Raptors Rewind: The night Bruno Caboclo became a living legend

Bruno Caboclo is the Schrodinger’s cat of the NBA. He is simultaneously famous and unknown.

The five letters “B-R-U-N-O” is a secret handshake among Raptors fans that elicits both euphoric joy and total confusion. He holds monopoly over a very common name despite only playing 106 NBA minutes across three seasons. It doesn’t make any sense.

Nobody knows anything about Bruno, yet even casual NBA fans can tell you he’s two years from being two years away, a phrase bestowed upon him by ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla on draft day. Who remembers what any talking head said about any NBA player during those mundane draft shows? Let alone what was said about the 20th pick? Why aren’t you furiously refreshing Woj’s twitter for what the Rockets will do with the 25th selection? (Clint Capela was right there!)

Bruno (one year away) is somewhere between a mythical figure, a meme god, and if you really boil it down to the core, Bruno is an allegory for the American Dream. He was a shot in the dark that may or may not land, but that’s life.

This is a story about one of the greatest nights in Raptors history. This is the story of how Bruno became a living legend.

The day Bruno was born

The Toronto Raptors selected Bruno Caboclo with the 20th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.

This was by no means their first choice.

The Raptors first wanted to package the №20 and №37 picks to trade up in the draft, but they found no takers. Plan B was to draft Tyler Ennis, a Canadian guard out of Syracuse, but the Phoenix Suns improbably nabbed him at №18 to make him their fourth guard. Gary Harris followed at №19 to the Nuggets, via the Bulls.

Toronto was scrambling by the time they were on the clock. They had five minutes to come up with a Hail Mary.

Ujiri casts his vote for Bruno out top like a limp fishing line in dead creek. The room is mostly quiet. Ujiri paces out of the war room with his right-hand man Jeff Weltman (now running the Orlando Magic) following behind him. Ujiri says “Bruno” again, this time as a question. No words escape Weltman’s ajar lips. They return to work the phones.

A few minutes pass and a visibly bothered Ujiri struts back into the room as his subordinates ring around the league. There was a proposed deal with Memphis that never quite materializes. Weltman texts away furiously on his cell. It drops down to the last 30 seconds, at which point Ujiri makes the final declaration.

“Bruno,” an affected Ujiri says, with all the seriousness of a lonely infant demanding his mother. The misery is over, the decision is final. Only then does Weltman finally ditch the phone, then mutters “Bruno” in surrender.

Ujiri jokes that it’s a, “good one … maybe”, perhaps in hopes of cutting the tension, but someone is heard moaning “oh god” in the background as they watched the reaction on TV. The nervous sequence was captured on Open Gym.

That’s what happened behind the scenes. Fans only saw some very forced banter between Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons to kill time, before the pick was announced. There were no leaks because the Raptors don’t leak, and also because it was a last-second decision. This was the rare pick announced live.

Commissioner Adam Silver (aka White Dobby) walks out with a bemused smile on his uniquely strange face. The name Bruno Caboclo is so foreign, both in nationality and obscurity, that it breaks Silver’s otherwise meticulously mechanical draft pick delivery. Silver needs a double take to say the name.

“What just happened,” Simmons asks in a bewildered yet amused voice. He literally speaks for everyone.

Seriously, what? Bruno???

The selection is funny to everyone except anxious Raptors fans who desperately soak in every word from Fraschilla. And this is what we hear:

“4.9 PPG, 3.1 RPG for Pinheiros/Sky.”
“This is the all-time swing for the fences pick.”
“He’s so raw.”
“Shoutout to Basketball Without Borders.”
“He really doesn’t know how to play.”
“Brazilian Kevin Durant.”
“He’s two years away from being two years away … and then we’ll see.”

Fans have this way of talking themselves into any prospect since it’s all a fantasy before they take the court. But literally nobody had ever heard of Bruno. Even the most positive of Sean Woodleys topped out at bewildered.

Others were angry. The Raptors yet again pulled a massive reach for a non-American player, and as much as that criticism is stupidly rooted in senseless xenophobia, there’s a bad history there. Toronto was always that outsider franchise that had to scour the international circuit for talent, instead of recruiting normal, honest-to-goodness American players because they played in cold, remote, ESPN-less Canada.

There were a lot more Andrea Bargnanis than Jose Calderons.

Sentiments didn’t improve when Bruno played in Summer League a month later. He did showcase some skills, but his uneven performance only confirmed everything Fraschilla predicted. Bruno was incredibly raw and lacked in some of the most basic of skills. It also didn’t help that he full on weeped after being dunked on by CJ Fair. I’m not even that hung up on the crying because fuck gender norms, but to get dunked on by CJ Fair? Who the fuck is CJ Fair?

It felt like some cruel joke.

That magical night

That Friday night in November of 2014 played out like a fantasy.

It was an incredible feeling and none of it made any sense. The Raptors returned a serendipitous 48-win team from a season ago, so they were good, but nobody could have foreseen a 13–2 start that included wins over Oklahoma City, Atlanta, Memphis and LeBron.

It was the most blessed month in franchise history, so it’s only fitting that the biggest win ever fell within this run.

