Maybe it started when they named the team after a dinosaur in a Steven Spielberg movie, or when the first player they ever drafted refused to report, or when the team’s greatest player left the country to attend his college graduation on the morning of the biggest game in franchise history. But if you believe in that sort of thing, you could draw the conclusion that somewhere along the line, the Toronto Raptors called a curse upon themselves. The team has played in the third fewest playoff games of any franchise, and until the last few years they were a joke, an ersatz team in foreign country with a goofy mascot, and never more so than in their first year.
And yet, somehow, the very first iteration of the Raptors dealt Michael Jordan’s Bulls the strangest of their 10 losses in the 1995-96 season. They only won 21 games, and weren’t worth a damn but for the fact that they existed. During the broadcast, the CTV announcers kept updating viewers on March Madness scores, as if the purpose of the game was just to happen and the result was predestined. But before we get to Žan Tabak gliding in for a series of geometrically ambitious hook shots, or Oliver Miller inexplicably running for 40 minutes, we have to start back in 1992.
From the very beginning, expansion into Canada was fraught with difficulty. Ontario’s provincial government ran and still runs a legal betting system called Pro-Line that brought in hundreds of milliions in revenue for the Canadian province, including $4.5 million from NBA games alone. Most of that went into the regional health-care system, but David Stern took a hardline stance on any NBA-related gambling (which he’s since walked back).
Stern was worried about match fixing, and that allowing Pro-Line to facilitate gambling on Raptors games could theoretically set a precedent for expanded legalized gambling on the NBA and the attendant legal quagmire. But, for the Canadians across the aisle, getting bullied into giving up vital dollars earmarked for public services by an American sports organization was not a good look. But thankfully for Kelly Olynyk’s future employment, the two sides reached a compromise, where the NBA would make up Ontario’s NBA betting revenue gap in donations to local charities and free TV spots in exchange for a cessation of NBA betting.
Months later, the unnamed franchise blessed the world with this charmingly antiquated video, where you, the viewer, got to rove through the jungle like a raptor and hit a full-court shot (somehow without slicing the ball to shit with your claws):
The Raptors could have also been named the Dragons, Tarantulas, Scorpions, T-Rex, or the Huskies, but they wanted to brand themselves as the future’s team, which made it easy to forget Toronto’s place in basketball history. Although he invented basketball in Massachusetts, James Naismith is from Ontario. And it’s more of a historical accident than anything, but the very first NBA (then BAA) game was played in Toronto, between the hometown Huskies (who had a great logo) and the New York Knicks. The only scrap of local history that the Raptors retained was the “Naismith silver” piping on Raptors jerseys, which is about as meaningful a tribute as calling the stitching in airplane seats an homage to the Wright Brothers.
I asked Tas Melas, a co-host of NBATV’s “The Starters” and an Ontario native, if anyone noticed or cared about Toronto’s basketball history when they came to town. He responded immediately: “Absolutely not.” Melas was exactly the type of fan who the Raptors were targeting with their branding scheme. “I was 13 or 14, so I thought it was pretty awesome.”
But while the campy aesthetic appealed to teen boys, NBA players cared more about the lack of talent and Arctic north geography. Chicago’s B.J. Armstrong, Toronto’s first pick in the expansion draft, refused to report, so they were forced to trade him at a discount to Golden State. Over the years, they’d also get rebuffed by Alonzo Mourning, John Salmons, and Kenny Anderson, and left by most stars they drafted. After they traded Damon Stoudamire in 1998, Raptors coach Darrell Walker quit because he didn’t want to coach such a talent-dry team. “It wasn’t a grown up franchise, guys looked at it as a gimmicky, toy of a team,” Melas said.
