It was the third game of Damon Stoudamire's career and Michael Jordan was waiting for him at center court. Jordan bunched his shorts up at the knees, dropped down into the defensive stance and rocked on the balls of his feet, ready to accelerate in whatever direction Stoudamire tried to move. If Stoudamire, who was generously listed in the game program as 5-foot-10 and 171 pounds, was somehow able to navigate past Jordan, he faced not only the endless expanse of Scottie Pippen's arms but also Dennis freaking Rodman, who was guarding the basket like it contained the original 12-inch pressing of Madonna's Erotica. There was no safe place.
The Bulls would steamroll over the NBA that season, winning 72 games and the NBA championship. Nobody could have predicted so much success, but it wasn't entirely surprising, either. In addition to their Hall of Fame triumvirate, the Bulls had a potent bench, including Sixth Man of the Year winner Toni Kukoc and ace sharpshooter Steve Kerr; they were led by head coach Phil Jackson, whose personal brand of psychological torture and Eastern philosophy was then still becoming legendary.
Stoudamire, on the other hand, was the starting point guard for the inaugural season of the Toronto Raptors, an expansion squad built primarily through a restrictive and league-mandated expansion draft, with the Raptors' front office picking over players other teams had left unprotected. In that draft, the Raptors selected Zan Tabak, a seven-footer from Croatia who was a good player in Europe but was stuck behind Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston; John Salley, who would play only 25 games for the Raptors before negotiating a buyout to sign with the Bulls; and Oliver Miller, a big man who was skilled at basketball but overlooked because he was also shaped like one.
"We were a bunch of guys that nobody wanted," says Tracy Murray, who signed a one-year deal with the Raptors prior to the 1995-1996 season. "It was a second chance in our careers, or a chance to go out the way you wanted if you were an older veteran." But Stoudamire, the rookie, was a different story. The Raptors wanted him. They drafted him seventh overall, the first draft pick in franchise history. Back on the court, with Jordan still waiting, Stoudamire was about to show why.
Jordan shuffled his feet, guiding Stoudamire to his left side, his offhand, and Stoudamire momentarily took the bait. He faked left then crossed right and created just enough space to fire a jump shot. When the ball fell through the rim, Jordan's arms dropped to his sides and he shot an inquisitive glance back at Stoudamire.
On the sideline, Brandon Malone, the Raptors head coach, clapped his hands and paced next to the court. Before the game started, Malone had entered the Raptors locker room and scrapped the game plan. The rookie, he told the room full of veterans, was going to start the game with three straight isolation plays.
Malone threw Stoudamire into the fire, and it worked. He finished the game with 22 points, 10 assists, six rebounds and three steals. The Raptors lost by nine points, but they fought like hell. They refused to back down against a team with much more talent, and that became a defining trait of the team that year. They were a bunch of green newcomers and long shots and spare parts, and they often played like it. But they were never intimidated.
By the time Jordan and the Bulls visited Toronto five months later, on March 24, 1996, the Raptors were ready for revenge, and the stage was set for one of the most improbable upsets in basketball history.
It's the first week of March of this year and Rod Black, a veteran Canadian sportscaster who was the play by play man the night the Bulls came to town, is eating breakfast in a busy cafe in Toronto's north end; in proper Canadian fashion, Black arrived at the restaurant after starting his day with a hockey game in a local men's league. It's the type of league where, earlier that morning, during a two-on-one rush, the combined age of the two players coming down the ice was 164. "Keeps me young," Black says.
While waiting for his eggs (poached), toast (white) and potatoes (wedged) to arrive, Black pulls up video of the final game between the Raptors and Bulls on his phone. "It will always stand as the Raptors first greatest game," he says. "In the history of Toronto sports, it's one of those 'where were you' moments."
The answer for 36,131 people—still the largest crowd to ever attend a basketball game in Canada—is the Skydome. The building has since changed ownership and is now known as the Rogers Centre, but for the first five years of the Raptors existence, the cavernous arena, which was designed for football and baseball and Dad Rock concerts, was also the Raptors' home court. On occasion, when the Skydome was unavailable, the Raptors would play at Maple Leaf Gardens, or Copps Coliseum, a hockey arena in the neighboring city of Hamilton. They practiced in a small college gym in the area, and had to be off the floor by 1 p.m. as to not interrupt the intramural volleyball schedule.
Highlights from that era are easily identifiable by a single shot—the camera slowly panning in from the Skydome rafters, covering a distance so great at a speed so unhurried that it feels like the entire game could pass before the camera reaches the court. The players look like ants scurrying about their business.
"Man, it used to get so cold up in that arena," says Stoudamire, who is now an assistant coach with the University of Memphis Tigers. "We used to get up in that Skydome, man, and, shoot, you had to make sure the projection on your jumper was right because the wind might be blowing up in there."
Crisp temperatures and unforeseen wind gusts aside, the building was able to accommodate a large crowd, who were eager to learn a new sport. "We had a mandate of teaching the game," says Leo Rautins, a longtime Raptors color commentator who was working the game alongside Black. "We were to explain things like three second violations, traveling…We were walking a fine line of trying not to piss off the basketball fan that knows the game and teach the fan that doesn't."
