23 days of Toronto Raptors history: a win in first-ever game

The Raptors first-ever game, in 1995, was a huge event. No one expected a victory, but that’s exactly what happened.

Dateline: November 3, 1995

The Toronto Raptors played their first-ever regular season NBA game this night. To everyone’s shock, including their own no doubt, they managed to defeat the visiting New Jersey Nets 94-79.

The game was dreadful, but no matter to those of us who were there. We were witnessing history, and the beginning of a love affair with a team which time hasn’t diminished.

The venue was Rogers Centre, at the time known by its original handle of Skydome. Fans like my wife and I, who had seats facing the team benches, were not in for a treat. Half the seats were in the facility’s permanent side, which meant we had to scale the temporary aluminium benches. We were sitting, with thousands of others, in a format most familiar to spectators at high school games. We certainly weren’t being charged high-school-game prices.

There was no entrance to “our” side of the venue except from the other, so we couldn’t even get to our seats without streaming behind each basket at breaks in play. We quickly learned never to be late for tipoff, as those who were had to wait at several points around the court until finally being allowed to sit. I don’t miss those days in the slightest.

The venue was sold out. (20-second timeout: I keep using the word  “venue”because Skydome wasn’t configured for basketball, or anything else in particular. It was designed to be used for all sports, so the NBA was there, CFL & NFL football, baseball, track and field, monster cars, political rallies…I’m probably leaving something out. Each event required significant manipulation of seats, hence “venue”. Many fixed seats were not available for hoops, being too far from the action. The Blue Jays are the only permanent tenants left. Every other team found the place too awkward.) The Raptors ended up third in NBA attendance, averaging 23,178 fans per game.

A no-hope lineup

Toronto’s roster was, apart from prize rookie Damon Stoudamire, a collection of castoffs. The expansion lottery which populated both the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies had taken place in June. B.J. Armstrong was the first player selected (by the Raptors, who had lost the coin flip to the Grizzlies – Vancouver elected to take the higher draft pick, settling on Bryant Reeves at #6 while GM Isiah Thomas grabbed Damon at #7). Armstrong refused to report to Toronto, so Thomas did the best he could by sending him to the Warriors. One of those returned, Carlos Rogers, started up front this famous night, and chipped in nine points.

Damon enjoyed a solid outing in his first pro game, racking up the world’s cheapest double-double of 10 points and assists. His backcourt mate was veteran Alvin Robertson, who poured in 30 points, including a pair of 3-balls. In the ’90s, the long ball was considered a gimmick or a sign of offensive futility, something to be hoisted up in desperation as the 24-second clock was winding down.

Tracy Murray, a helpful small forward for several years, was the only other Raptor to drain a three, from 11 total attempts.

The Nets were even less interested in deep shooting, making two of eight tries. Your math is correct; two NBA teams combined for 19 shots from beyond the arc, a number today’s Houston Rockets will surpass after perhaps 18 minutes of play.

The Nets didn’t find other ways to score. Obviously 79 points against an expansion team is sad, and they managed to compile a single-game stat I’ve never seen before: more turnovers (29) than baskets (28). Kevin Edwards had 7 TOs, while Armen Gilliam recorded 6.

Our guys grabbed a win in their first game. That turned out to be the only time the Raptors were above .500. They dropped their next seven outings, on their way to a 21-61 record. Coach Brendan Malone was fired, though I don’t know why. Gregg Popovich couldn’t have managed more with the team’s pitiful roster.

We were out of Skydome in February of 1999, a strike-shortened season. Both our team, and our home building, are infinitely superior to the early days. You want nostalgia, look elsewhere.

Next: Five things that must happen for Kawhi to win MVP

Checkout day five of the 23 days of Raptor history when we take a look back at the Raptors upset of the 72 win Chicago Bulls.