By Nick Crabbs
The Toronto Raptors have been creating quite a buzz in the Tampa Bay area this NBA season ever since announcing that they will be playing all of their home games at Amalie Arena for the 2020-2021 season. The reasoning behind this decision was public safety measures due to COVID-19 and restrictions in place at the Canada-United States border. Despite the massive move to Tampa, the team has been settling into the area nicely over the last few months of the season and even recreating Scotiabank Arena right here at Amalie.
“We are all creatures of habit. Familiarity is where we thrive,” said Raptors’ vice president of basketball operations Teresa Resch in a statement to Tim Reynolds of NBA.com. “And the more familiar you can make it, the more comfortable you are, the better you can perform, and ultimately that’s what we’re trying to do here is we’re trying to grow as an organization and perform our best.”
The team has also expressed excitement for living in a city bursting with championship teams and gratitude for being accepted into it with open arms. But the group also wants to make it known that their home is still Toronto and cannot wait to be playing at Scotiabank again.
“Florida has been welcoming to us, and we’re so grateful for the hospitality we’ve found in Tampa and at Amalie [Arena] — we’re living in a city of champions, and we intend to carry on the tradition of winning for our new friends and fans here,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said in a statement to ESPN’s Tim Bontemps. “But home is where the heart is, and our hearts are in Toronto. We often think of our fans, of our Scotiabank Arena family, and all those we are missing back home, and we can’t wait until we can all be together again.”
Initially, there was a chance the team might have been able to play the second half of their season back in Toronto, but the decision to play the rest of the season in Tampa was finalized early last month due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Even if the team had a choice to finish the rest of the NBA season back in Toronto, they would rather play in Tampa as the settling-in process always takes a while, and they do not want to go through that again mid-season.
“It took us a while to get settled in,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse told ESPN’s Tim Bontemps before Toronto played a game at Boston. “I think to pick up shop and go back and try to resettle in, kind of like you would at the start of the fall … we’re just getting settled in, we might as well finish it out now.”
While the team is ecstatic to finally settle into their temporary home and play in the NBA season, there is still a bit of an empty feeling. Even though the team is playing in Florida, where the state has more lenient policies on fans attending sporting events, fans have recently been prohibited from attending games by Amalie Arena, Vinik Sports Group due to rising COVID-19 cases in the area. Friends and family are still able to participate in competitions.
“We are not comfortable bringing large numbers of fans indoors to watch hockey or basketball right now,” said CEO for Vinik Sports Group Steve Griggs in a statement reported by NBA.com.
“We are hopeful to reopen the arena soon after we see declining rates and better overall numbers.”
Despite the no-fans-allowed policy upheld by Vinik, fans in the Tampa Bay region are still too excited about a professional basketball team playing in the area. This is the first time an NBA team has ever played a full season in Tampa and is excellent for more sports exposure and growth for the city.
“I think it’s great for the City of Tampa that they were able to find a home for the Raptors down here,” said University of Tampa senior Jake Klausner. “I think that regardless of it being temporary, I think that we see a step in the right direction in terms of growth in sports.”
Vinik Sports Group is expected to announce about opening Amalie to more fans soon. But for now, the Raptors are here to stay for the rest of the season regardless of their newfound fans who can watch them play live.