Let’s say you could write the script for the best game in franchise history. What would you ask for?

It obviously had to be a win. Check. They won by 42. The Bucks were road weary while the Raptors were wrapping up a seven-game homestand. They were roadkill. Milwaukee was outrebounded 57–30 and shot 3–21 from the field in the third quarter.

How about some team basketball? For once the Raptors obliged. DeMar DeRozan had three assists in the first five minutes. Everyone that played, had a bucket. Even Greg Stiemsma had a bucket. They moved the ball beautifully for 27 assists that night. This was gorgeous:

You want a summer three from Amir? It happened early in the first quarter.

Can we have some comically sloppy plays by the Bucks? Definitely. They were doing dumb shit like this:

Let’s get disrespectful and have Terrence Ross embarrass their best player. No problem. Here’s Ross crossing over and pulling up on Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Oh I know! Since it’s 2014–15 let’s have Lou Williams do his end of quarter ISO thing! Yep, that happened at the end of the first quarter.

… and at the end of the second quarter.

… and again to close the third quarter???

That’s nine free points just from dribbling around and pulling up! No wonder Dwane Casey kept going back to his play for the entire season! Even after it stopped working! Even in the playoffs! Ughhhh.

Let’s back to the story.

Speaking of 2014–15, can we have Tom Sterner doing his TV Tom thing? Of course! He’s ranting wildly about needing to shut down Brandon Knight??? They’re up 26 at halftime and Knight has 11. Can you relax? (Tom will not).

Can we have some famous celebrities in attendance? Well it’s Toronto in November, so nobody’s coming here, but Vernon Wells and Joey Votto were there. Does that count? Shouts to Vottobicoke.

Let’s get really crazy. What if Greivis Vasquez dunked. There’s no way that could happen, right? He’s got grandma hops. Well, not only does Vasquez throw down, but the bench also goes nuts. A wholly unknown string bean known only as “Bebe” is seen flexing the biceps of a teenager and he later scores his first NBA basket on an alley-oop.

This is disrespect of the highest level.

Never mind, this is way more rude.

Landry Fields, owner of exactly one functional arm, flew in from the 3-point line for a putback dunk on a free throw like Michael freaking Jordan. That makes it a 48-point lead for the Raptors.

The whole night was a dream. It had to be. There’s no way all these shenanigans all happened in the same game. The Raptors playing team basketball is a dead giveaway. That would never happen in real life.

But it did happen. And it gets even better.

When Bruno became O Presidente

Bruno was just the human victory cigar. He’s been stuck that way ever since.

The lead numbers 44 heading into the fourth quarter. Casey is the quintessential old-school coach always careful to respect the opponent, but even he can’t resist. The Raptors essentially hit a secret bonus round in a video game. How could you not play?

Give the people what they want.

Leo Rautins comes back from the commercial break and teases in the usual annoying way that he does. It’s happening. Bruno steps onto an NBA court for the very first time.

The Air Canada Centre needs no time to re-calibrate their reality to accommodate the active existence Bruno. This is a glimpse two years from two years into the future. They catch on immediately. The “DE-FENCE” chant becomes the “BRU-NO” chant on the first possession.

(Turn up your headphones)

The crowd made itself clear and so the Raptors obliged. It’s a time-honored tradition for veterans to eagerly force feed the rookie until his first career basket. Vasquez does his best to find Bruno as much as possible, and he gets him an open look right away.

Bruno missed his first shot, but that’s not important. Look at Patrick Patterson on this play. Not only does he create the entire play by fooling the defense with his dribble drive that was never going to land, but Patterson dives on the floor to save the loose rebound and crashes into the Bucks bench in a 42-point game! This is Hoosiers-esque team basketball! I’m going to miss this version of Patterson.

Back to Bruno. He wasn’t deterred by miss and neither were the fans. The chants only grew louder and it emboldened him. The crying Bruno that got dunked on by CJ Fair was a thing of the past. He was determined to make a better impression at home and the ACC willed him on.

What came next was the most magical minute of Bruno’s career. It felt like an outer body experience. It was surreal.

The miraculous minute

There’s a lot going on in this sequence and it’s easy to miss everything that goes on. Let’s run through the play-by-play.

First off, the crowd switches the “DE-FENCE” chant for a “BRU-NO” chant. But to Bruno that’s the same thing. He rotates over to the basket and uses his 7-foot-6 wingspan to erase a layup and force a kickout pass out of Nate Wolters. He follows up a second later by digging in and keeping Wolters from getting closer to the rim on the drive out of the corner. The possession eventually results in a miss, thanks largely to Bruno. See? The defensive potential is real.

Stiemsma grabs the rebound and he immediately hands it off to Vasquez. The Bucks have terrible floor balance with four players inside the 3-point arc. Jared Dudley, who was given the impossible task of covering Bruno, is caught watching the play instead of getting back. That mistake would not go unpunished.

Vasquez tosses a quick hit-ahead to Williams, who spots a streaking Bruno, who gives the smallest of calls for an alley-oop with a skyward finger towards where his jersey will eventually hang, and Williams is a man with two girlfriends who get along, and this is a 45-point game, so he really doesn’t give any fucks about a turnover, and he delivers the pass. It’s right on the money.

