“I’ve been an underdog my entire life.”—Fred VlanVleet at his draft party after being undrafted.
While you’ve heard of Steph Curry’s sharpshooting father, Dell (former Raptor) and Klay Thompson’s father, Michael, who was a big man for the Lakers, the family history and background of the Raptors are far humbler.
Apart from Drake, who’s not on the team, the Raps is a quiet team and the players are, for the most part humble, don’t talk a lot of trash. During the game two pregame interview on Saturday afternoon, a reporter asked Kawhi, “What do you think the effect is on your opponent when you don’t get all charged up when things happen in a game?” In response, Kawhi simply said. “I’m not sure. I don’t think about what they’re thinking.” Being the only Canadian-based team in the NBA today, the Raps seem to get less attention from U.S media, which leads to words like “quiet”, “under the radar”, and “underdog” is used to describe the team.
With the Raptors making it to the finals for the first time in franchise history, Torja takes a look at the stories of these underdogs from around the world who make up this 2019 Eastern Conference champions and how their thoughts on Toronto.
#2 Kawhi Leonard
“Some people believe that you are the best player in the world right now. What are your thoughts on that, Kawhi?”
“I don’t care about being the best player. I care about being the best team.”
Born in Riverside, California in 1991 to divorced parents, Kawhi grew up living with his mother. The time he spent with his father was limited but Mark Leonard, who owned a car wash in Compton, would teach Kawhi, form a young age, the impotence of an honest day’s work. The two will also train together, lift weights and practice. In 2008, when closing his car wash, Mark Leonard was approached by several men and an argument took place. One of the suspects shot Kawhi’s father to death. After the event, Kawhi was more motivated than ever, woke up at 5 to train, lift, and workout before classes, and after school, would go to three different gyms to run drills. Kawhi becomes a four-star recruit and accepted a scholarship from San Diego State University and earned a two-time first-team selection while leading the school to the sweet sixteen.
With the fifteenth pick of the 2011 NBA draft, the Indiana Pacers selected Kawhi Leonard but minutes after was traded to the San Antonio Spurs, where he signed a multi-year deal. Playing aside legendary players such as Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili, Kawhi reached the NBA finals in just his second season. Kawhi’s quiet demeanour, serious work ethics, and attitude fit well with Coach Popovitch’s philosophy. Though the Spurs lost in 7 games to the Heat in 2013, the Spurs, in a rematch against the Heat in 2014, would defeat Lebron and Kawhi, with his excellent defense on James, would earn himself the Finals MVP award. At the age of 22, Kawhi quickly established himself as one of the best defenders and overall players in the entire world. Kawhi is also the third youngest to ever received the finals MVP award, which he received on Father’s Day, 2013.
In the 2018-2019 season, Kawhi led the Raptors to their first ever NBA finals and is performing better than ever.
#43 Pascal Siakam
Also known as Spicy P, Pascal Siakam barely watched the NBA until his late teens. Born in Cameroon, he, like many others, was a massive soccer fan. His father was the Mayer of the town and Spicy P focused on academics and sports growing up. When he was in High School, he attended a basketball camp in Cameroon, where he met his future teammate on the Raptor’s, Serge Ibaka. Back then, because Pascal has just started playing basketball, he had no idea who Ibaka was and was subsequently confused as to why everyone around him was so excited to meet Serge. Soon after the camp, a coach from Texas recruited Pascal and convinced him to play in the US. He was, however, too old for the high school team and only played there for a year. But soon after, Spicy P was recruited by New Mexico State University and become their top scorer.
During his college years, his father passed away in an accident. Pascal was unable to return home to attend the funeral but had said that his teammates and coaches back then were supportive of him, which helped him go through his grieving years. In the press conference prior to Game 1, Pascal spoke about this and noted that that was the point in which he decided to do the best he can for his dad, who made him the person he is today.
Pascal’s play-style also reflects his upbringing and personality. He is 6’9, with the soft touch of a guard and the length of a big man. Perhaps because he started playing basketball at such a late stage, his play style is unconventional—position less—can rebound, push the ball up the court and score at the same time—which is very common amongst successful all-around players in the league today. He likes to post up and use creative spin moves to finish around to rim. He is lengthy and is a solid defender on the defensive end of the floor as well.
With the Twenty-seventh overall pick in the 2016 NBA draft, the Toronto Raptors drafted Pascal Siakam. In his first year, Spicy P bounced between the Raptor’s G-League team and their main roaster. This season, however, with his humble and positive attitude to the game, Pascal is a MIP candidate and has established himself to be a future star for the Raptors. In game 1 of the 2019 NBA finals, he scored a team-high 32 points, joining Michael Jordan and Magic Johnson as the only scorers with a 30-point game in a finals debut.
Born in Cameroon, Spicy P is fluent in French and often tries to address the French-speaking people of Canada whenever he has a chance:
— CBC Sports (@cbcsports) May 31, 2019
The 2018-2019 Raptor’s team is also filled with ‘underdogs’, players who were second-round picks, former D-league players, and even went undrafted to start their career. These players, though didn’t start their careers as high prospects, fill the core of the Toronto roster and helped the 2018-2019 team succeed.
