TORONTO – From top to bottom, the Toronto Raptors are an organization that prides itself on resiliency and the ability to roll with the punches.
That’s been tested throughout a trying eight months – amid a global pandemic and the ongoing fight for social justice – and it’s about to be tested again.
As Canada’s lone NBA club, they will be the only team in the league to begin the 2020-21 season playing home games away from home.
In a statement from team president Masai Ujiri released on Friday afternoon – just a few hours before free agency was set to open around the association and less than two weeks prior to the start of training camp – the Raptors announced that they will be temporarily relocating to Tampa.
“The Raptors worked diligently with public health officials at the local, provincial and federal level to secure a plan that would permit us to play our 2020-21 season on home soil and on our home court at Scotiabank Arena,” Ujiri said in the press release. “These conversations were productive, and we found strong support for the protocols we put forward. Ultimately, the current public health situation facing Canadians, combined with the urgent need to determine where we will play means that we will begin our 2020-21 season in Tampa.
“We want to thank all levels of government and their public health officials for their dedication to this process, and for looking after the health of Canadians. We commit to continuing our work together, planning for a safe return to play in Toronto. And as an organization, we remain committed to doing all we can to promote and demonstrate public health measures to help combat the spread of COVID-19 in Canada.”
It was no secret that the Raptors’ stated and strong preference was to play in Toronto for this abbreviated 72-game season, which opens on Dec. 22. While it always seemed like a long shot – with cases soaring in both Canada and the United States, and the border remaining closed for all non-essential travel – that was their hope until the federal government officially ruled against it on Friday.
The biggest obstacle, as sources confirmed to TSN, was the mandated 14-day quarantine period for those crossing the border from the U.S. into Canada, which would have needed to be lifted for the Raptors to host games. It’s the same reason the Blue Jays’ exemption request was denied ahead of the baseball season in July.
As general manager Bobby Webster put it earlier this week, the team has been on “parallel paths” for weeks – working to come up with safety protocols and procedures that would satisfy governments in both countries, while also doing their due diligence and looking into several contingency options stateside.
Multiple temporary homes were considered, including Newark, N.J., Nashville, Buffalo – where the Jays played their games – and Kansas City. Some were even in the running as recently as last week.
However, Tampa emerged as a favourite among the players who were consulted in the process, according to sources. For the team’s most prominent players, the warm weather and no state income tax made Florida an ideal alternate home.
As unlikely as it seems, the Raptors have not ruled out the possibility of moving their operations back to Toronto later this season if the conditions, and the government, allow. The NBA will be releasing its schedule in two parts, which gives the team an opportunity to reassess the situation in the spring.
But for the foreseeable future, the Raptors will have to adjust on the fly, again, and get comfortable in their new surroundings. They're expected to play home games at Amalie Arena, home of the NHL's Lightning.
“We’ll be away from our home and our fans for now,” said Ujiri. “They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I’m not sure that’s possible for us – we love Toronto and Canada, and we know we have the best fans in the NBA. For now, I’ll ask you to cheer for us from afar, and we’ll look forward to the day we are all together again.”