Bruno catches and finishes for his first NBA basket right over human Sandshrew. The crowd roars. Bruno’s athleticism is evident. The 47-point lead is the biggest in franchise history. It’s pandemonium but nobody has time to breathe.

The stunned Bucks stagger down the floor. Noted Raptor killer Ersan Ilyasova misses a three and who’s there for the rebound but Bruno, who plucks the board as naturally as a brontosaurus munches upon the tops of trees. That length is unique.

The crowd begs desperately for his teammates to find Bruno again, but they already know the drill.

The Raptors first try for a high-low pass from Stiemsma to Bruno. Like, just take a moment and think about that. The Raptors were so fucking disrespectful that they tried a high-low feed of Stiemsma to Bruno. Anyway, human Sid the Sloth wasn’t having it and he shoves Bruno out the paint. Again, Bruno would make Dudley pay.

Stiemsma resets to Vasquez, who quickly flips it into a pick-and-roll and slaloms through a herd of four Bucks before finding a wide-open Bruno in the left corner. Ilyasova is late on the contest. Splash.

Put on your headphones and listen to that noise. That’s what you would hear if DeMar DeRozan hit the game-winning bucket in Game 7 of the NBA Finals at the ACC. The crowd goes absolutely insane.

The lead now numbers 50. Fifty points in an NBA game. Broadcaster Matt Devlin is so excited that the name “Caboclo” unto itself is enough of an exclamation point. Nothing more needed to be said.

The slow comedown

In retrospect, I’m surprised the Bucks never tried to start a fight.

They were a decent team that season coming off six wins in their last seven games but they were just getting dunked on ruthlessly. Zaza Pachulia was right there on the bench ready to slide his foot under Bruno’s thin legs. Have they no pride?

What the Bucks did instead was double Bruno, which is just a hilarious self-own. It didn’t even work. Bruno beat it by playing a two-man game with Stiemsma for a pull-up three. That only made the Bucks get even more aggressive.

Milwaukee went so far as to hard trap Bruno in the corner, but unlike playoff DeRozan, Bruno was able to hit the outlet using his hilariously long arms and the Raptors swung the rock and scored on the weak side with a Fields fadeaway.

In a way, this is an even bigger L than Bruno’s miraculous minute. Fields had permanent nerve damage in his elbow so he could barely shoot. And again, the Bucks doubled Bruno in the final minute of a 44-point game. This is karma coming back to collect on Jason Kidd.

That was the happy ending to a happy night. The Raptors were given a standing ovation as they walked off the floor. His teammates continued the “BRU-NO” chant in the locker room until the reporters arrived.

An elated Bruno told reporters in broken English that he had, “butterflies in his stomach,” which is such an odd phrase to teach a new language speaker, like why would that be one of the first sayings to teach someone? Whatever.

His Brazilian brother Bebe, much farther along in his English schooling, chimed in giddily, forging the first of many touching friendship moments between the two.

“Bruno is just like Justin Bieber!”

The veterans teased him.

“You play one game and you get this?” DeRozan joked.

That exchange went on to set the dichotomy for Bruno’s existence going forward. His name means both irrational hope and inescapable reality, but you can’t help but smile when you say it. As with all things Bruno, it makes no sense.

Was it just a dream?

One year after two years, nobody knows with Bruno.

Not even Ujiri knows, and that’s jarring since he often comes across as omniscient. At times he sounds hopeful, at times he sounds defeated, but mostly he’s unsure like everyone else.

“I want to almost blame myself for bringing him too soon to our team but we wanted to see his development and it’s the price we paid, it’s the price I paid,” Ujiri said this past week.

“Hopefully it’s going to happen for Bruno.”

The equation is still the same as it ever was, which is why it’s so frustrating and so tantalizing. Bruno can still be anything or nothing at all.

Put it like this: Forget that his name is Bruno and forget that Ujiri discovered him in an obscure Brazilian village. Let’s just say there was a 21-year-old college prospect that was 6-foot-11, with a 7-foot-6 wingspan, with a strong frame that could play either forward position, that was quick enough to guard perimeter players while also contesting shots at the rim, with a functional dribble and a decent 3-point shot on a high volume.

To be clear, these are just tools. He lacks game sense, is wildly inconsistently, and doesn’t put it together very often. But wouldn’t you be interested?

But it’s not that simple. We can’t erase the three years that we’ve invested emotionally as fans. We can’t get those three rookie contract years back. We can’t forget all the times we squinted too hard at those brief glimpses of Bruno in a blowout. That miraculous minute is etched into our brain forever.

We were given that two years from two years warning, yet it’s hard not to be impatient. It’s hard to know what to expect. He went through lulls where he wasn’t even the fourth-best D-League player on the floor, but then he drops a career-best 31 points in the championship game.

Who is Bruno? He is so many things yet nothing at all. He is still simply Bruno, the living legend that walks in total obscurity, the milk meme that keeps on giving, the theoretical superstar, and the hopeless lottery ticket you can’t ditch.

For more of the “Raptors Rewind” series, please check out the Happy, sad accident of Landry Fields. It’s a lot like this piece.