Early in the season, when ushers handed out the inflatable cylindrical noisemakers that are now standard fare at most sporting events, their purpose wasn't clear. Fans soon learned how to use them, though, and went nuts, banging them together loudly in celebration whenever a Raptor stepped to the foul line. "While our guys were shooting free throws," says Rautins, with a hint of disbelief. "They didn't quite figure out that it's the other way around, ya know? There was a learning curve for the fans as well, but there was always a lot of energy."
By March, though, the fans had solved the mystery of the noisemakers. Now it was on the Raptors, in their final meeting of the season with Chicago, to solve the mystery of the Bulls.
The Raptors won the opening tip, sort of. Neither Oliver Miller or Bill Wennington, the Bulls center, timed their jump correctly, so as the ball descended, undisturbed, Alvin Robertson, the Raptors shooting guard, reached out, grabbed it and tossed it back to Stoudamire. The basketball got progressively more crisp from there, if only because it couldn't have done anything else. By the time the first quarter came to a close, the Raptors held a surprising 28-23 lead. "We had it all clicking that day," says Stoudamire. "You're always going to get up a little more playing against the Bulls. We knew what they were chasing at that time."
"We had no fear factor," says Murray. "Maybe it was the desperation of a lot of the guys careers but we had a mentality that we weren't afraid of teams. We knew at the end of the game it would be close, and if it were close enough, maybe we could steal one."
The Raptors had no shot at the playoffs at this point. Their record was 17-49, and they would go on to win only four more games before season's end, but this game still meant something. The Raptors had already dropped three hard-fought contests against the Bulls by deficits of nine, nine and three points. The Raptors knew they could hang with them, but beyond the binary of winning and losing, there was more on the line. Most of the players, like Murray, came to the Raptors with baggage; all were fighting to stay in the league. Murray had won a championship the season before with the Houston Rockets, but barely got off the bench. He had faced a similar situation in Portland prior to that, falling out of favor on veteran team that already had its rotations set. The Raptors represented a new start.
"There was nothing set in stone for anybody," says Murray. "You had to come out and fight for your spot, fight for your shots, your minutes, your time on the floor. Whoever was left fighting, that was who was left standing—that's your starter, those are your guys in the rotation. Any basketball player that's a fighter, that really loves to earn his position, would kill for a situation like that. I thought it was the perfect opportunity for me to come in and say I really can play in this league."
"That was Tracy's year," says Rautins. "He was on the verge of being out of the league before that and Brendan just got the most out of him. It was impressive."
Coach Malone, now 73 and an assistant coach with the Detroit Pistons, was in his office when I reached him on the phone. As it happens, he was watching game tape on the current iteration of the Raptors, who are one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference and sent two players to the NBA All-Star Game.
"Tracy was a great shooter," Malone says, taking a break to reflect. "When Tracy was in the game, I ran every play that I could that ended with a three." Often enough, it led to points.
A week earlier Murray had set a new career high with a 40-point outburst and he came into the Bulls game averaging 23 points per game, by far the best scoring average of his career. After spending the first four years of his career glued to the bench, Murray had extra motivation for the big games. "We had a chip on our shoulder and we wanted to beat them," says Murray. "Some teams were beaten coming out for warm-ups, looking on the other side of the court and seeing Michael, Scottie, and Dennis. We took that as a challenge. We respected them, but we wanted to go at them."
And so they did. John Salley, who left the Raptors in less than amicable circumstances, checked into the game midway through the first quarter and was quickly bodied up by Oliver Miller, who was two inches shorter than Salley but outweighed him by nearly 100 pounds. Salley wasn't the only one who felt Miller's wrath. In the third quarter, in a clashing of two giant bodies, Miller got tangled up with Bill Wennington under the basket. As the players were separated the courtside mics picked up Miller very calmly stating, "I'm gonna beat his white ass."
The Raptors danced across the line between "heated" and "chippy" all game long. In the fourth quarter, Alvin Robertson, who spent much of the game covering Jordan, delivered a two-hand shove to Jordan's chest. Things likely would have been worse if Rodman had been playing, but he was in the midst of serving a six game suspension for head-butting a referee.
"We were constantly challenging each other in practice, so when we got some new meat of course we were chomping at the bit to get at 'em," says Murray. "We were tired of beating each other up. We wanted to beat up somebody else."
Coach Malone, in his first head coaching gig, wanted to win games, even if that flew in the face of the demands coming from the front office and Isiah Thomas, who was part owner and the Executive Vice President of the team. "That was a philosophical difference between the two of them," says Rautins. "Isiah wanted Brendan to play all these other guys who were on the bench and couldn't play, to try and get a higher draft pick. But Brendan was there to win games."
So that night, facing the best team in the world, Coach Malone tightened his rotations and played only seven guys. It was the only way he believed his expansion roster could beat the most dominant team in NBA history. "That went against the grain with Isiah," says Rautins, "and ultimately that was one of the things Isiah used in firing Brendan that off-season, saying he wasn't going along with the program."
