The North

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Norman Powell
·20 min read
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How do you thank an entire fan base? An entire organization? An entire city?

An entire country?

This journey that I was on over the last six years of being a Raptor ... man ... it was the time of my life. And as I get started on this next journey of mine, of being a Blazer, I just wanted to put down a few thoughts for y’all while they’re still fresh.

Appreciate everyone for reading.

Alright ... here it goes:

1. I won’t lie: Getting traded was a shock.

That afternoon of the trade deadline, around 12:45, I got a text from Fred, asking if I’d heard anything. I was like, “Nah. Nothing.” I think I took a phone call or two after that … asked around some. But mostly it was quiet. It had been a lot of just that type of back and forth.

And then my phone started blowing up.

“Portland!”

As soon as I saw the first text, I knew instantly.

I wouldn’t say I had NO idea a trade might be on the table. I understand the way things work — and I knew my situation, as well as the team’s. I’m coming up on free agency. We were 11th in the East. I’m in a position where I can help a contender (and I’ll do that). They’re in a position where maybe they want to get younger (and they did that).

But even with all of that said, it still caught me off-guard. Not just because of the way I’ve been playing this season, but also the bigger picture — I always thought of myself as part of the core that was being built around. Me, Freddy, Pascal, we all kind of came up together. We’re all about the same age. We’re thick as thieves, man. And I really felt like our group, plus OG, we were destined to be the next great Raptors team.

So I’d say for me that was probably the most bittersweet aspect of it.

Just thinking about what could have been.

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

2. This has been a weird few days, for sure.

One of the strange things about this trade was that I’ve been in Tampa for the regular season as a Raptor — and then I got traded right as the Blazers were about to play in Tampa against the Raptors.

So, like, I still had my place. Still drove my normal route to the hotel where we’d get tested. But now instead of going to the left, where the Raptors test, I had to go to the right, where the road team tests. And instead of heading to Level 3, I had my team meeting on Level 2. Just little stuff like that. It was a weird feeling, man.

Actually, here’s how weird it was: I purposely came in a little late — just out of the hope that I could avoid having to run into people and go through more emotions.

But of course that move never works.

A few minutes after I got there, a bunch of the Raptors started showing up.

And I think that’s about when it really started to hit me — like, Oh, man. This is real.

This is really goodbye.

3. It’s hard to say goodbye.

I kept it together for a while. Saw OG, had a good conversation with him. He was confused about the trade as well, but we broke it down a little together, and I think that helped both of us. A lot of other guys from the team came through and I spoke with them. Just a lot of you got this and whatnot, everyone wanting the best for me in Portland.

And then I saw Jama Mahlalela. Jama is one of our assistant coaches, and he was also my very first coach when I got to Toronto. He’s known me literally since Summer League, and I’ve spent a lot of time working with him super closely. And he came in to give me a hug, and, man ... I just heard it in his voice. Like, he was reassuring me. But then I just heard that tiny little crack in his voice — and that was it. After that, it was a wrap.

Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

It was straight-up waterworks. I started breaking down crying … all the memories that I’d been holding back for those last couple of days, they came rushing back in.

Jama and I took a walk down the hall, had a heart-to-heart, talked about my future, talked about how it’s okay to have these feelings, talked about how so many changes in life can end up being blessings in disguise.

Then we ran into Kyle, and I’ll be honest ... I had to cry some more. Kyle, along with DeMar, he’s been my true vet, so there’s a lot of history there. And when I saw him, he just embraced me — let me get those emotions out. And then he gave me one final piece of Kyle wisdom.

He said, “You will always be a part of this history.”

Damn.

And then I ran into Fred.

4. Actually, as a matter of fact, I need to give Fred his own section.

So by the time I ran into Fred, it had been a minute now since those waterworks. But if you’ve ever cried like that, you know: even after that sh*t dries ... you’re still not fooling anyone.

And Fred obviously doesn’t miss a thing.

First thing he says when he sees me, he goes, “Oh, man. You was crying?”

And I just sort of hang my head a little, and laugh. And then Fred laughs.

He’s like, “It’s alright, brother. Thugs cry too. It’s cool, bro.”

