When Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri reached out to fans of the team directly last week, through selected interviews, a carefully crafted statement and op-ed, he didn’t not so much trying to put pressure on the Canadian government – which had fate. of his team in his hands – as he tried to shed some light on the potential benefits of having the Raptors play at home this quickly approaching NBA season.
“As the winter months approach, as we approach our second calendar year with COVID, I think sport has a role to play in our collective recovery,” he wrote in an editorial in the Toronto Star.
“I think we can bring people together, even when we’re apart. I think we can inspire. I think we can lead by example. I know we’ll share what we learn from playing this season under safety protocols, and maybe this experience will make it a little easier for all of us to get back to the life we left behind in March 2020. ”
Clearly, the federal government and in particular Health Canada were willing to find a way to accommodate the Raptors – who submitted a plan for both their own protocols as they sought to be exempt from quarantine rules in the Hope to make it to games back and forth across the US border, and on behalf of the 29 other NBA teams they would host in Toronto during the season.
The Raptors had consulted both the Toronto Blue Jays – who had requested a similar exemption last summer and had been cleared to train in Toronto only to be sent to Buffalo – and with the NHL, which had managed to establish “quarantine bubbles.” In Toronto and Edmonton to play the 2019-2020 regular season and playoffs.
In each case, there were no positive tests for COVID-19 and the cost of the tests was borne by the teams and the leagues.
Rather than being a source of community spread, professional sports teams have proven that with diligent testing, tracing and other protocols, the virus can be kept at bay.
But in the end, as the Raptors desperately searched for an answer so that they could properly plan for the opening of training camp on December 1 and the regular season on December 22, the government said it could not offer the exemptions. in Toronto and the NBA. they needed to play at home.
“The Raptors have worked diligently with public health officials at the local, provincial and federal levels to secure a plan that would allow us to play our 2020-2021 season at home and on our field at the Scotiabank Arena,” Ujiri said. in a press release. posted Friday afternoon, a few hours before the opening of the free agents trading window at 6 p.m.
“These conversations have been productive and we have found strong support for the protocols we offer. Ultimately, the current public health situation for Canadians, combined with the urgent need to determine where we will play, means we will begin our 2020-2021 season in Tampa, Florida.
Instead of being a symbol of renewal and a hint of normalcy, which they were pinning their hopes on, the Raptors likely realized that with the number of cases increasing and governments at all levels being forced to ask people to cooperate with. additional restrictions, and probably for a long time, now was not the time to allow anyone to gain special privileges.
The irony is that perhaps no industry (outside of health care) has been more vigilant, docile, and overall successful in continuing amid the pandemic than sport and the NBA in particular.
The Raptors and Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, in particular, have been leaders in both their actions and their messages. Their platforms effectively communicated the need to wear masks and respect social distancing, and during the first wave lockdown they quickly rotated their facilities to use them for food preparation for frontline workers. and food banks.
But there were no tokens to cash or any favors given.
It wasn’t politics, it was public health and – not that the Raptors were pushing them into it – there were no shortcuts or exceptions.
On a rational level, the possibility that Jayson Tatum and the Boston Celtics – themselves subjected to almost daily testing – fly to Toronto by private jet, then travel by private bus to an otherwise largely empty downtown hotel for a while. night before taking the bus to an empty Scotiabank arena being the source of an epidemic of any kind is ridiculously remote.
Likewise, the Raptors – also undergoing routine testing – sort of becoming super spreaders after playing a game under similar circumstances in Boston or elsewhere don’t quite hold up to logic.
But it’s an emotional time. Logic doesn’t necessarily matter.
Even Ujiri’s relationship with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was of no use, if anything, it probably forced the government to be even more careful, but rather to make it seem like a health issue. public could somehow be influenced by friendship.
And so now the Raptors must shift their gaze south and face the massive logistical challenge of temporarily leading an NBA team out of a new city in another country – a country where the pandemic is raging, seemingly out of control. .
Almost everything that is taken for granted when the NBA Circus is in town needs to be recreated from scratch.
As a first step, the Raptors will hold a training camp north of Tampa at Saint Leo University, a Division II school, and then use a downtown Tampa hotel ballroom equipped as a facility for training, separated from the public.
Now begins the work of sourcing two NBA regulatory floors, for example, and equipping a world-class weight room and sports medicine clinic.
It is estimated that a group of nearly 60 staff, players and coaches will have to move on as little as 10 days’ notice.
To avoid these obstacles, and for many other reasons, the Raptors hoped they could play at home and do business like a version of normal.
But even the appearance of allowing a business to operate outside of everyone’s rules was the wrong symbol at the wrong time.