Even Antonio Davis, the team’s second All-Star after Vince Carter, wanted to leave, in part because he was worried about his kids learning the metric system and Canadian national anthem. The perception of Toronto as a bad NBA town wasn’t exactly helped by its fanbase, who’d barely been exposed to NBA basketball, and didn’t know how to use thundersticks:
Murray remembered fans banging proto-Thundersticks even as he or one of his teammates shot free throws, instead of the opponents. Eventually, according to Dave Hopkinson, who was then a ticket sales representative, the Raptors had to hand out the bangers one half at a time.
While the Raps didn’t yet have credibility as a basketball city, they already had rabid fans. On March 24, 1996, the night Michael Jordan came to town, 36,131 Torontonians packed the SkyDome. It was the Raptors’ most consequential game of the season. Since they were never going to sniff the playoffs, the sheer spectacle of a Canadian city hosting the most famous basketball player in the NBA on the best team that ever played was as big time as Toronto basketball had ever been. Twenty years later, Melas still recalled a trove of details from the game, which was, as he said, “their NBA Finals ... their Super Bowl.”
One of those details: coach Brendan Malone used a seven-man rotation. Tracy Murray and Damon Stoudamire only sat for three combined minutes, and the bench’s involvement in the game was limited to situational usage of Doug Christie (to tire out Michael Jordan and space the floor) and Žan Tabak (as Oliver Miller life support). This probably goes without saying, but Malone’s gameplan was oriented around stopping Jordan, to an occasionally preposterous degree.
There’s this moment when Christie, who’s supposed to be keeping an eye on Steve Kerr, affords one of the best three-point shooters of all time 15 odd feet of space so he can be the auxiliary help defender on Jordan. It’s about as close to a triple team as you can get while still maintaining a semi-credible defensive exoskeleton. It’s the gameplan of a team here to make the most of its shot at the king of the NBA. Kerr and Toni Kukoc, who scored 17 and 23 points respectively, have Toronto’s largesse to thank for their big games that night.
When you’re good enough to win 72 times, you’ll just sort of roll over most bad teams by virtue of talent alone. Toronto wasn’t even in the same phylum as Chicago, but they also weren’t taking on the Bulls close to their terrifying peak. The Bulls were as depleted as they’d get all year, as Luc Longley missed the game with knee tendinitis and Dennis Rodman was on suspension for headbutting a referee. A game after three days of rest can’t responsibly be called a schedule loss, but the last game the Bulls played before going to Canada was against the Knicks, who’d dealt them their only blowout loss of the season (in Jeff Van Gundy’s second game at the helm). Let’s call it an emotional hangover.
The Raptors did not, in fact, shut down Michael Jordan. As I’m a dreaded millenial, I’d never really watched prime Jordan before, so allow me to be the one millionth person to note his impossible grace. (Here are some other observations on basketball during the Mesozoic: the officiating was more casual; Steve Kerr would be even better in today’s NBA; the ball used to be a far brighter hue of orange.) Anyway, Jordan operated with this unbelievable mechanical efficiency, and he torched the Raps for 36 points without ever really looking like he was pushing it. Toronto had a two-point lead after halftime, and Jordan nearly shot them out of the game in the third. There he was, pulling up from 20 feet right in Doug Christie’s eye, or whirling around Tracy Murray to jam it on a hapless Oliver Miller. They only stuck around because of Damon Stoudamire.
Much like the man who drafted him, Isiah Thomas, Stoudamire was a short point guard who could get to the hoop and score. He never had a better season than 1995-96 with Toronto, where he won Rookie of the Year, and he never had a better game that season than against the Bulls. When Jordan started to make that solo run in the third, Stoudamire went straight at him, pulling up three feet behind the line, tossing alley-oops to Oliver Miller, and dribbling his way into a raft of irresponsible shots. To beat down a generational team like the ‘96 Bulls, you need some breaks, and Damon darting all over the court like an electron and hitting six of eight three-pointers certainly qualifies. He was never better, and Raptors fans thought they had a true superstar on their hands. Melas told me, “We thought, ‘Oh, this guy’s a Hall of Famer.’”
