April 8, 2014, TORONTO (ISN) – They called it a serious mistake that Jonas Valanciunas must learn from. But otherwise the Toronto Raptors players and staff are standing behind their starting centre after he was charged with drunk driving.
The 21-year-old apologized to his teammates, and will play in Wednesday’s game against the visiting Philadelphia 76ers, but news of his arrest drew a large contingent of media to practice on Tuesday and negative attention to a team bound for the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
“(I was) disappointed a little bit,” Raptors GM Masai Ujiri said of his reaction to the arrest. “As an organization, it’s not something we take lightly, it’s not something I feel we are just going to brush aside. (But) he’s a young kid … I look at all of you here and I wonder what we were all doing when we were 21, so there are mistakes that are made.”
Valanciunas was arrested early Monday morning in Wasaga Beach, Ont., a popular vacation destination for college students about 100 kilometres north of downtown Toronto, and charged with having more than 80 milligrams of alcohol in 100 millilitres of blood. Police say they began investigating after a report that a vehicle went through a drive-thru with open beer bottles visible.
The Lithuanian met with Ujiri for an hour on Monday, and had his “face in his hands,” the GM said. He also met with Tim Leiweke, the president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment.
“I think he feels he let his teammates down, he let his fans down, the organization,” Ujiri said. “That’s Jonas, he’s a great kid. And I think he made some kind of a mistake, but I think the most important thing is it’s not going to happen again, and he understands that.”
Ujiri spoke to a media horde of more than 40-strong. There were nine television cameras.
Valanciunas was not made available to reporters after what coach Dwane Casey said was a great practice by the sophomore centre, but issued a statement with an apology on Monday.
“I hold myself to a high standard and take my role as a member of the Toronto Raptors very seriously,” Valanciunas said. “I apologize to the organization, my teammates, my family and my fans, and regret any negativity this incident has brought upon them.”
Valanciunas’s first court appearance is scheduled for Collingwood, Ont., on April 22, which is a couple of days after the start of the playoffs. Valanciunas does not have to attend and so a lawyer will stand in for him.
He still may face a suspension of a couple of games by the NBA, but that wouldn’t come until the results of his trial which would likely be during the summer. The Raptors will decide on any further punishment such as a fine or suspension following the league’s ruling.
Most of the Raptors and their families attended the Toronto Blue Jays game on a day off from practice Sunday. Ujiri said Valanciunas instead went to Wasaga Beach with his wife and some friends.
The seven-footer is averaging 11 points and 8.6 rebounds a game, and his growth this season is a big part of why the Raptors are in third in the Eastern Conference and poised to win the Atlantic Division title.
Casey spoke of Valanciunas much like he would a son.
“Like I told him, I’m upset with him and disappointed, but he’s mine so we love him,” Casey said. “He made a mistake, but like any other young man has probably done before, or had the opportunity before. We don’t condone it, the organization doesn’t condone it, and it’s a tough time of year to do it. But it’s happened. …
“We all make mistakes, it’s what we do after it that is how we’re going to be judged.”
Kyle Lowry said the young teammate that he views as a little brother was “sick right now” over the mistake.
“He’s really hurt by it, he’s really embarrassed by it, very disappointed in himself. I can tell you that for sure,” the veteran point guard said.
“It’s just a mistake that he made, it’s unfortunate that it happened to such a good kid in JV, but it happened, he’s 21, he’s going to learn from it. I’m sure he’ll never make that mistake again,” he added.
Lowry said his advice was: “Just be more responsible. We have all the benefits of having drivers and taxis. That’s it, be more responsible.”
Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan said the incident was a regrettable mistake, but added the players’ support for each other in any situation is part of what has made Toronto one of the best teams in the East this season.
“At the end of the day, we’re all human. We can look at everybody in here and ask them: have they done something wrong, or made a mistake in life. It’s part of life. It’s something you learn from and grow from.”
“No matter what guys go through, we’re always there for them, family, whatever it may be, somebody’s kid is sick … it’s always something, and we’re always there for one another. That’s big because you don’t get that with every team that you play for.”
The Raptors said the negative news won’t be a distraction to the team that has won six of its last seven games.
“Not at all,” Lowry said. “We had a great practice today, really spirited, really competitive, really positive vibe in there.”
“I’ve been coaching since ’79 and I’ve seen a little bit of everything,” Casey added. “This is very serious, a very serious matter, but it’s not enough to distract the team and that type of thing.
“His teammates were very supportive of him, and to them it’s a great lesson also, the focus and the discipline you have to have in your own life to go forward.”
The last Raptor to be charged with drunk driving while still a member of the team was Dee Brown, who was stopped by police in 1999 in Toronto and charged with impaired driving and later convicted. But a judge found he was a victim of racial profiling and overturned the conviction.