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The Raptors didn’t need to repeat as NBA champs to prove their power

Toronto’s social justice game plan was strong, from start to finish

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – From the time the Toronto Raptors arrived in black buses with the words “Black Lives Matter” on the side, it was evident that they were not only focused on repeating as champs, but also on using their platform inside the NBA bubble for social justice.

Raptors president Masai Ujiri was the mastermind behind the BLM buses, an idea sparked by the memory of George Floyd, a Black man who was killed on May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis. After training in Fort Myers, Florida, the Raptors boarded the buses to take the nearly three-hour drive to their hotel on the Walt Disney World property.

“Being able to take that bus through some rural Florida parts where we saw a lot of [Donald] Trump signs and a lot of signs like that in the field was a cool moment,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said. “That was our entrance into the bubble and made a statement for sure.”

The Raptors’ time in the bubble came to an end on Friday night after they were eliminated by the Boston Celtics in Game 7 of their second-round series. While their goal to win another title fell short, the team accomplished its other mission.

The Raptors came to the NBA bubble prepared to use their platform.

Kim Klement/USA TODAY Sports

From the start, players went on Instagram to discuss the social justice messages they would wear on their jerseys. They also regularly wore T-shirts and masks with messages about social injustice and the importance of voting. So did head coach Nick Nurse, in hopes of being asked about his attire during media sessions.

The team featured clothing created by Black designers and produced by Black-owned Toronto businesses. Nurse and his wife, Roberta, bought 50 gray masks for the players that had a Black raised fist in front of a Toronto skyline that were made by Nadia Lloyd, who is Black and from Toronto. VanVleet called it “the coolest” mask they wore in the bubble.

“To have the Raptors wear my Black Lives Matter masks and align their vision with mine makes me incredibly proud,” Lloyd told The Undefeated. “So grateful for all we are accomplishing together.”

While in the bubble, the Raptors also highlighted their “Because of You” initiative. The team wore a T-shirt honoring Raptors senior adviser Wayne Embry, the NBA’s first African American general manager.

“It obviously makes me proud that the organization thought enough to do that,” Embry, 83, said. “It kind of took me by surprise. … I am very grateful. It inspires me because these young people, at my age, respect the fact that it was history. That’s one thing I always try to tell younger people, ‘Learn the history.’ So, they have been very respectful in that regard. …

“The organization is 100% behind social justice. That is good to know and see. [The younger generation] has to finish what we were trying to get done in the ’60s and ’70s because we thought we were done. What we did, we worried about police change. But we have to change minds and hearts.”

On Aug. 20, the spotlight was on the organization when the truth came out about an incident from the 2019 NBA Finals involving Ujiri and a white sheriff’s deputy at Oracle Arena.

Last year, after the Raptors clinched their first championship by defeating the Golden State Warriors, Alameda County, California, deputy Alan Strickland claimed in a federal lawsuit filed in February that Ujiri hit him “in the face and chest with both fists” after failing to get entrance to the Oracle Arena floor for not showing the proper game credentials.

But last month, Ujiri’s lawyers released a video that showed Strickland shoving the Raptors executive twice after he attempted to pull his game credential from inside his suit.

After the video surfaced, Ujiri issued a statement, which concluded: “Unfortunately, I was reminded in that moment that despite all of my hard work and success, there are some people, including those who are supposed to protect us, who will always and only see me as something that is unworthy of respectful engagement. And there’s only one indisputable reason why that is the case — because I am Black.”

For the team, it was an emotional moment.

“You just start to think about the cops who don’t have body cams and the people who don’t have the resources that Masai has to fight,” VanVleet said. “And that is the big thing people don’t realize, if he doesn’t fight this, we never see this. Again, another example of systemic racism.

“And, it hit home. It’s someone who makes millions of dollars a year and is friends with Barack Obama. An ambassador for Africa. Masai is a big deal. It happened to him, so it showed it can happen to anybody at any time and any place.”

Raptors forward Pascal Siakam said it’s a privilege for the players to have someone like Ujiri leading the way for them. Someone who understands the daily challenges of Black people.

“He is really outspoken and that is important,” Siakam said. “We all need to be outspoken.”

When the Milwaukee Bucks sat out a playoff game on Aug. 26 against the Orlando Magic to protest the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man from Kenosha, Wisconsin, the Raptors were right behind them.

“We stand with our brothers in solidarity as we fight for justice and change,” the organization posted on social media.

A day earlier, Raptors players had met with Celtics players about potentially protesting their own game on Aug. 27. But when the Bucks refused to play, the NBA shut down for three days.

The Raptors considered departing the bubble but returned to action along with their NBA brethren, focused on pushing harder for voting and police reform. They have an ongoing campaign urging the 650,000 American citizens living in Canada to vote in the upcoming November election in the United States.

“We talked about [leaving],” VanVleet said. “I am not sure guys were packing up, but we weighed all our options. I think I was one of the vocal guys on our team. I don’t think we should have played. I was able to ride out with my teammates on that one. I wasn’t sold on leaving so much. Just trying to make a statement, come together and leverage our power for the better.”

So while the team may not be returning to the “North” with another championship trophy, it can be proud of the impact it made while in the bubble. And also its ongoing efforts to work toward change, including the recent promotion of Raptors 905 executive John Wiggins to the new position of vice president of organizational culture and inclusion.

“We took a lot of time coming up with these ideas and these thoughts,” said Nurse, “with maybe an attitude about it that we wanted to make an impact, and we would continue to make an impact.”

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for The Undefeated. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.