The Raptors’ second-most important player that night was Miller. One of the great things about expansion teams is that they’re these weird little labs for players to get high usage rates they probably don’t deserve. Miller took almost twice as many shots per game as his career average in ‘96, and he was never slimmer. A player whose greatest legacy is for being a physically unwieldy dude was out here starting fast breaks, blocking Michael Jordan, hitting a dream shake, and running the offense out of the high post like a moon-sized Brad Miller. In the third quarter, he leapt to take the ball out of the net and fired a one-foot, full-court bomb to Stoudamire for an easy layup. The Chicago Tribune’s gamer singled out Toronto’s dominance in the paint as the game’s deciding factor. It was Miller who scored the game’s last points and helped seal it on the final play of the night.
After Jordan hit one of his signature fadeaways to give the Bulls a two-point lead with less than a minute, Tracy Murray tied it back up after the Raps ran a perfect inbounds play. Jordan got to the rack on Murray, but Murray timed his jump perfectly and blocked it straight to Miller. The big man drew a foul and hit a free throw, and the Raps just had to shut down Michael Jordan for one last possession to win. Here’s what happened.
Christie’s on Jordan. With 10 seconds left, Bill Wennington successfully screens Christie off, and Miller has to check Jordan. Somehow, Miller pokes it away to Steve Kerr, who scrambles around and gives off to Scottie Pippen. Pippen holds, gives it back to Steve Kerr, who lines up a nice look at a three. You can just feel the weight of thousands of groans as the ball caroms off the rim to Jordan. Because he’s Jordan, he did not miss, arching a high leaner off the glass. Game over.
Except Jordan held it just a few microseconds too many. The would-be game-winner was on his palm when the buzzer went off, and only broke Canadian hearts for a brief coda until the officials waved it off. Bulls lose. 60-8.
The players celebrated like they’d just won a title. Everyone stayed on the court, slapping ass and hugging, while Kool & The Gang blasted over the house speakers. It WOULD turn out to be the biggest Raptors win until the 2001 playoffs. By then, Vince Carter was a mega-star and they’d achieved the stability that their expansion-mates Vancouver never did before shuffling off to Memphis. That’s five years of desert, though, when the team truly went to shit and turned into the joke Melas described. As he told me, “That game was the bright spot for the first few years, there wasn’t anything more.”
Tracy Murray went one step further. He told “The Handle” podcast that the win over the Bulls was franchise-altering, and responsible for the Raptors newfound competence as an organization:
The reason why the Toronto Raptors are in the position that they’re in right now—going to the playoffs, continuing to get very good players in their franchise—[is] because we established a style of play and a winning attitude way back there in the beginning in 1995.
Melas wouldn’t go that far, saying specifically that he, “wouldn’t call it franchise changing.” It is sort of impossible to determine if it actually did mean anything. Vince Carter is the sun around which Raptors franchise history orbits, and none of the guys on the 1996 team ever became players of consequence (unless you want to count Doug Christie, which, okay, sure). But one of the defining features of those early years was this pointed desire for respect and legitimacy in the eyes of the rest of the NBA.
The Raptors didn’t immediately lose their status as a joke after beating the Bulls. In fact it got worse, as the attrition only intensified over the rest of the decade. But after the game, here’s what Michael Jordan said of the team:
“You have to give them credit,” Jordan told The Canadian Press. “Expansion team? Once again, this is not an expansion team.”
That’s as legitimizing as any single person’s approval gets. Winning a game in March, no matter the opponent or situation, probably won’t have any kind of multi-decade ripple effect. Vince Carter, Chris Bosh, and Tracy McGrady all still become Raptors, for a while, even if Jordan hits that game-winner a half-second earlier. But, for a night, the Raptors were on top of the NBA world, and that’s not something that could have been predicted of them at any point in their previous four years in their journey from concept to reptilian basketball team.
This is the eighth blog in our series Nearly Perfect, chronicling all 10 regular season losses of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls. You can read the introduction here, and the other blogs in the series here.