It’s been a long time coming for John Bitove. More than 24 years long to be exact. 

The Raptors co-founder says it’s surreal to see the team finally advance to the NBA finals, but it’s been a long road proving the naysayers wrong that a Canadian city could support a professional basketball team.

“There were a lot of doubters about basketball surviving in Canada and Toronto, particularly back then. And particularly from the hockey community,” said Bitove, who was part of a group of Toronto businessmen that sought to bring a franchise to the city in 1993, in an interview with BNN Bloomberg’s Greg Bonnell. “But it’s great to see the city, the country and the sport of basketball in this spotlight.

“I knew the NBA was an up-and-coming league and Toronto could definitely be an NBA city.”

Raptors fans have been celebrating feverishly amid the team’s record post-season run – with tens of thousands filling Scotiabank Arena and the outside viewing area that has taken on the nickname “Jurassic Park.”

Like many fans, Bitove says his roots and love for the game also run deep. He’s a lifelong player of the sport and attended Indiana University, which is known for being a basketball school.

Despite apprehension from some about bringing an NBA team to Toronto more than two decades ago, he believed the job came with two main goals.

“One was to get basketball going in Canada as a major sport, and the other was to get the Raptors to the point where they could contend,” he said.

Much of the groundwork was grassroots at the beginning and Bitove commends former Detroit Pistons star Isiah Thomas – who became part-owner and vice-president of basketball for the Raptors in 1994 – for his efforts.

“Isiah Thomas was tireless in terms of work in the community halls, the schools, the business groups. And the players were great. We had a firm foundation and that first year I think we were third in attendance, fourth in merchandise sales and fifth in sponsorships sales. So we had a really successful first year financially,” Bitove said.

Many say the secret to success in sports lies in how much heart you have in the game. But sometimes, it also pays to remove emotion when it comes to making difficult business decisions.

Bitove says Raptors General Manager Masai Ujiri has made some “gutsy” calls despite the prospect of pushback from the ownership group. 

“I think a lot of owners would have interceded and said, ‘Well he’s been loyal to the city, you know, we love his family.’ But when you hire a general manager – just as we had Isiah in those early days – you have to let them tool the team, you can’t interfere.”

As for what the future holds for the team and whether Leonard re-signs as a Raptor, Bitove struck an optimistic tone.

“I’ve always thought if they go to the finals and [Leonard] gets along with coach [Nick Nurse] he’s going to stay. Why would he leave? Everyone’s different and I’m not him,” Bitove said. “But it’s such a great setting for him. He seems to be getting along well with the teammates, he seems to respect – which is really important in sports – the coach and get along well with him.

“And not having LeBron [James] in the East makes it a lot easier,” he laughs.


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