On June 13, 2019, the Toronto Raptors made history defeating the reigning two-time champs, the Golden State Warriors, in Game 6 of the finals, giving them their first ever NBA Championship in their twenty-four year franchise history. Prior to this year, the Raptors had never even won the Eastern Conference title.
For those of you who watch basketball, you might have heard that this is not just a big deal for Torontonians but also for all of Canada. The Raptors are the only Canadian NBA team and, frankly, anything right now that unites us rather than divides us is something we’re all too happy to celebrate.
It’s important that I’m upfront about my bias: I’m from Toronto. I was born here, raised here and, after temporarily leaving to attend undergrad and law school, as an adult live and work in Toronto.
But this piece isn’t a love letter to Toronto. It’s my hunch as to why the Raptors defied the odds that were stacked against them.
Aside from Kawhi Leonard, none of the Raptors are epic mega stars. We don’t have Lebron James or Stephen Curry.
This was also Nick Nurse’s first year as head coach of the Raptors — and first year as head coach of any NBA team for that matter.
So what was the Raptors’ secret sauce?
How did they manage to win both their first Eastern Conference title and the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in the same season?
I suspect its the inner attributes of the individual players than their external attributes. In other words, their attitude, discipline, and mindset as opposed to their genetics.
Most people don’t know the back stories of some of the starting players. Raised in adversity, fuelled by internal ambition, these underdogs beat the odds in their personal lives long before they landed in the NBA.
It’s undeniable that the Raptors are a skilled team but it was heart, not height, that helped them secure their spot as world champs.
Meet the Team
Kyle Lowry grew up in north Philadelphia. His father left the family when he was young, forcing his mother to raise two kids alone. In a piece for the The Players Tribune, Lowry wrote:
When I was about seven, my father took me, my brother Lonnie and my half-sister Laquira to breakfast. There’s really only one thing I remember from that morning — it’s the last memory of seeing or dealing with my father.
His father’s absence affected his ability to be a teamplayer and take advise from coaches. In an interview with Grantland, Dave Distel, one of Lowry’s youth-league coaches, stated:
It took extraordinarily long for most men to even get a chance to talk to him because he just had that stigma in his head that somebody’s out to fuck me. Somebody’s out to screw me and I don’t trust anybody. The only people I trust is my mom, my grandmother, and my brother.”
It was only until he began working with Masai Ujiri, then-General Manager of the Raptors, that he started to see that his mistrust of others was getting in the way from winning. Ujiri famously told Lowry:
Do you want to be a $3 million player, $2 million player for the rest of your career and become a minimum player or do you want to be a $10 million player or more? Talent says you are that type of player, but the attitude and the way you carry yourself says the other. You can be so much better.
His talk with Ujiri, and the birth of his first son, changed his attitude. He resigned with the Raptors and led them to this season’s victory.
Point guard Fred VanVleet grew up in Rockford, Illinois. When he was five, his father was shot and killed in a drug deal.
At first glance, VanVleet doesn’t seem like an elite athlete. At 6"0, he’s one of the shortest players on the team.
VanVleet is loyal. When he was in high school, he chose to stay at his local Rockford Amateur Athletic Union club team rather than play on more high-profile teams in Chicago.
When he graduated high school, he chose to attend Witchita State University, where he led the 2013–14 team to their first 31–0 regular season in NCAA Division I’s men’s basketball history. After the regular season of his senior year, he was named Missouri Valley Conference all-league first team and the MVC Larry Bird Trophy Player of the Year.
And still, despite the accolades and the impeccable stats, VanVleet was not selected in the 2016 NBA draft. Disappointed, he agreed to play in the 2016 NBA Summer League with the Toronto Raptors, with the hope that he would sign to the Raptors’ training camp. There was one spot left and five other guys vying for it. He beat them out and landed on the roster.
Fast-forward three years, and he found himself playing 64 games of the regular season and every game in the playoffs.
On February 7, he set a career high with 30 points in a win over the Atlanta Hawks. In the final game of the playoffs, Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors, he scored 22 points with five 3-pointers off the bench.
Nothing for VanVleet came easy. Growing up in the rough part of town of Rockford, Illinois, he didn’t have any role models. In 2013, Rockford was ranked No. 3 on Forbes’s list of “America’s Most Miserable Cities,” in part due to the 11.2% unemployment rate. He explained:
None of your friends have parents that are doctors or established businessmen. Nobody is in the NBA. Nobody is a famous rapper. I’ve got friends whose parents work three jobs. They don’t know where their next meal is going to come from. When you’ve got a bunch of people living in poverty like that, bad things happen.
Auburn High School, where he attended, was rough. One student wore a bulletproof vest after being shot in the leg; Someone was stabbed to death during school hours across the street.
“I got tired of hearing all the stories about ‘this guy should’ve made it, but he had 10 kids.’ Or, ‘this guy could’ve gone to the NBA, but he started selling drugs.’ I didn’t want there to be a ‘but…’ attached to my story. I didn’t want to be another statistic.” — Fred VanVleet
Kawhi Leonard, the pride and joy of the Raptors, grew up without a father too. When Leonard was 16, his father was shot and killed in front of the car wash he owned in Compton. To this date, his murder remains unsolved.
He commented to the media, “I think it just gave me a sense and feel that life and basketball are two different things and just really enjoy your time and moments.”
