Reflections on the Day of the Raptors

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By Ken Adelson

TORONTO - The NBA took a gamble in mid 90’s, placing two teams north of the border. One of them which was born in the great city of Vancouver now resides in Memphis, Tennessee. The other has been a second-tier player for much of its existence. However, that’s not the case in 2019, the Toronto Raptors have made it to the NBA’s premier event, which takes me back to the day it all began.

It was 1995, the Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies were the first teams from Canada to join basketball’s elite organization, making the NBA a truly international league. It was unclear how long it would last or how basketball would be received in hockey country. It didn’t stick in Vancouver, we know how that story ended, leaving only one NBA team in Canada.

That special day was June 28th, 1995, not the opening day of the season but the day of the NBA Draft, which had become a traveling road show beginning in 1992. The ’95 Draft was to be held at the Skydome in Toronto, officially signifying the arrival of the NBA in Canada and the birth of a franchise.

On the night of June 27th that year, a group of us from the team producing the in-arena Draft show were in a restaurant not far from the Skydome. We had just wrapped up rehearsals, putting the final touches in place for the event we had been preparing for over the past few months. It was the night before what was to be a very special edition of the “NBA Draft,” it was the night before the Toronto would make their first draft pick and the Raptor would become the symbol of NBA basketball in Toronto.

Our discussion that night had very little to do with the players themselves, that quickly changed as Kevin Garnett and his family came into the restaurant and sat a few tables away. The draft of 1995 was not shaping up as a particularly strong one by NBA standards. Joe Smith, a power forward from the University of Maryland would be the likely first pick by the Golden State Warriors, but he was not viewed as a superstar or franchise changer. He was not even the top storyline in terms of the on-the-court talent in the draft. That distinction belonged to Kevin Garnett, a gangly 6’11” power forward from Maudlin, South Carolina who played his high school ball outside of Chicago.

Garnett was to become the first player since Moses Malone, some 20 years earlier, to come straight out of high school to test his skills in the NBA. He was a baby-faced kid in a big man’s body, thin, but tenacious and strong. He was friendly that night, but visibly nervous and who could blame him, he was 19 years old.

Garnett was one of many storylines that would play out the next night at Skydome, the cavernous home of MLB’s Toronto Blue Jays.

The NBA had taken the Draft on the road for the first time in Portland Oregon in 1992, as part of the Tournament of the America’s which launched the Dream Team toward the Olympics. The United States had to qualify for the Olympics that year after their crushing defeat at the hands of the Russians in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and a bronze at the 1990 Worlds in Argentina. In Portland that June ’92 evening, the in-arena Draft show was so well received by the 11,000 fans attending, rabid Blazers’ fans that even cheered the fact Shaquille O’Neal was tapped as the first pick, that the league decided to keep the event on the road moving forward. It was my fourth year at the NBA and I co-produced that first traveling Draft show with my colleague Michael McCullough, now a senior executive with the Miami Heat. The following year, the Draft was held at the Palace of Auburn Hills to a very large, sold-out and Chris Webber-loving enthusiastic Michigan-based crowd. A year after that, in 1994, the NBA Draft played to almost 20,000 people at the Hoosier Dome in Indianapolis.

That June, we had enlisted veteran TNT play-by-play announcer Ron Thulin to be our in-arena host and he became the mainstay throughout the 90’s. It was our first event in a stadium, the Hoosier Dome, we brought in former Indiana Pacers star Clark Kellogg as our analyst. The fans in Indianapolis loved Clark and the success of the duo helped create a strategy to bring in a local player/personality as the event analyst in each city we visited.

In 1994, I was heading up the production of the event, and it was a show right out of the David Stern, NBA game presentation handbook. It wasn’t only talking heads filling time between picks, it was wall to wall entertainment, NBA style. It included the entertainment that fans had come to expect as part of the NBA experience. It featured NBA dance teams, a variety of entertainers that regularly provided half-time entertainment at NBA regular season and playoff games, wall to wall music selected to keep the crowd pumped up, a wide variety of videos, trivia contests, merchandise and ticket giveaways, interviews with NBA officials and with every player that was drafted.

We used a full-size NBA court, (hoops and all) to serve as the stage for the games and entertainment. We had cameras in the war room and we built a set for the announcers. The set stood as a virtual mirror to the TNT broadcast set on the opposite side of the stadium. It was all a pre-cursor of how other sports would one day showcase their games and events, it was pure entertainment, it was a show, it helped establish the league as a sports AND entertainment property.

The 1994 Draft was stacked with players who would be stars for many years to come. Glenn Robinson from Purdue went first to the Milwaukee Bucks, Dallas grabbed Jason Kidd, Detroit took Grant Hill. Jalen Rose taken with the 13th pick by the Denver Nuggets wore one of the all-time outrageous Draft outfits, a rose-colored suit with a rose on his lapel that was unforgettable on the 6’8” former Michigan star. Yinka Dare, a 7-footer from Nigeria went at number 14 to the NJ Nets, he was a bust as a player, but a fascinating personality, and one of the earlier International NBA players.

With the 15th selection, the Indiana Pacers grabbed Eric Piatkowski, a small forward from the University of Nebraska. After that pick was made by the home town team, almost two hours after the event started we figured the crowd would hit the exits like the Pacers were down 20 with two minutes left in a game, but no one left, not one. The event rolled on and it quickly became clear why there were still almost 20,000 people in the house.

