TORONTO — There's a new hip face of the franchise, a new look in the works, and in 2016 they'll host basketball's biggest party.
The Toronto Raptors officially announced Monday that they'll host the 2016 NBA all-star game and unveiled homegrown rap star Drake as their new "global ambassador." They also confirmed they'll have a new look and new colours — but not a new name — for the 2015-'16 season.
It's all in an effort to turn around Canada's floundering basketball franchise, and what Tim Leiweke, the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment Ltd., called the beginning of a "new age" for the Raptors.
Now the team has to do its part to live up to the hype.
"Anything you do, for me, it's all based on winning," said Raptors president and general manager Masai Ujiri. "This is all great and beautiful for the city, but at the end of the day, my responsibility, and my team's responsibility is to put that basketball team on the floor that is going to try and win out there.
"It's going to take time and patience, but we're taking on the challenge, and we love it. The people, the organization, the fans I think deserve it in Toronto."
Drake, who grew up a Raptors fan and calls some of the league's biggest stars his close friends, said he approached the team about getting involved.
"I want to bring the excitement into this building, I want a team that people are dying to come see, I want the tickets to be extremely hard to get, I want to bring that aggression, I want to bring that energy," said Drake. "And obviously I want it to be a top team in the NBA, if not the top team."
A crowd of several hundred people — including reporters representing sports, entertainment and news, plus MLSE employees — squeezed into the atrium at the Air Canada Centre for the announcement, which kicked off one of the most festive Toronto Raptors media days in the team's history.
Drake — who looked sharp wearing the lone electric blue suit among a stage full of black-clad MLSE officials and politicians, including Mayor Rob Ford — joked he would "have to go to Harry Rosen and get some more neutral suits because the vibrant blues aren't going to cut it."
Leiweke scheduled the announcement to coincide with the opening of camp, he said, to set a tone for the franchise. He called the day a "turning point" for the team.
"I think what you're seeing is the remaking of a franchise, the remaking of what people think about us, the remaking of the demand in the marketplace for us," Leiweke said. "I think there's a reason that we led the NBA in new ticket sales the last few weeks, there's now a buzz about this organization."
Leiweke stressed the all-star game isn't the final destination, that winning a championship is.
But a team that hasn't made the playoffs since 2008 has a long way to go. The Raptors went 34-48 last season, spending most of it digging out of a horrific 4-19 hole.
"Not to make Masai feel any more pressure than he already feels but I think we know we've got to be competitive by the all-star game," Leiweke said. "We can't be a dormant franchise, and what we won't do is have one thing to talk about in 2016, which is an all-star game. The all-star game should be part of a new image, it shouldn't be the new image."
The players said there was reason to be optimistic. Rudy Gay, acquired in the mid-season three-team trade, looked stronger for his summer spent in the gym, and said he's put on 20 pounds of muscle. A lean Kyle Lowry looked about 20 pounds lighter. DeMar DeRozan spent much off the off-season improving his three-point shooting.
Monday, they were focused on the beginning of training camp and the coming season, while sounding at best only mildly interested in all the all-star hype.
"It's a lot better when you have a good team going into playoffs and is known as a good team and then host the all-star team, than (host the all-star game) as a sub-par team," Gay said.
He did say Drake's backing meant something.
"He's a staple in this city, and for him to behind us as we try to get better as a franchise, it says a lot," Gay said.
The 26-year-old rapper, who said he travels the world preaching the "gospel that is Toronto," grew up following the Raptors, and called the Vince Carter era the source of his best basketball memories.
He envisions "everybody wearing Raptors stuff. I want to have merchandising through the roof, I want everybody to be proud and patriotic about being from here and supporting this team."
Drake counts among his good friends: Raptors forward Amir Johnson, and Toronto native and University of Kansas forward Andrew Wiggins. Last week Johnson, on his own accord, bought out all of Drake's new album "Nothing Was the Same" at two Toronto stores. He then handed out the several hundred copies free to fans at downtown's Yonge-Dundas Square.
"He's just a great guy," Drake said of Johnson. "Luckily for us, we have an amazing foundation thus far, so I think for the franchise it's going to take work but there's a base foundation there."
What exactly his role will be — or even how much he'll be around the Air Canada Centre considering he just released his new album — remains to be seen. But Leiweke promised Drake will have "as much a footprint on the all-star week as the NBA will allow us to."
The city last hosted an all-star game in 2008 when Major League Soccer held its showcase here.
The NHL staged its all-star game in Toronto in 2000 while the Toronto Blue Jays hosted baseball's marquee contest in 1991.
The 2014 all-star game will be held in New Orleans while New York will host the 2015 contest.
Leiweke says an NBA all-star game usually generates somewhere around $100 million for the host city but he predicted Toronto will eclipse that, saying he and Drake have been discussing making the festivities about more than just basketball and music.
"We're already talking about fashion, we're talking about films, we're talking about food, we're talking about all the things ... that are the trademark of this great city," said Leiweke. "We certainly see it as an opportunity to let everyone see all the phenomenal parts of Toronto."