March 24th 1996: The day that forever set the tone for Toronto Raptors basketball
March 24th 1996. A tale of two cities to rival that of Dickens’ classic. One a perennial powerhouse about to start their second three-peat in eight years. The other, an expansion team named after Jurassic Park that was more known for its unique logo than its basketball talent - Canada’s team, our team, the Toronto Raptors.
However, on this night, it would be the young, upstart franchise that walked away victorious. But in order to fully appreciate the significance of this event, we must first look deeper at its history.
November 1st 1946, the date of the first NBA game in Toronto. In fact, this was the first ever NBA game - called the Basketball Association of America until the 1949-50 season when it merged with the National Basketball League to create the National Basketball Association, or NBA.
The Toronto Huskies hosted the New York Knickerbockers at Maple Leaf Gardens (MLG) in the NBA’s inaugural game. Although the Huskies lost 68-66, the inclusion of a Canadian basketball team showed promise for the sport in its country of origin.
After finishing the season 22-38 - sixth in the Eastern Division, ninth in the league (out of eleven) - the Huskies missed the playoffs. Following the start of 1947-48, four teams folded - including Toronto - and with the addition of the ABLs Baltimore Bullets brought the total down to eight teams in the league.
And so, after just one season, and roughly $100,000 in expenses lost by the team’s owners, it appeared that Toronto’s dreams of a pro basketball team appeared lost.
For a long time after, Canada’s dreams of an NBA team remained just that - dreams. Then this hope appeared a possibility once more in the 1970s when NBA basketball was once again brought back to Canada, this time in the form of the Buffalo Braves.
Following three NBA games across the 1970-71 and 1971-72 seasons - including one featuring the new Buffalo Braves - the Braves management agreed in principle to play some of their home games in Toronto.
For the Braves, this allowed them to not have to worry about arranging venues for their games - as they had to compete with the NHL’s Buffalo Sabres and the Canisius College Men’s Basketball program for rights to home games in Buffalo.
For Toronto, this allowed them the opportunity to compete and, hopefully, prove they deserve the rights to once again have a pro team in their city.
As a result, the 1973-74 season saw the announcement of ten Braves home games to be played at MLG - one exhibition and nine regular season.
Over this span, MLG averaged 7,600 fans per game - just under half of its max capacity - and the team went 5-5. Included in this span was the Braves March 10th game against the Portland Trailblazers which let the team - and the city of Toronto - experience their first time clinching playoff action.
This experiment of bringing basketball back North was considered successful enough that the NBA awarded the city of Toronto the rights to a new franchise.
Furthermore, the Braves agreed to play six more games in Toronto during the 1974-75 season, and ads for these games promised the arrival of a new team in Toronto full-time from as early as the next season.
However, Buffalo’s owner Paul Snyder turned down an $8.5 million over to relocate the team to Toronto - although this did not signal success for pro Basketball in Buffalo, as the team was sold in 1978 and relocated to San Diego.
Once again, it seemed like Canada’s hopes for an NBA franchise were in disarray.
Then came Larry Tanenbaum.
The start of the 1990s saw a renewed effort to bring basketball back to Canada, with the only two NBA (exhibition) games in Canada between the time of Braves and eventual Toronto Raptors - in 1989 and 1992 - both drawing in more than 25,000 fans to the SkyDome, Toronto’s new large-scale sporting arena.
Tanenbaum was one the main voices behind the movement to bring basketball back North, putting down an unsolicited $100,000 application for an expansion team in 1991.
Basketball fans would have to wait until 1993, when Professional Basketball Franchise (Canada) Inc put down a successful formal bid for the rights to a team in Toronto. It was this that saw the Toronto Raptors created, and the organisation began to prepare for the 1995-96 season as their inaugural run - although their name was not officially announced until May 1994.
For all his work in bringing a team back to Canada, Tanenbaum is held in high regard by most Canadian sports fans. He went on to purchase the team outright in 1998, and has continued to help financially and support the organisation in such a way that we are able to look back and appreciate all that the team has achieved in this timespan.
It is with the long, troubled history of Canadian professional basketball in mind that we are able to fully appreciate what we now have in the Toronto Raptors. A successful basketball team. A successful Canadian basketball team. Our team.
And all good stories start with a defining moment, a sign of what's to come. For us, that moment was the night of March 24th 1996.
The night Toronto put Canadian basketball on the NBA map.
The night we slayed the giants.
This matchup between Toronto and Chicago was the fourth and final one between the two franchises this season, and the most interesting yet.
But what happened in the first three games against the Bulls that season?
The Bulls were eager to prove what they could do with their first season of MJ back - because apparently the playoff loss to Orlando the year before meant that didn’t count as his first year back…
And so, as underdogs always do when backed in a corner, the Raptors came into the third game of the season series eager to prove they weren’t just some new kid on the block waiting to be thrown around.