The Pacers had two picks in the second round and still on the board was a local star that not only played his high school ball in Indiana but also played for Bobby Knight at the University of Indiana. This was not just any home town hero, his name was Damon Bailey. Bailey had become legendary, an iconic figure in Indiana basketball. The former Hoosiers coach went to watch him play twice as an 8th grader, before eventually signing him. At Bedford North High School, Bailey, a guard, became Indiana’s all-time leading high school scorer. Sports Illustrated tapped him as the nation’s top 9th grade player. In his senior year at Bedford North, in the finals of the Indiana State High School Tournament in front of 41,000 people at the Hoosier dome, the most people ever to attend a HS basketball game, Bailey’s legend was sealed. He led his team to a comeback upset victory over an undefeated and favored team from Concord High School. Bailey scored 30, including his team’s final 11 points. He was named Mr. Basketball in Indiana, it was “Hoosiers” in real life. He went on to become an All-American at the University of Indiana, leading the Hoosiers to a pair Big Ten championships and an appearance in the Final Four.

After the Pacers pick in the first round the chant of “Damon” “Damon,” “Damon,” gushed from the fans before every selection was made. It was a sub plot we couldn’t have scripted, but it made for a spectacular event. When Bailey was chosen by the Indiana Pacers with the 44th pick in the second round, the place erupted like the team had just won the NBA Championship. Bailey never did make it, he didn’t end up playing in a regular season game in the NBA, but if the league had any doubt about keeping the Draft on the road, it didn’t after Indianapolis and the legend of Damon Bailey.

When the NBA announced it would be expanding into Canada with teams headed for Toronto and Vancouver, they also scheduled the 1995 NBA Draft for the Skydome in Toronto to help launch the new franchises.

The Draft would serve to introduce the team, the sport and the new Mascot to a new audience and in this case a new country. As part of our production, we decided to stage a signature moment, right before David Stern would take the stage to start the evening, we would introduce the Mascot to the fans in the building and having him descend from the rafters on a system of pulley wires. The plan was to have the new mascot break through a Raptors banner when he hit the ground. This stunt was not a slam dunk, not a sure thing to execute successfully. In rehearsals it had mixed results, it would be a “game time” call, at dinner we decided to give it the green light.

It was an aggressive set of show elements which was the main topic of our conversation at the dinner the night before the draft. As we headed for the stadium on the morning of June 28th, 1995, we knew it would be a historic night for the NBA and their newest franchises. For our part, it would be the biggest Draft show to date, more acts, dance teams, almost double the videos, more “live” interviews, more contests, and an additional announcer.

A former 1st round draft pick and future Raptors TV analyst, Leo Rautins, a Canadian, would join Ron Thulin as the co-host. Jack Givens, a former Kentucky star and first round NBA Draft pick would handle reporting duty from the Raptors War Room. We also had a guest appearance from the late John Saunders, who was the original Raptors play-by-play announcer before moving on to his stellar career at ESPN.

One of the basketball storylines was who would be the first pick in Raptors history. Isiah Thomas was the team’s General Manager and had the 7th pick in a draft that was not billed as stellar. The common wisdom had Ed O’ Bannon, a forward from UCLA going to Toronto.

There was nervous tension as the rigging was checked and we went over one final time the physical execution for the mascot “repel,” and how we were going to cover it on screen. We began our Draft show around ½ hour before the first pick, giving the fans a pre-game show to get them up to speed with what was about to unfold and to create the atmosphere. In this case, it was not hard to do, the stadium with electric with anticipation and the fans were ready for the birth of a franchise.

When the moment came for the descent from the rafters, the nerves were gone, and it was all business. The fans were on their feet as the Raptor hit the mark and broke through the banner to a thunderous ovation. The only catch was it took a few extra seconds to get him unhooked from the rigging, but it was a success, TNT also used a clip from the repel in the open to their broadcast.

The Draft started as expected with Joe Smith going as the first pick. It was a little surprising that Kevin Garnett didn’t get the nod until the 5th selection made by the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The anticipation was growing as pick # 7 drew closer. Jack Givens did a pre-selection interview with Isiah Thomas. Jack and Isiah played to the crowd, the interaction between fans and stakeholders was going well.

After Vancouver made their first selection, grabbing “Big Country,” center Bryant Reeves from Oklahoma State with the 6th pick, the time had come.

In the arena, we had brought the over 21,000 fans, the largest crowd to see any NBA Draft to their feet with what we call a fan prompt, in this case the “We Will Rock You” scene from the then popular sitcom Cheers.

When David Stern stepped to the podium, he made reference to the historic first pick, when he announced point guard Damon Stoudamier, the floor general from the University of Arizona as the selection, it was greeted with mixed reviews.

As it turns out, with no stars left in the Draft sky on this night, history tells us it was a rock solid choice. When you think about it, what position player would Isiah Thomas choose to start a franchise.

Fast forward 24 years, that’s how long it took for the Toronto Raptors to climb the NBA mountain and reach the NBA Finals. It might take a few more years for the Raptors to win an NBA championship, but it’s time, time to write the next chapter in Raptors history and another first for the NBA, an International NBA Finals., right here in Toronto.

This column originally appeared on the Digital Sports Desk site.

Terry Lyons