'Let's think big': Behind Canada Basketball's hunt for Raptors' title-winning hardwood

The Toronto Raptors title-clinching court is shown above reassembled at the Ian Stewart Complex in Victoria. (Submitted by Nick Blasko - image credit)
The Toronto Raptors title-clinching court is shown above reassembled at the Ian Stewart Complex in Victoria. (Submitted by Nick Blasko - image credit)

It was a thought so crazy that, even in a pandemic, it just might work.

The "moonshot" idea to purchase and ship the Toronto Raptors' title-clinching court to Victoria for the upcoming Olympic qualifier arrived over lunch at Real Sports, a restaurant just outside of Scotiabank Arena.

Project point guards Scott Lake and Nick Blasko were joined by Canada Basketball president Glen Grunwald, University of Victoria athletics director Clint Hamilton, MLSE chief operating officer Michael Bartlett, Canada Basketball executive Sean Dennis and a Raptors representative.

At the time, in December 2019, the idea was to ship a Raptors Finals home court from earlier that year from Toronto to Victoria.

"And then all of the sudden it was like why are we thinking so f---ing small? Let's think big. Let's think the biggest court ever. And it wasn't just my light bulb, I think everyone's light bulb went off as soon as it turned to that," Lake told CBC Sports.

"But then it was like, how do you do that? How do you buy an NBA team's basketball court?"

Lake, co-founder of Shopify and board member of Canada Basketball, and Blasko, an events and artist manager commissioned by Lake to help in negotiations, were now set on their mission to bring home the hardwood.

"There was no reason not to take that moonshot and see where we could go with it. And as we got into it we just became more determined, like we gotta make this happen," Blasko said.

Lake is a long-time basketball nut and former high-school player. Blasko was a more fairweather fan of the sport — until the fight to get the floor.

Now both acknowledge how meaningful the floor could become in Canadian lore, especially if it helps boost Canada to the Tokyo Games. Canada must win the tournament, which begins June 29, to reach the Olympics for the first time since 2000.

"I think it could only happen this year under these circumstances. Obviously we're superstitious, because why would we buy a floor if we weren't?" Lake said.

The New York Times first reported that Canada Basketball had secured the court, detailing how Lake and Blasko spent nearly $280,000 US to bring it home.

There was even a misstep when they thought the entire 250-panel, 50,000 pound floor had been purchased, but it arrived missing 16 panels that make up the Golden State Warriors' 'The Town' logo in the centre.

"[Warriors arena executives] say to [Blasko] like, 'Hey, you guys have the Warriors floor, what's the big deal [if] you're missing 16 panels? Show me the harm.' And Nick pauses — there's a long silence — and Nick says, 'The 16 panels in question are not just important to me. They are important to the entire country of Canada," Lake recalled.

The final pieces of the floor puzzle.
The final pieces of the floor puzzle.(Submitted by Nick Blasko)

"It went from 'what's the big deal' to 'we'll call you back.'"

In all, it took about six months for the plan to come to fruition. That's when the question became how to hide the large — both in size and meaning — acquisition.

Lake and Blasko settled on storing the floor at the Ian Stewart Complex, a decommissioned sports facility in the heart of Victoria. They made sure to bring it through the side door, heads on a swivel to make sure the operation remained stealthy.

"We landed on the moon and we can't tell anyone about it. It's like a handful of us know about it and we're waiting for the right moment to talk about it and obviously the clock is running on this Olympic tournament, and we're like, 'Hey let's celebrate this fact,'" Blasko said.

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That was in June 2020. By December, too many people had caught wind — including one electrician working in the facility, who told his son, who happens to be Lake's friend — that it needed to be moved.

The court now sits in the Save-On-Foods Memorial Centre, where the qualifier will be played.

Its original intent was to be part of the puzzle of creating an "absolutely, completely unfair advantage for every other team," per Lake.

The We The West Festival, in part organized by Blasko, would be held in the lead-up to the tournament, building excitement for basketball and including "the biggest outdoor concert in Victoria's history" on Canada Day.

"Let's just do every possible thing to propel these guys on to what I think we both agree would be a nation-changing moment. A moment that would change the course of the country when it comes to sport," Lake said.

Toronto's Fred VanVleet defends against Golden State's Quinn Cook during Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals.

In all, the home-court advantage, in a country Lake says is now as much a basketball nation as hockey, would be deafening. Nearly half the country watched the Raptors win the 2019 championship.

A meeting with Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia also made clear to Lake and Blasko the idea that basketball is a reflection of the diverse country Canada aspires to be.

"It's available in all sorts of different forms. It promotes anti-racism which is just huge in today's society. It's multi-cultural — people from all over the world who live in Canada love basketball. It promotes national unity and the Raptors game was a total example of that," Lake said.

Once the floor serves its purpose hosting the Olympic qualifier, the plan is for it to remain in Victoria and potentially host more major events in the future.

That hardwood has already played host to one seminal moment in Canadian basketball history. By the summer, it could add another.

"The Raptors championship floor is part one. The Olympic Qualifying Tournament win is part two. The Olympic gold win is part three. And it all will be integrally connected to that floor," Lake said.