On Nov. 3, 1995, the Toronto Raptors played their first game in franchise history, defeating the New Jersey Nets 94-79 in front of more than 33,000 fans at what was then called the SkyDome.
It was a big night for Canadian basketball as across the continent in Portland, Ore., expansion cousin the Vancouver Grizzlies were also playing their first game, defeating the Trail Blazers 92-80.
The pair were the first NBA teams in Canada since the Toronto Huskies in 1947, which were part of the Basketball Association of America (BAA), the forerunner to the NBA. (The Grizzlies would have less success than the Raptors, however, and relocated to Memphis in 2001.)
Less obvious, however, was the history being made courtside at the SkyDome, where Arlene Olynyk served as scorekeeper, the first female to do the job in NBA history.
Soaking it all in was her four-year-old son Kelly, who would grow up to be an NBA player and member of Canada’s national team.
“He grew up as a gym rat there,” Arlene Olynyk told CBC’s Sarah Penton of Kelly, now 29 and a member of the Miami Heat who recently played in the NBA Finals against the Los Angeles Lakers, losing in six games.
LISTEN: Sarah Penton’s interview with Arlene Olynyk:
Kelly was 14 when his mom wrapped up her time as scorekeeper for the Raptors, and having special access to the team on game days during those 10 years helped his early development as a player.
‘He would see some of these players behind the scenes’
With free tickets to every game and behind-the-scenes exposure to the team, Kelly got an up close look at the life he would grow up to live.
“He liked to go to as many games as he could, and he would come into the players’ room,” Olynyk said. “He would see some of these players behind the scenes; he would see how big they were. He would see how they were warming up before the game because he had to come down with me.”
They moved to Kamloops B.C., where Kelly won the province’s high school player-of-the-year honours in Grade 12.
When Kelly would tell his mom he wanted to be an NBA player when he grew up, Arlene responded by telling him he needed a backup plan, as there was no predicting he would eventually grow to be six-foot-eleven, having just completed his seventh season in the league. He spent his first four with the Boston Celtics.
“I’m really, really happy that he’s enjoying the journey,” Olynyk said of her son’s success.
1st female scorekeeper in NBA
While being the NBA’s first female scorekeeper was an important league milestone, it also had its challenges.
Women employees of any kind were rare at the time, and Arlene said she had deal with sexism during games when referees would report to the score bench.
“They would report to the closest male, and I wouldn’t get it all,” Olynyk said. “So I had to teach them in Toronto who they were looking at and who they were looking for.
“That was the little bit tougher part — a couple of referees just didn’t get it that they were reporting to a female.“
Olynyk also had to record statistics as part of her role with the Raptors, something she and her co-workers were adamant to get right.
“They [players] get paid in bonuses by what they do, and they want their stats,” Olynyk said.
Statistics dispute with Michael Jordan
But Olynyk still dealt with disputes over statistics with players, including an incident with NBA legend Michael Jordan.
“We had one time when Michael Jordan was still playing, at quartertime he gets his stats printed out, he looks at them and then came and sat on the score bench and looked at us and said, ‘you’ve missed two assists,'” Olynyk recalled.
“He made sure that we knew that he was counting.”
Olynyk said one of the most enjoyable parts about her time with the Raptors was being involved in the pre-game ritual of some players as they stepped onto the court.
“Some of the early players, some of their good luck thing was to fist bump the whole row of the score table,” Olynyk said. “So you come down and you’d be fist bumping Tracy McGrady or whoever had that in their part of superstition before they went out to play.”
Olynyk was an important part of the early history of the Toronto Raptors, and her son’s NBA journey is a testament to the influence the league has had in Canada since the Raptors arrived 25 years ago.