Joe Halstead's assist paves way for Toronto Raptors

Joe Halstead's assist paves way for Toronto Raptors

June 12, 2019

While waiting to board the same flight about a year ago, former Ontario Premier Bob Rae turned to retired provincial bureaucrat Joe Halstead and asked, ‘Do you remember that’?

Jamaican-born Halstead didn’t need any clarification as he knew exactly what Rae was referring to.

In November 1993, Toronto entrepreneurs John Bitove Jr. and Alain Slaight were awarded a National Basketball Association (NBA) franchise on condition that the province remove professional basketball wagering on the Pro-Line sports lottery.

They beat out a group fronted by Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson and the Palestra Group headed by Larry Tanenbaum who is now the Chair of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (MLSE) whose primary holdings include the Toronto Raptors.

When Bitove approached the government with the NBA demand, Rae reminded him that hoops netted about $20 million annually for Ontario’s taxpayers and the province wasn’t going to give that money up.

To find a compromise, Rae formed a committee comprising his New Democratic Party Special Adviser David Reville, Toronto lawyer Larry Bertuzzi and Halstead who was the province’s Assistant Deputy Minister responsible for sport, culture and recreation.

“The three of us were told to go and meet with the potential franchise owners and the NBA and let them know that a lot of money is at stake,” recalled Halstead who spent seven years in England before coming to Canada and working as a proof-reader at the Globe & Mail prior to entering the public service.

The Metrolinx board member and former Ontario Place Corporation Chair will never forget the meeting with then NBA Commissioner David Stern in his New York office.

“This guy was one of the most charming people I have ever met,” Halstead said. “But before we could state our case, he looked at us and said, ‘This is not going to happen’. We looked at each other and said, ‘I think we know what that means’.”

Over the next few months, the committee had a number of meetings – many late into the night -- with the potential franchise owners.

It helped that Halstead and Bitove had a great relationship as their paths often crossed on city-related sports projects. Bitove organized the winning bid that brought the 1994 World Championship of Basketball to Toronto and played major roles in local organizations established to compete for the right to host the 1996 Olympics and Expo 2000.

“We talked and talked to find a creative way to solve the problem,” said Halstead. “We couldn’t let the franchise go. We had to come up with a way to replace the government money.”

With a February 14 deadline looming, a compromise agreement was struck four days earlier.

It was decided that the Toronto team and the NBA would create a charitable foundation to support youth progress and other charitable causes throughout the province. The team agreed to contribute $5 million to the foundation over three years and raise $1 million a year thereafter through various activities, including an annual charity exhibition game and fundraising programs.

As part of the arrangement, the NBA settled on providing $2 million in television time and advertising space over four years to promote tourism in the province and hold the 1995 draft in Toronto.

“In my 25 years at the time working in the public service, it was the biggest project I had worked on where the stakes were so high,” noted Halstead. “It was a learning process and it made me more experienced in the art of negotiating.”

One third of the foundation directors was appointed by the provincial government and two-thirds by the team and league.

“Bob basically said, ‘you were a big part of the negotiations, so you are the provincial representative and just go there and make sure the foundation happens’,” said Halstead.

The Raptors Foundation evolved into the MLSE Foundation that supports the refurbishment of local athletic facilities and funds charities that assist kids through sports and recreational programs.

It’s ironic that the NBA later reneged on its stance on pro basketball wagering, allowing NBA games to be added to the OLG’s Pro-Line for the 2016-17 regular season.

The deal that Halstead and his group made with the franchise allowed Stern to sign off on the Toronto Raptors which debuted on November 3, 1995 against the New Jersey Nets at SkyDome.

Halstead, who was a foundation member until 2015, attended the first game.

“The excitement that night was unbelievable,” he pointed out. “Nobody is a bigger basketball fan than me and I just love what is happening with the franchise.”

The former Toronto Caribbean Carnival Chair and Chief Executive officer and sports enthusiast was at Game Two of the NBA finals against Golden State Warriors on June 2 before heading to England the next day for two weeks to watch cricket’s World Cup.

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