TORONTO — Former Raptors star Damon Stoudamire leaned back on a couch in a downtown Toronto office and recalled the team’s early days when he anchored an expansion squad that would struggle for years.
The NBA team won just 21 games in its debut 1995-96 season, with Stoudamire’s rookie of the year award one of the few highlights from the team’s early era. The man nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” lasted only two-plus seasons in Toronto but always felt the franchise would eventually be successful.
“I thought the potential was there,” Stoudamire said. “Obviously it was on the ground level. So you’re playing in SkyDome. It wasn’t a basketball arena, it was a makeshift arena with birds flying around sometimes during games. You could see (the growth) coming, you didn’t know when.
“Now if you think about the franchise, (from) Damon Stoudamire to Vince Carter to (Chris) Bosh, I think that when you identify with the Toronto Raptors now, it’s more the Toronto Raptors. It’s the people’s team.”
Much has changed over the last two decades.
The cartoonish dinosaur uniforms only come out on retro jersey night and the Toronto Blue Jays are the only team that calls the dome home. A raucous fanbase regularly packs Air Canada Centre for Raptors games and the team, anchored by stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, is consistently in the playoffs.
The disappointment, however, has shifted from last-place showings in the 1990s to an inability to go deep in the post-season. The Raptors have reached the playoffs for five straight years but only made it to the Eastern Conference final on one occasion, falling to Cleveland in 2016.
Toronto’s latest loss — a four-game sweep by the Cavaliers — was a gutpunch for fans who had high hopes after a 59-win campaign gave the Raptors the No. 1 seed in the East.
Stoudamire, in town to promote a nine-part docu-series “True North,” offered some thoughts for a reeling fanbase that’s looking for answers after falling to the LeBron James-led Cavaliers for a third straight year.
“Don’t take winning for granted,” he said. “You’ve got a product that is going to the playoffs every year. You’re in an era where you’ve got to go through this era’s best player. Arguably the best player to ever play the game. So you’ve got to have perspective on all this.”
Stoudamire averaged 19.0 points a game for the Raptors in his rookie season after being selected with the seventh overall pick in the 1995 draft. He was dealt to the Trail Blazers in early 1998 and spent the bulk of his 13-year career in Portland.
Even though he had asked to be traded, the five-foot-10 Stoudamire still feels a strong connection to Toronto when he returns.
“The stir I created and looking like the average person, it made the (fans) identify with me,” he said. “When I come back, I think the people, they’re so gracious and show me so much love for the things that I accomplished in that short period of time.”
The Portland native, now a head coach with the University of the Pacific Tigers, would like to see the Raptors’ supporters stay strong despite the latest early exit.
“This is a sports town and the Raptors have come a long way,” Stoudamire said. “I think that it’s only going to get better but don’t jump off the wagon now. Just stay put it, believe in (the team’s) process because their process hasn’t failed them. It’s five straight playoffs.”
Stoudamire, 44, also preached a message of patience for the team’s front office.
“I would say to the Raptors, to the franchise, to the upper management, that you’ve got to let about two weeks go by,” he said. “And then you’ve got to put things in real perspective, and then there (are) decisions to be made from a franchise standpoint and from a fan standpoint.”
Team president Masai Ujiri said this week that the Raptors are “absolutely disappointed” at the playoff exit. For the second straight year, he declined to make a firm commitment about head coach Dwane Casey’s future.
“(Fans) can demand more, you can demand more from players, you can demand more from coaches, you can do that,” Stoudamire said. “But don’t take winning for granted because in winning 59 games, it’s a 59-and-23 (record). If it was 23-and-59, everybody would be hot.
“So just don’t take that for granted. Trust me on that one.”