When it comes to melding professional sports and higher education, Saint Leo University has been known as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ exclusive educational partner.
The partnership, which began in 2019, has featured traditional in-stadium and in-market advertising, digital and social features. and other unique fan elements. Most visible elements can be seen along massive interstate billboards and signage throughout Raymond James Stadium.
Over the last month, the university scored another professional sports franchise partner, albeit for a brief period.
Saint Leo’s on-campus Marion Bowman Activities Center served as preseason training camp host for the NBA’s Toronto Raptors, from Dec. 1 through Dec. 11.
The Raptors journey to Saint Leo and the Bay Area came by way of circumstance.
Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the franchise was unable to start the 2020-2021 regular season in Toronto due to Canada-U.S. border restrictions.
Needing a temporary home in the U.S., the Raptors’ players voted to begin their 2020-2021 season in Tampa over cities such as Buffalo, Fort Lauderdale, Louisville, Nashville and Newark.
Raptors “home” games — at least initially — will be played at Amalie Arena, the homesite of the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning, at 401 Channelside Drive in Tampa. The scheduled 72-game regular season begins Dec. 22 and is expected to run through May 16. The Raptors announced at least 17 home games will be played at Amalie Arena in the first half of the NBA season.
Besides the home arena, the Raptors, too, needed someplace nearby to hold its two weeklong training camps while construction was underway on a makeshift practice court inside a hotel ballroom at JW Marriott Tampa Water Street, in downtown Tampa.
And, that’s when some deep coaching ties came to assist.
Saint Leo men’s basketball coach Lance Randall has known Raptors head coach Nick Nurse for over 20 years.
It’s a relationship dating back to when the pair was coaching against each other in Europe, more specifically in the British Basketball League. Both also coached England’s Birmingham Bullets at separate times in the late 1990s and early 2000s. They’ve remained friendly ever since.
“There’s not a ton of American coaches over there (in Europe),” Randall recently told The Laker/Lutz News, “so you tend to get to be closer with guys that are American when you’re over there and make some sort of connections and bonds.”
It was sometime in mid-November when Randall received a random text message from Nurse, inquiring about the college’s basketball facilities as a possible camp site, as the team made preparations for a move stateside.
Randall subsequently went into recruiting pitch mode, self-assured the Bowman Center would be a slam dunk for the Raptors.
The Bowman Center has 10 basketball hoops, two full-size courts and a 4,444-square-foot weight room.
The facility also has a balcony overlooking the practice gym, which allowed team scouts and management to get a bird’s-eye view of all the action.
Add to that a serene setting devoid of distractions in rural East Pasco County, off State Road 52, some 35 miles north of the team’s downtown Tampa hotel stay.
Raptors representatives were on-campus within a week of the original text conversation, touring the facility with Randall and other university officials. They also took a look at Lake Jovita and some of the surrounding areas.
The NBA franchise clearly liked what it saw from the in-person visit.
“We have a great gym for getting better,” Randall said. “We have a lot of baskets, we have a great floor, and it just kind of made sense. And, the students are off-campus, so from that standpoint, it just kind of fell into place.”
The timing also worked for Randall’s own program.
With the status of the NCAA Division II and Sunshine State Conference season and games in limbo, Randall had no qualms with having his team conducting some routine practices at Academy at the Lakes, in Land O’ Lakes. End-of-semester final exams also took place during the time of Raptors training camp, meaning Randall’s squad was due for a break anyway.
Home away from home
For the duration of Raptors training camp, buses shuttled players, coaches and officials to Saint Leo, generally between 8 a.m. and 3:30 p.m., each day.
As many as four shuttle buses could be seen parked at any one time next to the Bowman Center.
Raptors management strived to normalize the temporary setting, wrapping the university’s fitness center, end mats and other portions of the arena in team logos and its signature red and black color scheme.
Practices were closed to the media and public, but both Randall and Saint Leo athletics director Fran Reidy were able to view some action from afar, at least in the early portion of training camp.
For them, it was a surreal experience witnessing an NBA team on Saint Leo’s hardwood floor, let alone one that won an NBA title in 2019 and has secured a playoff berth seven years running.
“It’s great to watch pros who really do work,” said Reidy. “You know, they didn’t get there by accident, right?
“When I was watching these guys, they’re working at their game, they’re not going through the motions. There’s guys that work out before the team practice or after the team practice on their individual part, and obviously they work on the team concept in the middle, but it is interesting to see how hard these guys work.
