PHOTO COURTESY OF MLSE

In a panel hosted by Rotman Commerce on November 8, Toronto Raptors Assistant General Manager Dan Tolzman and Manager of Player Development Shelby Weaver discussed the culture shift in the Raptors’ organization. The panel was organized by Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE) and moderated by renowned TSN news anchor Lindsay Hamilton. Both the Raptors and the Toronto Maple Leafs are managed and coordinated by MLSE. The event was co-hosted by the Rotman Sports Business Association.

Switching things up with a three-point plan

Attracting high-calibre talent to Toronto is difficult, and many NBA fans and even local Torontonians assume that star players are not interested in playing in Canada. It is cold, taxes are high, and players need to be attracted to our organizations over others. Raptors President Masai Ujiri along with Tolzman have shaken up the Raptors’ culture to remedy this.

After an introductory press conference with NBA champions all-star player Kawhi Leonard and all-defensive player Danny Green, Ujiri declared that “the narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone… Believe in this city. Believe in yourselves.”

Ujiri’s actions signal that Toronto athletes no longer have to remind the world that Toronto is indeed a great city for professional athletes. In addition to the Raptors’ acquisition of Kawhi Leonard this offseason, the Maple Leafs recently signed Toronto native John Tavares. Both of them are proving to be franchise-changing players.

Despite some heartache after losing head coach Dwane Casey and star player DeMar DeRozan, the Raptors are playing incredibly well.

In addition to the organization’s culture shift, Weaver and Tolzman explained the ways in which positive social media influence and emphases on mental health and work ethic have contributed to the franchise’s success.

Weaver acknowledged that many men are told that they must swallow their emotions and not talk about them, which has led to various mental health problems for male athletes. To help, the team has a psychologist working closely with Weaver.

Players also have a significant amount of downtime, an enormous amount of money, and are usually very young. This can often be a recipe for disaster, especially in a bustling city like Toronto. Weaver’s role is not to counsel or discipline players, but to help make sure that they are staying focused on basketball and that their time is productive and not full of partying.

Tolzman added that every player has 24/7 access to training facilities, so that they can always use this time to work on their game or improve their bodies.

MLSE LaunchPad and youth sports

Funds from the event go toward  MLSE’s LaunchPad, a 42,000-square-foot indoor athletic space that hosts sports activities for Toronto’s youth. The facility contains classroom spaces, a nutrition hub, a climbing wall, and an enormous gym. There is no membership fee, so anyone from the ages of six to 29 can become a member. Programs include Sport & Ready for School, Sport & Ready for Work, Sport & Healthy Mind, and Sport & Healthy Body.

Prior to the event, The Varsity discussed the importance of youth athletic development in the GTA and its impact on Canadian basketball with Tolzman.

When asked about the importance of LaunchPad, Tolzman said, “I think from an MLSE and Raptors standpoint, building basketball and sport in general, all the sports [for] the Toronto youth, that’s what makes us relevant.”

“People want to come out to our games and enjoy our team. And so there’s no other way we would want to give back to the community than to help promote sports in general back with the youth.”

When asked about the impact of youth programs directed towards sports, Tolzman noted, “I think sports in general is such a huge confidence builder, for young children, teenagers, or whoever. So much of what a person becomes as an adult has a lot to do with youth sports and what they took part in. You build friendships that way. You build companionship. Some of the best friendships of my life came from teams I was on as a kid. I think that, in general, being a part of sports as a youth is so important to where it’s not so much about having kids become Toronto Raptors fans, as much as it is becoming active and athletic, and being engaged with other kids.”

Tolzman also provided insight on the future of Canadian players in the NBA. “The more these young players that are coming up become good NBA players, it just leads to more people around here wanting to follow in their footsteps. It’s just a snowball effect.”

Canada has produced talented players in recent years, such as RJ Barrett, Jamal Murray, and Andrew Wiggins, and Tolzman sees potential for more Canadians getting a chance to play in the top basketball league in the world.

“The NBA is all about bringing in the most talented players, regardless of where they are from,” Tolzman said. “It just happens that a lot of these young guys happen to be coming from the Toronto area, and Canada in general. It’s just going to be more and more because the level of play is just improving every year.”

And this year is particularly exciting for Toronto so far. As the season begins, the Raptors are currently in first place in the Eastern Conference with a 134 record, while the Maple Leafs are in second place in the Atlantic Division at 146.

MLSE has successfully brought relevance to the Raptors franchise as it stands now, and with LaunchPad, it is clear that it is making efforts to create spaces for young Torontonian athletes to improve their skills athletically and mentally. For all we know, the next great NBA star may find their launching point there.

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