The Toronto Raptors have come a long way since the franchise was formed in 1993. As part of its expansion into Canada that year, the NBA awarded its 28th franchise to Toronto businessman John Bitove for - what was at the time - a record expansion fee of $125 million.
Bitove succeeded in bringing basketball back to the city for the first time in almost 50 years since the Toronto Huskies franchise folded at the end of the 1946-47 season.
The first few years were a struggle for the Toronto Raptors as a new franchise, with ownership issues off the court and poor performances on it. In the 1996-97 season, Bitove sold his ownership stake in the team to media mogul Allan Slaight for $65 million.
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The organisation will refer to 1998 as a real turning point in establishing itself on the NBA stage. Maple Leaf Gardens, owners of NHL franchise the Toronto Maple Leafs, acquired 100% ownership of the Raptors from Slaight and the arena it was building at the time, the Air Canada Centre, for $467 million.
In the 1998 draft the team traded number four pick Antawn Jamison to the Golden State Warriors for Vince Carter, the number five pick, in what would turn out to be a defining move.
Carter played his first six seasons in the NBA with the Raptors and was largely credited for putting them on the map. He played an instrumental role in leading the team to its first playoff appearance in the 1999/2000 season.
The rise of Carter, along with his memorable win in the NBA Slam Dunk contest in 2000, was a contributing factor in the team gaining a large number of fans across the city, many of whom were not basketball fans previously.
In the following season, Toronto had a franchise-high of 47 wins and won its first playoff series in what was a landmark season.
The success of Carter in Toronto opened the door to the franchise securing talented players further down the line who would go on to become All-Stars, such as Chris Bosh, who took over from Carter as the face of the franchise until 2010, before leaving in free agency to team up with Dwyane Wade and Lebron James in Miami.
During their respective eras with the team, Carter and Bosh helped to change the perception of the Raptors from rest of the league as a mediocre franchise to a respectable NBA organisation.
New Stars on the Block
Today, it is the DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry era and they’re proudly flying the flag for Canada and the Raptors. They have embraced and taken on leadership roles within the team and have become a dynamic duo as well as one of the best backcourts in the NBA.
The pair were unsurprisingly selected as All-Stars this year when the NBA All-Star game took place in Toronto, the first time it had been staged outside of the United States.
This could be considered the weekend when Toronto finally cemented itself as a basketball city, with the best players in the world descending on the Canadian city along with a host of celebrities and NBA Legends. It certainly had a celebratory feel to it.
Canadian rapper and Toronto native Drake, who is also an ambassador for the Toronto Raptors, has also played his part in promoting the franchise on a global stage due to his success.
Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors said: “The success of DeMar, Kyle and those guys - the success that their team is having, helps with that tremendously, the success that Drake is having helps with that tremendously.
“It is viewed as completely different from what it was when I got in the NBA, but if you go even further back it is way different and I think it will continue to grow.”
The number of Canadian players breaking into the NBA has increased in the last few years, with players such as Andrew Wiggins, Tristan Thompson, Cory Joseph and Kelly Olynyk entering the league.
In 2013, Canada also had its first number one NBA draft pick, when Anthony Bennett was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
DeMar DeRozan is hoping the success of the Toronto Raptors will inspire more kids to take up basketball and continue to showcase the talent the city has.
“People are finally starting to recognise that Toronto has talent, it is going to continue to grow. I think just putting Toronto on the main stage is going to inspire more kids to want to make it out and be somebody,” he said.
The current roster is on course to record the best season in the franchise’s history. With 26 games to go in the regular season, the team is 38-18 and should beat it’s record number of wins of 49.
Sitting second in the Eastern Conference standings, Toronto are the biggest threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers to make it out of the Eastern Conference and challenge for an NBA title.
After being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs in the previous two seasons after promising seasons and having only progressed past the first round once in their history, many are being pessimistic in predicting how far the team can go this season.
With DeRozan and Lowry enjoying very good seasons, averaging 23.5 and 21 points per game respectively, this could potentially be the year the Toronto Raptors reach the Eastern Conference Finals, or better yet, the NBA Finals.
“Their backcourt is really good, I've known DeMar since high school,” said Houston Rockets guard James Harden.
“[DeRozan] works hard, he works on his game, he always wants to get better and Kyle goes and gets it. He is aggressive and those two complement each other as a team.”
After overcoming many years of being labelled as a ‘joke’ NBA organisation, the Raptors are on the verge of a record-breaking year and have established themselves as serious contenders in the East.
That isn’t a joke.