“To see guys that were winning an NBA championship a year ago (in 2019) in your gym with arguably one of the best coaches in the league, it was really fun to watch,” Reidy said.
Randall added: “They really just kind of locked in. They’re very professional about how they do things and they’ve been a great group, just a really classy organization. They’ve got a culture of winning and doing things the right way, and really it’s embodied everything they do, even just simple things like meeting and greeting.”
From a coach’s perspective, Randall also was captivated by the team’s “attention to detail, and the ability to facilitate those details on a moment’s notice.”
It was a valuable learning tool for his own basketball staff, he said.
On the flip side, Raptors players and coaches came away quite pleased with the university’s Southern hospitality.
In a recent Zoom media conference during camp, Nurse joyfully mentioned that Randall’s wife had baked chocolate chip cookies for the entire team.
“That’s how special the touches are around here,” said Nurse, the 2020 NBA Coach of the Year. “They’ve been gracious, gracious hosts.”
Nurse praised the Bowman Center’s basketball facilities, too. He noted how its 10 hoops are distinctly spaced out in the arena, which allowed the team’s 20-man roster to get adequate individual work in without encroaching on each other.
“We’ve got 20 players here, you’ve got a lot of bodies,” said Nurse, “so you need a lot of baskets to keep everybody active, and getting required shots in and form shooting work, and all that stuff going.”
He added: “The facilities here are perfect, really perfect, and we’re happy and fortunate we chose here and that they were able to accommodate us.”
Raptors all-star power forward Pascal Siakam likewise came away satisfied with Saint Leo’s digs.
“I think it’s been great,” Siakam said of the training camp experience at Saint Leo. “I would say we’ve been blessed to be able to have a facility like that. Definitely a shout out to Saint Leo for letting us use the gym and be a part of what they have here.
“I think it’s been great just being here and having everything under one roof. I just know, obviously, we appreciate it as a team.”
Those types of responses gratified Saint Leo’s athletics director, confirming the university’s sports facilities and amenities are top-notch and pro-caliber.
“We do have really good facilities. We’ve known that for a long time. Anytime we can get other people to campus, they realize the same thing. But, when a professional team comes to campus, I think it validates what you’ve been saying,” said Reidy.
Besides validation, the partnership in with the Canadian-based NBA franchise has yielded other benefits for the private Catholic university with an undergraduate on-campus enrollment of 2,000-plus.
Saint Leo naturally has gotten quite an exposure boost over the last several weeks — becoming the subject of much local, regional, national and international media attention.
Reidy believes it all could be a windfall for recruiting new student-athletes in the future.
And, not just in hoops, but even in sports like men’s lacrosse, which has seven Canadian-born players on its 2021 roster.
“We have a bunch of Canadians on our (men’s lacrosse) team, so this certainly is not going to hurt our recruiting,” Reidy said. “Because the Raptors have been here, now those kids will know that, ‘Well the Raptors were at Saint Leo, then it must be the real deal,’ so it has been a really good brand for us, really helped us at a time when we haven’t played any sports (due to the COVID-19 pandemic), we were kind of in need of a little spark, and this has been a very good experience.”
This is actually not the first time Saint Leo has played host to an NBA team.
The New Jersey Nets in 1996 held preseason training camp at the college, lodging at Saddlebrook Resort in Wesley Chapel.
That partnership also happened by way of a coaching connection.
Then Nets rookie head coach John Calipari had served as a graduate assistant in 1982 at the University of Kansas under Ted Owens, Saint Leo’s athletic director at the time.
2020-2021 Toronto Raptors roster
- OG Anunoby, forward
- Aron Baynes, center-forward
- DeAndre’ Bembry, guard-forward
- Chris Boucher, forward-center
- Oshae Brissett, forward-guard
- Terence Davis, guard
- Henry Ellenson, forward-center
- Malachi Flynn, guard
- Jalen Harris, guard
- Alize Johnson, forward
- Stanley Johnson, forward-guard
- Alex Len, center
- Kyle Lowry, guard
- Patrick McCaw, guard
- Malcolm Miller, guard-forward
- Norman Powell, guard
- Pascal Siakam, forward
- Matt Thomas, guard
- Fred VanVleet, guard
- Yuta Watanabe, guard-forward
- Paul Watson, guard
Nick Nurse, head coach
Adrian Griffin, assistant
Sergio Scariolo, assistant
Jim Sann, assistant
Chris Finch, assistant
Scott McCullough, trainer
Published December 16, 2020