When I ask coach Malone why he only played seven players that night, his answer is less complicated. "Well," he says, "that's all you need."
The Raptors started the fourth quarter down four, 83-79—not an insurmountable gap, but not where any team wanted to be against the Bulls. The fourth quarter was traditionally when Jordan shed his human form and became an all-destroying beam of pure rageful light; the transformation took the form of fadeaway jumpers and seething dunks and usually ended with a celebratory Cuban Montecristo No. 2 afterwards.
Rewatching the game, there's an obvious nervousness that comes through during those final 12 minutes, a collective uneasiness from both the Raptors players and the fans. Jordan's zenith was defined by the certainty that he would rip out the opposing team's heart; the question was how messy it would be, and less a matter of if than of duration and degree.
After knocking down a series of high-arcing jumpshots, Malone shouted over to Jordan, either as an attempt to disrupt his rhythm, or as an appeal to his humanity, and had the following conversation:
"Hey Mike, aren't you going to miss one soon?"
"C'mon. You should know better than that, Brendan."
"For Jordan to have a big fourth quarter like that, that's what he did," says Rautins. "He just put the team on his shoulders and that was it."
Jordan scored 21 points over the first three quarters, and 15 more in the fourth. After points 29 and 30, which came on his patented baseline fadeaway. Rautins' could barely contain himself on the broadcast. "Oh my goodness!" he shouted. "Michael Jordan again! He just ran by the scorer's table and said 'ooh, that was a good one.'"
With 13 seconds left, the Bulls were down one point, 108-109, and Jordan was ready for his close-up. He brought the ball upcourt, pausing just beyond half for a moment, and then he chose his line. He broke right, but Miller was already there, and he knocked the ball loose. It ended up in Steve Kerr's hands, one of the top distance marksmen in the game. Kerr squared up to the basket, fired, and missed. The high arcing rebound fell into Jordan's hands, and he had just enough time to turn and shoot.
Malone: "The entire stadium held their breaths."
Murray: "When Jordan got that rebound, something was going to happen."
Black: "Everyone in the building thought, 'Michael is going to do it again.'"
And for a moment he did. Jordan banked in a shot, somehow, from the baseline, but it was a fraction of a second too late and the referees waved it off. The game was over.
"They've done it! The Toronto Raptors have done it! They've beaten Michael! They've beaten the Bulls!" Black shouts on the broadcast, as the stadium erupts. "Man, I havent heard this place like this since the Blue Jays won the World Series."
"I was so happy, I wanted to cry," Tracy Murray told the Chicago Tribune after the game. "This game meant more to me than the championship last year. It was a big win. It was just a great team effort."
"The whole year was very special," Murray says now, 20 years later. "Especially that game. It put a stamp on my career. It let the rest of the league know Tracy Murray really can play." He went on to play another eight seasons in the league, but never surpassed the 16.3 points per game he scored that year.
"For that season, it was probably the best moment we had all year," says Stoudamire. "That moment right there, that was big for us. That was big."
The fans flooded into the streets afterwards and Murray and some of the other players followed. "A lot of us went out that night," he says. "We were celebrating, too. I will never forget the love and support of those fans."
Beyond the use of inflatable noisemakers, the fans played another active role in the victory. Speaking about the game last year on sports talk radio, John Salley, who now works as a wellness advocate and has a line of vegan wine, blamed the loss partly on Toronto's nightlife. Most of the Bulls team had been out on King Street, in the city's downtown, until five in the morning the night before the game, Salley said. It seems like a good excuse, but if the Bulls were hungover, the Raptors should have been, too.
"I don't want to cosign John's story but truth be told, that happened, they did go out but John didn't tell the whole story," says Stoudamire, chuckling. "Because I was with them. There were other people out, too. It wasn't just the Bulls."
In fact, it might have factored into the Raptors strategy. "We were with them and we saw they they were in good hands and everybody trickled out of there early. We made sure we were ready," says Murray. "They were out there until five in the morning but that's the type of city Toronto is. It's a city where you want to get out and get into it and really see what's going on. We used that to our advantage."
"The Bulls had a great team, they played great ball, but those guys had fun," says Rautins. "I'll tell you that I've run into the Bulls when I was leaving places at two or three in the morning and they were just coming in, and I thought I was a wild man back then."
Toronto and Vancouver, Rautins says, were great stops on the NBA road. In the early days, the players could go out and not have to worry about being mobbed or even recognized by most fans. The players made the most of those opportunities. "Teams had a lot of fun up here," says Rautins. "That day when the Raptors beat the Bulls, I just know Chicago looked, to me, like they had one hell of a Toronto night. That's all I know."
After the win, Coach Malone ventured out, too, taking his wife and son for dinner at an Italian restaurant. The streets, Malone says, were delirious. "It was like New Year's, like a holiday." The description seems fitting, although maybe it's best to think of it as a birthday party, and March 24, 1996 as the day when the Toronto Raptors finally arrived.