It ended up taking all fifty-four of MJ and Scottie Pippen’s combined points to save them from an upset. Toronto had come out swinging.
Damon Stoudamire - the Raptors first ever draft pick, and eventual Rookie of the Year - led the charge with an impressive twenty-six point and twelve assist performance. However, this ended up being not enough, as a last second three to tie the game by Oliver Miller fell just short.
Despite the loss, taking the team thought to be unbeatable down to the wire - the team with only three losses in thirty-six games - proved to the Raptors players that they could do what others doubted, they had what it takes to challenge the best.
Then it happened.
In the fourth matchup of the season, the Raptors came out hot early, holding a 28-23 lead at the end of the first quarter.
It was clear the team had learnt their lesson from the previous games, as renewed effort was placed on taking the ball out of Jordan’s hands and keeping him from scoring.
And it seemed to be working.
Going into the half Toronto maintained a 56-54 lead, and had held Jordan to only thirteen points - one behind Stoudamire, who led the game so far with fourteen.
As the second half resumed, people prepared for the ending of what was shaping up to be a close game - but they had no idea how close yet.
The third quarter saw the Bulls make a solid run, ending the quarter up 83-79. But, as the saying goes, diamonds are made under pressure.
Stoudamire stepped up big, hitting his rookie record one hundred and twenty-sixth three-pointer - ending the season with one hundred and thirty-three - and keeping pressure on Chicago’s defense.
Stoudamire proved why he is the ‘Mighty Mouse’ as the small, scrappy Point Guard led the way in a clutch fourth quarter comeback.
Fighting right down to the wire - including a made final shot by MJ that was dismissed as it was just after the buzzer upon review- the team proved their mental and physical toughness as they stopped the Bulls six game win streak in their tracks.
108-109. One point. One win. One of ten losses the Bulls took all season.
Now, despite the poor record at season end, the Raptors can forever hold their head high saying they were one of nine teams to beat the 72-win Bulls - as Indiana had beat them twice.
As the season went on, and the ‘95-’96 Bulls stock rose, it only added to the feeling of pride the Raptors had in their victory. Forever onwards, Toronto will always be etched in history as the team that proved themselves against the eventual MVP, the eventual Champions - the greatest dynasty of the ‘90s.
Now, twenty-five years later, we can look at this in a new light, appreciating not only what it meant at the time, but also what it means now.
The thirty point comeback vs Dallas, ‘The Shot’, Game 6, the one hundred bench points in Game 4 vs Brooklyn, this franchise has so many iconic games - and all of these just within the last three seasons!
But still today the words of play-by-play commentator John Saunders ring true, this was the “biggest win of this young franchise” - and arguably still is.
This game means so much more than just a regular season win. This game was proof of our credibility as an NBA calibre team. This game was proof we were here, and here to stay.
In front of more than 36,000 fans - most of whom might have just come to see MJ in person - we put on a show for the ages.
This was the game that showed Canada what there was to love about basketball. This was the day that showed what there was to love about the Raptors.
Before the 2019 title run, before the loveable duo of Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan, before Vince Carter brought highlight dunks to Toronto on a nightly basis, this was the moment that the Raptors fan base could rally behind.
Just ask the Vancouver Grizzlies how much a loyal fanbase means - sorry, we miss you!
Whilst the Grizzlies didn’t relocate until the 2001-02 season, the writing was on the wall from the start of the 1998 lockout.
With the season reduced to just fifty games in 1998-99, both of the expansion teams were faced with the tough situation of incoming financial hardship - a double blow due to the large amounts they had to spend to secure the rights to, and facilities for, their new NBA franchises.
Unfortunately, Vancouver never was able to fully recover, with their attendance failing to the point the owners believed they had no other option but to sell the team to a new owner - a new owner they knew would most likely relocate their team south, back to America.
And so it’s no overreaction to say that this game saved basketball in Canada. Without this iconic win, live in front of 36,000 fans - and millions more on TV - who knows if we’d be able to look back now and talk about the Toronto Raptors.
This is why, even twenty years on, this game means so much to Raptors fans, old and new.
It’s why many fans have been incredibly vocal about what this game means for them - even a quarter century later.
Sam Johnson, 33, stated how: “It was our franchises first ‘greatest moment’ [and] 8 year-old me was f***ing pumped.”
This sentiment is shared by many, including Josh Smith, 47, who stated that: “This is by far the biggest regular season win in franchise history, nothing comes close to this”.
Mr Smith described the atmosphere in the arena as he watched live: “[It] sold out the skydome, if I’m not mistaken this is also the largest crowd for a Raptors game too.
“Right down to the last second miss by MJ, the whole crowd was electric, everyone was watching as if they couldn’t quite believe it was really happening.”
