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‘It was definitely tough.’ How the Raptors survived Tampa Time — and came out stronger

‘It was definitely tough.’ How the Raptors survived Tampa Time — and came out stronger
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It ends, this disjointed Raptors season of disruption and disappointment, with lessons learned — about people and how they react to adversity, and how they deal with change.

There have been families temporarily uprooted and lives inexorably altered. There has been sickness and the harsh realities of a raging global pandemic to deal with.

They have lived through it.

They have learned from it.

“I do think this has tested us and I think showed everybody what they are capable of, how they are able to adapt,” says Teresa Resch, the franchise’s vice-president of basketball operations and the point woman for so much of the transformation, said of the season based in Florida.

“I think everybody handles change differently, and I think it revealed a lot about people’s character and capability to really transition and embrace change. I do think ultimately it’s been a positive experience, and I think that it’s made us all a lot more resilient.”

And maybe in the long run that’s what is best remembered of this season like no other: that the Raptors dealt with what they had to deal with, did it as well as they could and have come out of a season different, better, than they went into it.

The biggest, most important aspect of the whole episode was change. To daily schedules. To season schedules. To work and time off and all of it.

Nothing was normal, not from the very start in November when it became apparent the border issues between Canada and the United States would be too much to overcome.

All of a sudden, they no longer could do what they used to.

“The schedule obviously bumped up a little bit more than expected,” said DeAndre’ Bembry, the first-year Raptor who signed on days after it became public that Toronto would not be home. “They were telling us we were going to get tested once a day every day, and I thought that was a lot. Then they said we were getting tested two times a day and I’m like ‘whoa.’

“Obviously at that time, people were catching COVID and that was something to worry about. but at the same time it was like, ‘s---, we test in the morning when we wake up, then we test at 5 (p.m.)? Damn, what am I doing in my free time?’”

Time very much was an issue the entire season. From times the team could meet or practice, to times the players and staff had to show up to be tested at the practice facility built in a hotel ballroom. Time, it was a’changing.

“Literally one day they’d say we have to come in in the morning, and then the next day they’d say ‘now we don’t.’ Then they’d say ‘whoops, we do,’” coach Nick Nurse said with a chuckle. “That was always the scheduling issue, and I think you were trying to limit meetings and contacts and extra driving and extra waiting, and you were trying to cut down the guys’ day as much as you could.

“It was more the protocols and trying to stay safe that disrupted things more than the environment. The environment was perfect.”

Ah, the environment.

The Raptors manufactured a practice facility out of a ballroom in a hotel that hadn’t even opened when the season began.

There were blips — try muffling the sounds of basketball in a room built to resonate (pro tip: the addition of curtains helps) — but they were minor inconveniences. It wasn’t the glitzy OVO Centre, but it wasn’t far off. It was home.

“I think overall just the way we recreated our practice facility, we came up with something that was really workable and comfortable,” assistant coach Jon Goodwillie said. “We had breakout spaces here and space over the arena on game days that made it very workable.

“I think the ways we kind of recreated the OVO down here, we’ve still got great work space for the coaching staff, the on-court space is good. So from that perspective it kind of felt the same,” Goodwillie added.

But it wasn’t. And that hit home all season with the public eventually traipsing through the hotel and random meet-ups that were commonplace.

“You’d be coming to practice and you’d walk into an assistant coach with the Trail Blazers or something like that,” the assistant coach said. “I bumped into Marc Gasol when we played the Lakers here. He was to his way to a team meal and I was coming back from testing … all the hockey teams stayed here, too. Strange.”

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The reason for all the strangeness — the very simple reason why the Raptors were dislodged from their city, why all the inconvenience and change to routines was necessary — hit like a ton of bricks in February.

More than half the coaching staff and almost half the roster were clobbered by COVID-19 and it hammered home why everything — testing, moving, changing — was necessary.

“Luckily we’re in this league where they worry about the safety first and they make things happen, for sure.”

The positive tests and other issues did test the collaborative nature of operating a franchise under such difficult circumstances. An organization-wide task force — medical staff for health issues, basketball operations people for a return-to-play plan, off-court support staff to make sure every other issue was dealt with — was tested. And passed.

“First and foremost, everybody was just worried about: Are people OK?” Resch said. “This is serious. Once it got to a point where we knew everybody was OK, or if they were showing symptoms are they getting better, then it just turned into: OK, what does this mean?

17 hrs ago

“The other thing to remember is, this is people’s medical information. It’s not like there was a message sent out — oh, this person tested positive. If you had contact, you were told you had contact with somebody who tested positive, but it wasn’t like these things were put over a loudspeaker. You want to respect people’s privacy and just make sure that they’re OK.”

Those COVID-19 issues — the absences, the worry, the final major disruption to a season full of them — led to the final on-court indignity. A 1-13 trip through March, when everyone was getting over the pandemic turmoil, ruined the team’s chances of a successful season.

It wasn’t the sole reason, but it was the last one, the biggest and most costly.

“The thing I would say is, I think the team continued to play and they played pretty well,” Nurse said of the March aftermath. “There were some stretches there where it got a little shaky, when we were really down a lot.

“In the last six or eight weeks, after we shook off the couple of weeks (of losing) after the couple of weeks (of medical turmoil) we kind of decided we had to put some energy and some enjoyment in it and some work back into this thing … we (had) to stay true to our culture.”

The culture that eventually emerges will be a growth of the culture that existed. The Raptors do things well — it’s what they pride themselves on — and this was another example.

“They were awesome,” Nurse said of the entirety of the operation. “For the eight years that I’ve been here, everything has been first class and even this big transition — hardest project ever, most difficult situation we’ve been in ever, and they did it all first class.”

It didn’t work out in the small picture — their playoff run has ended at seven years, roster moves are imminent — but maybe in the grander scheme of things the lessons learned, about people and resiliency and finding a way through unusual times, will pay off in the future.
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