That moment with Fred, it meant a lot. He’s my best friend. But beyond that, I feel like he’s been this driving force behind a lot of how I’ve grown as a player ... and vice versa. That’s just how it’s always been with us. We’ve pushed each other. As competitors, for sure — it’s that second-round pick / undrafted hunger, I think. That underdog mentality. I mean, we had to stop playing one-on-one against each other, there had to be a ban on it, because of how competitive we got, all the little scraps we would get in. But it was always about friendship with us first.

Freddy’s my Day One.

And it’s tough as hell, the idea of not being teammates with that dude anymore.

5. I also need to give a special shoutout to DeMar.

DeMar’s Raptors legacy better not get lost in the shuffle, just because he’s been in San Antonio for a few years. I can’t even begin to put into words how important of a figure he is — and how important he’s been to me personally.

First of all, DeMar was one of my absolute idols growing up. Like, if you were a kid in Southern California at the time, as I was, DeMar’s pre-NBA run at Compton and then USC, it’s straight up legendary. It was like there was almost this ladder. You had Kobe on top of the basketball world, and then you had DeMar doing his thing in high school and college, having Kobe to look up to. And then you had all of us, me and my peers — and we had DeMar. Every kid in our neighborhood wanted to learn the dunks from DeMar’s YouTube highlights, and then go to USC just like DeMar and Nick Young and those boys.

And then I get to the league, I go to the Raptors, and it’s like — are you serious?????

Now suddenly I’m teammates with him.

And of course I’m trying to play it cool. I’m not a dummy. But on the inside, I swear, we’d be in a workout and I’d be thinking, like, Yo — that’s DEMAR DEROZAN. It’s the man himself. DeMar, I love you, dog!! I was trying to be just like you! Or like right after a scrimmage, I’d be dialing up my friends from home, and telling them all about, you know, Y’all won’t even believe me, but I just guarded DeMar one-on-one!! Oh yeah — he busted my ass the whole game. But I still might have crossed him up and hit a jumper in his face, I ain’t lying!! It was just too funny.

And you know how they say “never meet your idols”? With DeMar it couldn’t have been further from the truth. He wasn’t just a good vet to me — he was a big brother. (Still is.)

I remember my rookie year, right as I felt like I was starting to get my sea legs as an NBA player, getting that first bit of momentum, the team sent me down to the D-League. And at first I was so pissed, man. I was furious!! I was like, I’m no D-League player!! How are they going to do this to me??!?

Looking back, it was a real turning point. I had the totally wrong mindset about getting sent down … and I could have easily stayed like that, and kept that bad energy. My career would be a lot worse off.

But in that moment, DeMar saved me. Before I left the team, he took me aside for a quick chat.

It was typical DeMar wisdom: simple, and yet deceptively deep.

He was like, “If you don’t belong down there, Norm — just prove it.”

Like I said, simple. But that was everything I needed. I understood exactly the point DeMar was making.

I ended up playing a total of eight games in the D-League.

Averaged almost 25 — and never looked back.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP
Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP

6. I’m excited about what we have going in Portland.

I just wanted to make that clear here, real quick, up front.

This is an article for my Toronto people, mostly — but before I go any further, I feel like I need to say a word to my new people in Portland for a minute.

Blazers fans, if you’re reading this: I’m dialed IN.

I think it’s a great spot for me with this group.

I love that we’re going for it — and I love that the team went out and got me because we’re going for it.

Thanks for what’s already been a warm welcome.

Let’s get to work.

7. There are so many memories I’m taking with me.

I wouldn’t even know where to begin, trying to keep track of them — and more importantly, I wouldn’t know where to end. I feel like we might be here all day if I went through my full bag of memories as a Raptor.

For now, though, how about I share two favorites from my rookie year: one on the court, one off the court. Cool?

Okay, first one: We’re playing the Magic, and I get some real playing time — which back then was pretty big for me. My job was to go in there and try to contain Victor Oladipo.

Not so much, man.

Vic gave me buckets. Buckets and buckets.

And I’ll never forget how, right after that game ended, T-Ross and Pat were just busting me up about how I let Vic run wild.

“Good job, Norm!!”

“Way to contain him, Norm!!”

“Man ... Norm ... you really slowed him down….”

Nonstop, the whole time we were in the locker room.

And it was one of those moments where it was kind of like, yeah, they’re making fun of me. But on another level, I think it was almost their way of signaling to me, you know, You’re a part of this team.

