More than 20 years after joining the NBA as an expansion team, the Toronto Raptors are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history.
The Raptors have come a long way since their inaugural 21-61 campaign in 1995-96. No one knows this more than the team’s first draft pick, Damon Stoudamire, who was taken seventh overall in 1995.
“When I got up to Toronto, there was a lot of challenges with everything,” the 42-year-old Stoudamire said on CBS Sports Radio’s Gio and Jones. “Obviously basketball, when I got there, it probably wasn’t the No. 1 sport at the time. It was hockey. The city – I shouldn’t say the city; I should say the country – was known pretty much for hockey, and then I get up there. (The city was) really just a couple years removed from having those great Toronto Blue Jays baseball teams. I think they wanted to embrace basketball, but they didn’t know how. Us coming in as an expansion team, I felt like we were kind of ambassadors for the sport. Then me coming in and being the face of the franchise and then having the success that I had individually as a player that first year, I think that it was great for the city because it gave them something and it gave them someone to identify with.”
Stoudamire averaged 19.0 points, 9.3 assists, 4.0 rebounds and 1.4 steals in 1995-96 and was named NBA Rookie of the Year.
“From there, they had their moments as a franchise,” Stoudamire said, “but I think that the culmination of what you’re seeing with everything is the Toronto Raptors being in the conference finals. To me, it’s kind of surreal to watch. I still have a lot of friends in Toronto, so I get a lot of calls. Although I’m not there, I still feel like when I’m watching them play, I root for Toronto. Just being there from the beginning and seeing how everything started and seeing where (it’s come) to today (is special).”
The Raptors, who this year won a playoff series for the first time since 2001, play the Cavs in Cleveland in Game 1 on Tuesday. Cleveland is 8-0 in the playoffs, while Toronto is coming off a pair of seven-game series.
That may come back to haunt the Raptors in the conference finals, especially in Game 1.
“They just came off a tough seven-game series. That’s a tough turnaround,” said Stoudamire, who is now the head coach at University of the Pacific. “I feel like Cleveland is a tough team. Cleveland has been clicking on all cylinders. I think Toronto has a shot, but I’m not so sure about having a shot tonight. I think they can keep it close, but I would say Cleveland tonight and overall in this series – I’m going to call for Cleveland in maybe six. Cleveland is a tough team, man.”
Whatever happens in this series, Toronto figures to be a player in the East for the next several seasons. Aside from Luis Scola, 36, Lowry, 30, is the the team’s elder statesman. DeMar DeRozan is 26. DeMarre Carroll is 29. Jonas Valanciunas is 24. Bismarck Biyombo is 23. Terrence Ross is 25. Cory Joseph is 24. Norman Powell is 22.
There’s a lot of youth in Toronto.
“When I look at Toronto, I feel like the future is so bright moving forward,” Stoudamire said. “But to me, you need a little more consistency on where it’s coming from each and every game. That’s the one thing about the playoffs. When you watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play, believe me, you know exactly where it’s coming from each and every game. But Toronto, you’re going to need Kyle and you’re going to need DeMar to play well, but you’re going to have to have those supporting players be on point. Cleveland is more than a two- or three-man team. They have a (good) supporting cast.”
That includes J.R. Smith, who is averaging 12.3 points and shooting 50.8 percent from three in the playoffs.
“I know for New Yorkers it might be a little frustrating,” Stoudamire said. “J.R. Smith, ever since he got out of New York, boy, he looks like a different player. He, to me, is elevating Cleveland to be the team that they need to be.”