Thoughts of home find a way to burst the Raptors’ bubble

The scene outside the room at the Scotiabank Arena where reporters wait after every game to chat with Raptors coach Nick Nurse is always rife with frantic energy.

The next room over, adjacent to the interview area and across a small hallway from the team’s locker room, is the family room, the post-game meeting place for coaches and players and the people who matter the most to them.

On any given night there are babies in strollers and toddlers and kids of every age with wives and partners waiting to go home. It can be hectic and loud and, yeah, kind of cute at times.

It proves a few undeniable things:

Family matters.

Family is important.

Family is integral to what the Raptors are.

And now families are separated for weeks or perhaps months and that separation, that longing, that hole in the lives of the players, coaches and staff locked away on a campus in Central Florida will be difficult for everyone to handle.

Families should be allowed to join them at some point, but a firm date has not been set.

“I’ve been gone a week and I miss my kids already,” Fred VanVleet said this week, before the Raptors moved from Naples, Fla., to the NBA bubble at Disney. “I think that is the plan for my family. I will re-evaluate once I’ve been in Orlando for a little while. If it’s something that suits us, then we will do it. If not, then we won’t. But I like having my family around for sure.”

The separation anxiety is real at a couple of levels.

Not only are many of the 37-person Raptors travelling party away from loved ones, those loved ones are living in precarious times. The astronomical spike in COVID-19 throughout the United States puts wives, partners, moms, dads, extended family members and — most importantly — children at risk. It won’t ever be far from the players’ minds.

“From a risk standpoint here and being around the guys and the team, I’m not too concerned about it. But outside, I’m very concerned about just how dangerous it is,” Norm Powell said. “I’m more concerned about my family members that are out, having to deal with going out in public, going back to work and putting themselves in danger of catching the virus.”

It’s not like the Raptors and almost 1,000 other NBA players, coaches and officials are in some camp cut off from the world. They are living in nice hotels and playing the game they love. They are taken care of at every turn and there is plenty of idle time for video calls or telephone calls and long, personal conversations with family.

But it’s not the same, not nearly the same, as being there and teams are cognizant of that. They know that they have to do whatever is necessary to keep families in touch.

“I just think, from my standpoint, it’s another one of those things you’d be more lenient on,” Nurse said. “I don’t know, what’s an example? Well, we’re getting ready to start a meeting and, right as that happens, somebody says, ‘Oh, man, my kid’s FaceTiming me,’ and you say, ‘Take it, go out in the hall and take it and we’ll wait for you.’ …

“I think sometimes hooking up with schedules and kids, sometimes when those FaceTime calls come, you’ve got to take them and drop everything you’re doing.”

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Family has always been integral to the Raptors and, truth be told, part of their success and growth as a team. The shared experience of parenthood creates a bond away from the game that is unbreakable and vitally important.

The Raptors under Dwane Casey, the teams that started a run of five Atlantic Division titles in six seasons, had family at its core. DeMar DeRozan has two daughters, Kyle Lowry has two sons, Casey has two young children about the same age, Amir Johnson became a father while with the Raptors. That undoubtedly created something special, some common ground that allowed the group to get along not only as teammates but as parents.

Now it’s VanVleet with a couple of kids, Nurse with a couple of kids. Lowry’s boys are always with him. Oshae Brissett had to leave his daughter, less than a month old, to join the team in Florida.

“Obviously it’s tough leaving my daughter, but you know, FaceTime and all those things that are available now, I call her all the time and I’m on the phone with her, just talking to her,” he said. “Hopefully family will be able to come some time in Orlando, so whenever that opens up, I’ll for sure see them. But the decision to leave, it wasn’t a tough decision to leave, but getting on that plane and saying bye, that was the toughest part.”

The Raptors will do whatever they can to ensure players’ families are taken care of. Whether it’s putting electronic support systems in place — phone calls, check-ins, updates — or more tangible things like sending meals, visitors or mementos of some sort, they’ll do it.

The league will allow a limited number of family members to join the campus but not until at least the end of eight “seeding games” in late August. Until then, it’s electronic conversations whenever possible, an especially troubling thing for Serge Ibaka, whose daughter lives not far from where he is sequestered in Florida but who he is unable to see.

“I have my daughter who lives here in Orlando, and it’s kind of scary a little bit,” Ibaka said of a state struggling to get a handle on the coronavirus. “It’s something where you have to make sure you look at it.”

Maybe it will get easier as more time passes and routines are set and the campus life becomes just the longest road trip any of them have ever experienced. But it still won’t be perfect and the kids at home might not quite understand, something that will weigh on the minds of them all.

“When I left, I have a three-year-old kid, he says, ‘I’m going to wait right here for you,’ ” Nurse said of his boy, Leo.

“He didn’t quite understand how long I’m going to be gone. I told him I’m going to coach some games, and he said, ‘Well, I’m going to wait right here for you.’

“I hope he’s moved from that spot because it’s going to be a while.”

Doug Smith

TORONTO STAR