Even younger fans like James Baldwin, 29, stated how: “I don’t remember a single detail of the game, but I remember how excited I was, and it is one of my favourite sports memories because of that feeling”.
Even for fans such as Mr Baldwin who watched the game at home, the energy of the arena was palpable at home, as Raptor fans all over became united by this historic moment.
But as any true sports fan knows, it's not enough just to be happy in your team's success - you must also be able to take happiness from the misery of your rivals and their fans.
Chicago fans such as Darrell Turner stated how: “[I] remember[ed] any time those Bull[s] lost a game it was an utter shock. It was a strange feeling to even think they could lose.”
Justin de Rosa, 29, went further to state - possibly hyperbolically - how: “[It] was the day after I turned 4 years-old. I[‘ve] never been the same since then to be honest”.
It’s clear how much of a lasting impact this game had - both on Raptor fans and basketball fans as a whole. But the longer lasting impact on the Toronto Raptors organisation from this game can be seen clearly - if you know where to look.
On that fateful day, many aspects of future Raptors teams could be seen. First and foremost, is the mindset of hard work and hustle above all else.
Despite its size - both financial and population - Toronto is not a big ‘basketball market’.
No big name free agent has ever chosen to come here - sorry José Calderon but you don’t count.
No one has ever forced a trade to come here - looking at you, L.A. Lakers…
Instead, we’ve had to take what we were given and make the most out of it, and we’ve made some good stuff for sure.
While the ‘95-’96 roster technically had three lottery picks, all but one of them - Stoudamire - were acquired through the expansion draft.
Now, I have nothing against the expansion draft, in fact I’m incredibly grateful for the players we acquired and their willingness to help establish the name of a new franchise, but there was a reason these players were available for us - their teams thought they were not worth protecting...
This idea of undervalued players striving to prove their worth through fully committing to the organisation and its aims is one of the most unique aspects of our team. During the Masai Ujiri era, the Raptors have continually collected players thought not good enough to contribute to winning basketball - Siakam, VanVleet, Boucher, etc - and turned them into key pieces of a successful NBA team.
In fact, it is well known that our 2019 Championship roster was the first team ever to win without a single lottery pick.
Instead, the organisation chose to build itself around players who were willing to work for everything they got, never getting anything handed to them.
Both the core and the bench were filled with late first-rounders, second-rounders, and undrafted free agents, eager to prove that they not only deserved a place in the league, but that they had what it takes to win it all.
And there is no one player archetype that thrives on this idea of hustle and hard work paying off - or ‘betting on yourself’, as Fred would say - than the undersized guards that have become a staple of Raptors basketball.
With the franchise’s first ever pick, the organisation showed full commitment to this belief that no one should be counted out. That even in the sport of basketball - where height is considered a necessity - they would prove to the world that anything is possible. They would be the team of underdogs ready to prove the world wrong.
Damon Stoudamire was selected seventh in the 1995 draft and had proved the Raptors right to have trusted him on numerous occasions. Leading the charge against the Bulls with thirty points and eleven assists, setting the rookie record for threes in a season, being name All-star rookie game MVP, eventually winning Rookie of the Year - the undersized Point Guard showed the underdog franchise that everyone can compete, no matter how much the odds are stacked against them.
Clearly Stoudamire made a lasting impression, as this archetype of a small, gritty, pass-first Point Guard who’s willing to commit fully to defense became a staple of Raptors basketball and its culture. From Stoudamire to Muggsy Bouges, TJ Ford, Kyle Lowry, and now Fred VanVleet, the team's culture has consistently been set by those who seem to have the most to prove.
The success of this approach is evident to us now, as we can fully look back on what it led to. For it was in the biggest game in franchise history - Game 6 of the 2019 finals - that two barely six-foot guards put the North on their backs.
Kawhi Leonard's performance was admirable - and well deserving of FMVP - but it was Lowry’s near triple-double with three steals that brought the title home. It was VanVleet’s twenty-two points off the bench that sealed the deal. It was two guards in the image of our franchise's first guard - Stoudamire - that once again showed the world what was possible if you didn’t allow yourself to be doubted.
And now, as it looks like the Kyle Lowry era of Raptors basketball may be over, we once again can feel safe in the hands of an undersized guard. The undersized guard who battled it out as an undrafted free agent to become an NBA Champion. The undersized guard who dropped a franchise record fifty-four points this last season - a record for any undrafted player. Our undersized guard, Fred VanVleet.
Looking back twenty-five years later, it is clear to see how much this game against the Bulls meant, and still means, to the Toronto Raptors - both to the organisation and the fanbase.
One regular season game in March 1996 set the tone for the first quarter century of Raptors basketball. One game that created the culture of our organisation. One game that will forever live on in the lore of Canadian basketball.
The day we slayed the giants.
March 24th 1996.
(Publication date: March 24th 2021)