#23 Fred VanVleet
“I was struggling. So, I was just trying to play better when I have the opportunity. I have to play harder and smarter.”—Fred VlanVleet after Game 1 win.
Fred VanVleet spent four years playing at Wichita State University and declared for the NBA draft in 2016. Freddie went undrafted that year, declined offers to play in the D-league, and decided to accept an offer to play for the Raptor’s summer league team. In the 2016-2017 season, Freddie signed a multi-year deal with the Raptors. Though he didn’t get much playing time in his first season, in his second season, he became a steady back-up point guard for Kyle Lowry and was nominated for the NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.
VlanVleet’s biological father, Fred Manning, was shot and killed in a drug deal when VlanVleet was five (Jason King, Bleacher Report). His stepfather, Joe Danforth, would wake Freddie up at five in the morning and dive him to a YMCA, where he will practice and play full-court one on one with his older brother. Danforth will also train VanVleet in a parking lot, making him do drills before the sun rises and will yell at him, tell him that he’s not going to sit around and be a bum, that he’s not going to be average, that everyone can be average and that VlanVleet will become somebody. The same sense of toughness and determination can be seen in VlanVleet’s game. He has a strong core, can fight through screens on defense, and is patient on the offensive end of the floor—the perfect example of a coach’s favourite player. He hustles, picks up opposing point guards full court. Though his play-style is nothing flashy (no high-flying dunks and fancy passes), VlanVeet is a solid player. He doesn’t care for stardom, is confident, attacks the basket with strong, clean moves—nothing fancy, nothing unnecessary—a player every champion team needs.
VlanVleet’s son was born on May 20th, 2019, during the Eastern Conference Finals. Since then, VanVleet has been on scorching, hitting touch shots late in the games.
#9 Serge Ibaka
Serge is born in Brazzaville, Congo—the third youngest of eighteen children. His parents were both basketball players who played for the national Congolese team. His mother died when he was eight and his father was imprisoned during the Second Congo war. He was living on the streets after being kicked out from his uncle’s house after an argument. He briefly lived with his grandmother but she decided to leave town and Serge was left alone. He lived in parking lots, in old cars, and cleaned the streets for money before moving to France at the age of seventeen to join a second division basketball team and afterwards moved to Spain, where he taught himself Spanish and played basketball for CB L’Hospitalet and won an MVP award in the Reebok Eurocamp, catching the eyes of NBA scouts.
With the 24th pick of the 2008 NBA draft, the Seattle SuperSonics selected Serge Ibaka. He played for the OKC Thunder (formerly known as the Seattle SuperSonics) from 2009-2016, was traded to Orlando in 2016 and have been on the Raps since 2017.
Now, when it comes to basketball, almost everything thing is naturalized on the court. It comes to hard work, good teamwork, (officiating/injuries), and a little bit of luck. Though these players on the Raps have gone through a lot to get to where they are, they still have to defeat the repeating champs, Golden States Warriors, to win the first title for the franchise. As we look forward to the exciting games ahead, let’s see, if they can win this title for this city, what the players think of The Six, one of the most diverse cities in the world.
“When a Raptor’s game starts, you can see all the colours, all the religions, all the cultures here. It’s just one big community watching the game” Nav Bhatia, Official Raptor’s Super Fan (hasn’t missed a home game in 24 years).
Ibaka is also enjoying his time living in Toronto now, saying that “it’s a very international city, with people from many different nationalities. Torontonians are fun and outgoing, and they embrace you and welcome you in as a part of their community. That is a positive for me, because like I explained before, I have lived in different countries and experienced different cultures, and I can experience a lot of them here in Toronto. From shopping to restaurants, this city has so much to offer. I love going to high-end restaurants but also to casual spots in Chinatown or other parts of the city.”
Serge is also known for his charity work in Africa and around the world, encouraging young athletes to peruse their dreams and, being the first Congolese to be drafted by an NBA team, stands as a role model for other young international players.
The diverse background of these players makes up this successful 2018-2019 Raptors Team. They bring to the floor a playstyle that is serious, team-orientated, and focused. These players are defense-oriented and focus on swift, straightforward styles of play that, though lacks commercial value, leads to team success and success speaks for itself. Perhaps this mentality is representative of the city of Toronto. To be able to approach the game with such focus and seriousness, one must be comfortable with where they are and these players seem to be comfortable living in one of the most diverse cities in the world and having one of the most multicultural fan bases.
Serge Ibaka also said in an interview with Vice, “By the time I was 19 years old, I had lived in five different cities in four different countries and three different continents. Now, at 28 years old, Toronto is the ninth city I’ve lived in. It is also my new home …there’s no city like Toronto.”
Spicy P pointed out in an interview that, he “get(s) a lot of support from my fellow Cameroonians and Africans in general. It feels great because you know that in Canada, and especially in Toronto, where the diversity is incredible and you have different people from different countries cheering for one team and obviously, having that support is amazing.”
The players all seem to love the support they get within the city and all the cultures that inhabit it. To conclude, let’s take a look at what one of our favorite Raptors has to say about having a love for all. When asked by a reporter, in reference to Kawhi’s Game 7 winner against Philadelphia, “Is it an up and down relationship with players and rims when shots bounce up and down like that?” Kyle said, “I love all rims.”