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Raptors thrill Island basketball fans during open scrimmage

The crowd started building outside Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre on Friday even before the scrimmage, several rows deep, as fans chanted and cheered in greeting the Toronto Raptors as they alighted from the team bus in the parking lot.
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Team Black's Scottie Barnes goes up for a dunk against Team Grey at Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre on Friday. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

The crowd started building outside Save-on-Foods Memorial Centre on Friday even before the scrimmage, several rows deep, as fans chanted and cheered in greeting the Toronto Raptors as they alighted from the team bus in the parking lot. Inside the building, a raucous capacity crowd of 7,000 greeted the team for a mere scrimmage.

The unifying nature of national teams is obvious and was evident through hockey in 1972 and 2010 and will be in soccer next month in Qatar. But to accomplish that at the club level is truly extraordinary. The national followings that the Raptors and Toronto Blue Jays have, as the lone respective Canadian teams in the NBA and MLB, was evidenced by Friday’s turnout for the Raptors and by fans across the country avidly following the Jays’ playoff chase.

“We’re Canadians, obviously, and this is the only NBA team,” said UVic student Taylynn Smid from Duncan, wearing a No. 7 Kyle Lowry jersey, in honour of the former Raptors star.

“It’s exciting they are here.”

Her friends Aaron Parenow and Kassidy Ralfs sported Lowry and No. 2 Kawhi Leonard Raptors jerseys of old, respectively. Brother Shadynn Smid, a freshman on the University of Vikes out of Cowichan Secondary, said it was almost surreal to think that one of the Raptors was using his locker at UVic during the closed portion of training camp during the week. He also saw star guard Fred VanVleet eating in a downtown restaurant during the week and keeping it “pretty low key.”

There was nothing low key about Friday night as the sold-out crowd, which included Super Fan Nav Bhatia, was enthusiastic and loud. Among the many signs was one reading: “Scottie 4 MVP.” Who knows? The 2021-22 NBA rookie-of-the-year Scottie Barnes might just get there. After all, whoever thought a skinny kid named Steve Nash would dribble from Victoria to earn two NBA MVP awards?

Barnes came out during introductions and played to the crowd, gesturing. “That’s Scottie. He has a joyful spirit about him,” said Raptors teammate Gary Trent Jr. About the scrimmage, Trent Jr. added: “We came tonight to work hard and put on a show.”

That they certainly did.

A moment of silence was held before the game to commemorate Truth and Reconciliation Day and Raptors coach staff were in orange shirts, as were hundreds in the stands. All proceeds from ticket sales went to Indigenous causes on the Island.

Raptors head coach Nick Nurse took the microphone to thank Victoria for supporting the Raptors and Canadian national team, the latter of which he is also head coach, and which has also played to sold-out crowds at the Memorial Centre on the road to the 2024 Paris Olympics.

After the game, Nurse said: “It’s special out here [Victoria], as it was for the [Canada versus] Argentina game. It was fun for our guys tonight.”

The Raptors know how to play to their national fan base. This is the 12th time the NBA club has held their training camp outside Toronto and the second time in Victoria, and seventh time overall in B.C. The Raptors will also play exhibition games Sunday against the Utah Jazz at Rogers Place in Edmonton and Oct. 14 against the Boston Celtics at the Bell Centre in Montreal.

“It’s special to have a whole country behind you,” said Nurse.

It’s great that the organization has decided to move around the country.”

The interest in the Raptors is expressed in some quirkily impassioned ways. The floor at the Memorial Centre on which the scrimmage was held Friday is the one on which the team won the 2019 NBA championship. It is the Oracle Arena floor from Oakland, California, on which Toronto captured Game 6 of the final against the Golden State Warriors. It was purchased by the non-profit Friends of Victoria Basketball last year for $270,000. Friends of Victoria Basketball staged the scrimmage, the Tokyo Olympic qualifying tournament last summer and the FIBA 2023 World Cup qualifying victory by Canada over Argentina in August.

cdheensaw@timescolonist.com

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