Nov. 3, 1995. Check the photo from the tip-off of the first-ever Toronto Raptors basketball game at SkyDome. You’ll find Karl Toulouse sitting in the front row.
June 10, 2019. If you looked closely during tipoff of Monday night’s Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Toulouse is still there.
“We’re in the second row now. Those front-row seats we started in are now part of the fan experience,” he said. “But I’m a Day One Guy with the Raptors, so I’m not about to complain about anything.”
Toulouse, BA ’09, is more than a Raptors super fan with a great view; he is currently wrapping up his 24th year as a statistician with the Raptors as they continue to fight for their first championship in team history. His journey to the sidelines of this historic moment involved a passion for the game – along with some amazing timing.
After graduating from Sault College of Applied Arts and Technology, where he played on the men’s basketball team, Toulouse tried out for the team at his new school, Seneca College. His shot fell short – he was cut.
“I completely understood this decision. There was a lot of great players on this team,” Toulouse said. “I asked the coach, Ernie Armstrong, if I could still be involved somehow. I needed to be part of this program in some way. So, he asked me, ‘Have you ever thought of statistics?’”
Soon afterward, he started with a pen and paper sitting on the Sting sidelines. After graduating, he stuck around. He became so valuable the team bus pulled up to the front door of the office building, where he was working for IBM, to pick him up.
In 1991, Toulouse received a call from Armstrong that the NBA was coming to Toronto for an exhibition game at Maple Leaf Gardens. The league were holding games in Canada to test the interest level of possibly expanding north of the border.
They needed someone to do the stats; Armstrong thought he might be interested.
“Might be interested? Duh, I was like, ‘Yes!’” Toulouse said.
Three years later, Team Canada hosted the 1994 FIBA World Championships. Toulouse worked that event. There, he met members of the John Bitove Group, who ultimately brought the Raptors to Toronto in 1995, who soon hired him for that inaugural season.
After receiving stats training at NBA headquarters in New York City, Toulouse started with the Raptors during the team’s inaugural pre-season – and he never left courtside. To date, he has worked close to 900 games.
While an NBA fan, he admits a thrill of being able to see such stars as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard. But once tip-off happens, his focus begins.
Toulouse and his five-person team – some with laptops, others using pen and paper – record the official numbers during games, meaning everything from baskets and assists to fouls and minutes played. Once the game is done, Toulouse passes it off to the NBA head office, where the numbers are sent off to all media and the teams involved.
“The home team supplies all the stats for both teams. We sit next to each other but still have headsets on, because the noise levels can get pretty intense,” Toulouse said. “Every time a West Coast team comes in you have to be on your toes because they are fast. That’s run-and-gun basketball. You got to stay focused.
“Those kind of things are great for the fans. On the sidelines, I wish I would call a time out, but the refs will not listen to us.”
In 2005, Toulouse and his wife, Karen, moved to London when she began her job at Robarts Clinical Trials. Ever day, he commuted to his then-job at Canadian Pacific Railway. But that began to take too much of a toll.
He returned to school, earning his Geography degree from Western in 2009, and continues his work with the Mustangs Lacrosse team today. He has also been running stats for the London Lightning – like the Raptors, since day one of the franchise – and is currently working with the new Canadian Elite Basketball League to train their statisticians. Toulouse has also done contract work for the National Basketball Development League – now called the G League – the NBA’s official minor league organization.
Toulouse already wears a championship ring. Since 2007, he has also been a coach with the Mustangs Men’s Lacrosse team, which just celebrated its third consecutive national title. “It was a great year for us, with so many elite athletes,” he said. “I’m so proud of them.”
As the NBA season comes to an end, Toulouse will have a few weeks before it is time for that team to defend its national title.
“I want to keep being with these elite athletes at Western. They are some great kids,” he said. “When the seniors graduate, you get the lump in your throat because they’ve been so much fun to work with and see their skills progress. When training camp opens the end of August, I swear I get that same feeling like it’s time to go back to school. It is so refreshing.”
But for now, Toulouse is focused on his Raptors, his stats and balancing the nerves and excitement. And there’s no place he’d rather do it than courtside at Scotiabank Arena. And should the Raptors, who are now up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series, fail to wrap up the title this Thursday in Oakland, Toulouse will be on hand once again for Game 7 back in Toronto Sunday night.
“I thank my lucky stars every day. It was the right place, right time for me. I’m a lucky man to be in this position and I don’t plan on leaving any time soon,” he said. “Everybody following this right now in Canada, I’m pretty sure feels the same way with the nerves and excitement. We’re all cheering for the same outcome.”