Like — they’re only going to make fun of you if they rock with you, you know what I mean?

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images
Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

8. And then I’ll never forget when Big Bros took us shopping one time….

It’s me, it’s Delon Wright, it’s DeMar, it’s Kyle. We’re on the road in Boston, and the four of us are at the mall. Eventually we end up at one of the nice department stores, I think either Saks Fifth Avenue or Nordstrom? And DeMar and Kyle turn to me and Delon, and — real low-key, like it was nothing — they’re like, “Get what you want.”

First off, you have to understand something. Delon, he’s a rookie … but his actual big bro was in the league. D-Wright’s had money. So he’s been in designer for years. On the other hand, though, me?? I’m a ROOKIE rookie. I’m just a kid on a second-round contract. All I’ve been wearing all season are these team-issued track suits, or my old UCLA gear. Maybe some Levi’s.

So when these vets are telling me, “Get what you want,” and I’m looking at these price tags and it’s like $1,500 for a pair of shoes, I’m like — Sorry, what?? Man, I have NO idea what “Get what you want” means. None. Like I’m way too embarrassed to ever say anything, but on the inside I’m thinking, Alright, so are you guys giving me a limit here, or ... and obviously I’m too afraid to pick out anything, since my worst nightmare is Kyle or DeMar telling me it’s too expensive ... and it’s just so funny, because if you told people how these two NBA All-Stars tried to take you on a shopping spree, that’s like a fantasy. But for me, nah, I was stressing out. I felt like I had my mom beside me again and we were picking out clothes for school.

Finally I decide the right move is to just pick out one outfit — something simple. Nothing too expensive.

I find one I like, and bring it over to the other guys.

Long silence.

“Damn, Norm,” DeMar says to me. “That’s all you’re getting?”

9. And yet NO memory can top that championship run.

I almost feel like the title season part of this has to be the shortest part of this, in a weird way, just because of how well y’all know that story. Plus I’ll probably be telling stories about that season for as long as I live.

A couple of random memories are standing out to me right now about it, though.

First one is the Kawhi trade. That was the craziest time, for real. The thing that really sticks with me about us getting Kawhi is how, the way it was reported at first, it was Toronto getting Kawhi in exchange for “DeMar + a younger player.” Meanwhile, none of us knew who “younger player” was! So for as long as it took for them to sort that all out, I don’t remember how long it was, I’m totally clueless about if I’m getting traded ... my phone is blowing up with people wanting to know if I’m getting traded ... and maybe the funniest part is we have our whole crew of Young Raptors on a group text, and we’re all going wild on it, asking each other if anyone knows which one of us is getting traded.

It ended up being Jakob, and we all hated to see that, because he was another one of those guys who was around our same age and who we wanted to build this thing with over the long haul. And of course losing DeMar was devastating. But at the same time we understood that a player like Kawhi doesn’t come cheap, and this is a business. (Kawhi was a great teammate, by the way, and I’m not just saying that because we won a title. Trust me — they don’t make bad teammates in San Diego.)

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images
Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

And then my other memory I’m going to share here, it’s not even a story.

It’s just me and Fred, on that plane ride back from California to TO, flying private with the Larry O’Brien trophy ... and the two of us just looking at each other like kids in a toy store. It’s like, Alright — so what do we even do with this thing??? We’re trying to think up what cool stuff we can do with Larry O’B at 30,000 feet in the air. I wish I could say we had some genius ideas, but we mostly just settled for taking pictures of each other doing dumb sh*t. Silly poses and whatever. Like that one picture, you know, the one of me sleeping with the trophy on the plane? People are always telling me what a touching photo that is. It’s actually just me and Fred messing around.

I think he was like, “Norm — act like you’re sleeping with it.”

That was a special season, man.

10. I can’t leave without saying some thank yous.

I want to thank everyone in the Raptors organization for an amazing six years — everyone from ownership, to Masai, to Dwayne and Nick, to the whole staff. I also want to give a very special thank you to Jennifer Taylor, Amanda Joaquim, Courtney Charles and Patrick Mutombo, for everything they’ve done for me. I know I won the NBA lottery, ending up with you guys.

I want to thank the people of Toronto — and the people of Canada as a whole. Appreciated the respect, appreciated the support. Appreciate y’all for Understanding the Grind.