Perspective has helped Leonard remain calm and composed. In an interview with the LA Times, he explained:
Basketball helps me take my mind off things, picking me up every day when I’m feeling down
…I try to play as hard as I can each night. That’s what my father wanted me to do.
Pascal Siakam grew up in Cameroon. Growing up, he didn’t even want to play basketball. But in 2012, he was convinced to attend a Basketball Without Borders camp run by the NBA and FIBA in South Africa. There, he got recruited to play basketball in the States.
Soon after, he moved to Texas to play high school basketball and in 2013, he enrolled to play for New Mexico State University. It’s what his father wanted.
But it wasn’t all sun and rainbows for Siakam. In 2014, his father was killed in a car crash back in Cameroon. Siakam couldn’t attend the funeral due to his commitments in New Mexico.
“We were all hurting. I talked to my brothers and they told me staying in the U.S. was the right thing to do, that focusing on basketball would have made my father happy. But it was hard.”
In 2016, he was drafted to the NBA, forgoing his final two years of college eligibility. He was picked up by the Raptors with the 27th overall pick in Round 1.
Serge Ibaka was born and raised in Brazzaville, Republic of the Congo, the third youngest of eighteen. He picked up basketball to deal with his mother’s death when he was 8 years old, and his father’s imprisonment during the Second Congo War.
He lived with his uncles, on the streets, and then with his grandmother.
When he was 17, he began to play basketball in France before moving to Spain. In 2008, he participated in international showcases, which gained the attention of NBA scouts. That year, he was selected in the 2008 NBA Draft. In 2017, he was traded to the Raptors. In an interview with Dolce Magazine, he explained his mentality back in Africa:
“If I didn’t wake up to go run, I wouldn’t be here right now. During those runs, while everyone else was sleeping, I knew I had to do something different from the rest to have a different future. People would make fun of me and tell me it was worthless. But in my mind, I always had a vision and a goal.”
Like his other teammates, he understood the value of perspective:
“It’s all about never forgetting where you come from. Every day I give thanks to God for the life he has given me, and I reflect on everything I have gone through —that is the key to living a balanced life. Enjoy what you have, but be aware that the most important things in life can’t be bought.”
Finally, there’s Danny Green. Growing up, his mother left when he was 11 years old and his father was incarcerated while he was in college for his involvement in a multi-million dollar drug bust.
While in college, Green did what he could to support his family.
He picked up a summer job at a bank in order to send money to his brothers. He even caddied for his coach.
Green also made sure to step up for his younger brothers making sure the house was clean, the shopping was done, and that his brothers weren’t getting involved with the local gangs.
Though Green believed that his father was innocent and it was guilt by association, his father didn’t want to run the risk of a maximum sentence in a county with an 80% conviction rate. His father had a fiancee, a three-year-old boy and three older sons.
In an interview with ESPN, Green explained, “I told him to keep fighting if he thought he could win. He just wanted to get it all behind us so we could get on with our lives.” After twenty-two months in prison, his father was released.
Underdogs are Elite Performers
This isn’t to say that the Raptors are the only basketball stars to experience adversity. After all, LeBron James was raised by a single mom in Akron, Ohio who, unable to take care of James and was on welfare, allowed him to move in with another family who was able to provide him with a stable upbringing and introduce him to basketball when he was nine years old.
Allen Iverson often went without water, heat, and lights as a child and almost prematurely ended his sports career at age 17 when he was caught up in a fight at a bowling alley, landing him in prison for four months until he was granted clemency.
Not unlike these basketball legends, the Raptors have put to work the lessons they gained from their come up.
They have perspective
In the words of VanVleet, “I’m not supposed to be here. Being that I am, I have nothing to lose.
For Lowry, every day is a blessing. “Every day isn’t given to you,” he said before Game 5 against the Warriors, “You wake up every day, you just should be happy you wake up every day. People ask me how I’m doing and I say: I’m great, I’m alive. That’s kind of the staying-in-the-moment thing that I’ve always lived by … We just kind of made that the forefront of our team.”
They focus on one step at a time
When it’s too daunting to think about the overall goal take it day by day, minute by minute. “The moment is the moment, and we’re still staying in it,” said Leonard in a post-game interview, “We’re not too up, we’re not too down. We’re just ‘One game, hey, we lost it. Now we’ve got to move on to the next one.’”
They remain patient and humble
You can’t control the refs or who you’ll play against but you can control on your health, your skills, and your attitude. “Just stay in the same routine and just focus on what’s in front of me,” said Leonard, “Obviously, human beings, we do think in the future. Been thinking in the future since the beginning of the season, just trying to get to this point. You just got to stay current and stay in your routine, be patient and not rush anything.”
When you’re surrounded with adversity, underdogs bet on themselves.
When you’re dealt a bad hand, underdogs accept it and work to leverage their cards as best as they can.
When there’s a way out, underdogs stay patient and focused, consistently running towards it with all they have.
This season the Raptors played with heart. Nothing was taken for granted. The attitude was to put one foot in front of the other, one game at a time, one quarter at a time, one minute at a time, one possession at a time. Until, eventually… the Finals. Where it all comes down to focusing on the granular details of each possession. In absence of never having Finals experience, they kept their head down and hoped that it would pay off.
In contrast, the Warriors already knew they had a good thing. They had made it to the Finals the past four straight years, winning the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy in the last two. The unstoppable force of the Splash Brothers (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson) and Kevin Durant had been demonstrated many times over.
But as the Raptors proved this series, history doesn’t dictate future outcomes. And adversity wins championships.