raptors fans who feel happiest when they have the opportunity to cheer on their favourite team in person, surrounded by like-minded individuals who share a common passion for their hometown team.
“It’s just a (feeling of) happiness, you know? Because we all have a life to live and we all deserve to be happy,” was how 28-year-old Julian summed up his feelings on the night. “Because we’re from one of the greatest, if not the greatest city in the world… I love Toronto, I love this team.”
“Truthfully, just before you got to me, and this is real talk, I was just like: Yo I’m in my happy place,” said Dan, who was standing in the concourse before the game with his mother. “If someone asked me what my happy place was, it would be Scotiabank Arena, watching the Raptors play.”