I want to thank Drake, who’s what you hope he’ll be and more. Good guy, super involved, really gets it. Also — don’t even try to flex on me, talking about you’ve been a fan since So Far Gone or Thank Me Later or any of those eras. I’ve been ride-or-die since Degrassi, son.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

And then last but not least, I want to thank Raptors fans everywhere. The North, Raptors Nation, Jurassic Park — call them whatever you want.

Just call them the best in the world.

11. I keep thinking about what Kyle said.

“You will always be a part of this history.”

Man ... obviously those words meant a lot to me, especially considering who they came from — probably the greatest Raptor of all time.

But maybe I can end this article by explaining just a little more what they meant.

It’s funny ... you hear a lot about how relationships and whatnot can get difficult to manage as you’re making it to the league. What you don’t hear as much of, though, is the mental toll it can take. And I was definitely going through that, in a lot of ways, as I made the jump from college to the NBA.

I was dealing with what I think a lot of people deal with when they go through transitions: the endings of certain things. The discovery that some people who you maybe thought were going to be with you for this next part of your journey ... actually it turns out that won’t be the case.

That stuff hurts, man. It hurts to lose your people.

And I was hurting from something like that as I was going through pre-draft.

What’s crazy, though, is that the moment I stepped foot in Toronto?? It’s like it just changed my whole trajectory in some way.

It’s like that was the moment when I stopped having this cloud hang over me.

Mark Blinch/Getty Images
Mark Blinch/Getty Images

I remember it so vividly. I was coming in for a workout that next morning, and the Raptors had sent a car service to come pick me up and take me to the hotel. And I’ll never forget sitting in the backseat of that car as we drove downtown ... and twisting my neck out the window to see where I was at ... and just being completely in awe. It was this great spring night. We were in Maple Leaf Square. And I got out, and looked around — and it was something about it, man. All these big screens, these big lights, that midnight glow of everything. That aura, you know what I mean?? It really pulled me in. And this was like eight hours before my pre-draft workout — I hadn’t even touched a basketball yet for the Raptors. But I’m telling you, for real: I already knew. The moment that I stepped out of that car, I knew. I just had a feeling.

I FaceTimed one of my best friends from home, Kevin, and I told him — I was like, “It’s amazing, the feeling I’m getting here. It’s amazing. This is the city I need to play in.”

Toronto was just where I was supposed to be.

I woke up the next morning, and put on a SHOW in my workout. (Not exaggerating on that ... ask anyone. There’s a windmill dunk I gave ’em that day that people still talk about.)

Then fast-forward, it’s Draft Night, I’m at my watch party — and I’m getting yelled at from across the room. It’s my old high school coach.

He’s saying, “Norm, check out the TV! Check it out!”

I go and look.

Raptors acquire Norman Powell in trade with Bucks.

It’s like it was fate, you know what I mean??

And the rest ... it’s history.

So when Kyle came up to me last week, and he hugged me, and he told me, “You will always be a part of this history” — of course I thought about everything that I accomplished as a Raptor. Of course every memory flooded back all at once. But I also thought a lot about the beginning for me in Toronto ... before all of that. Before we became champions. Before all of those memories.

I thought about how Toronto gave me a chance, as a 22-year-old kid, to figure out who I was, and who I could grow into. I thought about how playing basketball in this city — literally in this whole new country — gave me a shot at a fresh start in life. I thought about how being a part of this Raptors thing, it brought a whole new group of people into my life: teammates and coaches, definitely, but also friends and mentors. People I could count on ... at a time when I badly needed people I could count on.

I guess another word for that could be family, or a type of family ... and I think that’s probably the closest thing to what Kyle meant. Everyone who was a part of this thing — everyone who really cared about this thing we were building together: that's family, to me. And when y’all decide on my legacy here ... or when you’re just looking back on those teams and my name comes up ... I guess I hope that’s what gets mentioned.

I mean, I hope y’all talk first about Kyle, and DeMar, and Fred, and Kawhi, and Pascal and OG and so many others. I hope y’all talk about them until you run out of voice. But then at some point, just before the end of that conversation, I guess I like to think about someone chiming in maybe, like, Yo — also? Shoutout to NORM. Dude worked his ass off. Had nothing handed to him, but he was a grinder. He was tough. And he LOVED being a Raptor.

Norm Powell, man. Yeah.

He was one of us.