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Rapper Drake yells his support for Toronto Raptors during NBA basketball action in Toronto on Saturday January 11 , 2014. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Rapper Drake yells his support for Toronto Raptors during NBA basketball action in Toronto on Saturday January 11 , 2014. (Chris Young/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Kelly: It’s hard to mock Drake when he cares so much about the Raptors Add to ...

Drake is standing there in a Drake-branded hoodie and a Drake-branded T-shirt on Drake Night and the first thing that comes out of his mouth is “It’s really not about me at all.”

He says it with such sincerity, you can’t laugh.

In the year he’s been formally associated with the Toronto Raptors, no public figure has become so synonymous with a sports club. Anywhere. He is more than a booster and a face of the franchise. He’s the face of the city. He’s got a better claim on the title of chief magistrate than the mayor.

Whatever you think of him, his music or his PG-rated tabloid meltdowns, you can’t deny that civic essentialism. He’s put this town and this country on imaginative maps that used to end just north of Detroit.

His Joycean fixation on his hometown is so exaggerated, it’s moved beyond cynicism. It’s edging into epic poetry.

“I hate to be redundant, but I just care so much about this city and the people in it,” Drake said, and I think to myself that he should cut a few tracks with a lute. “It’s amazing to see all these people so passionate about something … Toronto is such a mosaic of different people from different cultures and different walks of life. You look around the building and you see all these people coming together for a great squad. It gets more and more exciting.”

While he’s free-versing this way, the pack of media jackals is pressing in on him, trying to figure out where to plant their pens in order to do the most terrible damage. He knows that. He doesn’t care. He is immune to your scorn. He’s going to sneak up and etherize you with earnestness. He makes Candide look hard-bitten.

That emotional heedlessness has given several million uptight citizens the freedom to love their city out loud. Drake deserves a thank-you for that.

He does a lot of other things you wish he wouldn’t. All the courtside look-at-meism. He’s the kid who keeps interrupting Sunday dinner to make everyone watch him play piano. He insisted on doing the team introductions. It was all inside jokes and bland clichés (Landry Fields: “We just found out today that we share a family!”; Kyle Lowry: He’s “the baby-faced assassin”).

That’s the Drake that drives people a little batty. He can occasionally be a bit of a schmuck. But he’s our schmuck.

Around noon, they began laying the evening’s real draw out on seat backs around Air Canada Centre – 20,000 limited-edition OVO/Raptors T-shirts. The marketing suits felt pretty sure they wouldn’t start a riot. Sadly, they were right.

A year earlier, they’d guarded these things like gold bricks and handed them out at the door. A year earlier, the giveaways were selling for $200 on eBay an hour after the game ended. A year earlier, the shirts looked amazing – black and gold, highly stylized.

This year, they looked like something put together by a design team of bored suburban dads after a three-day bender. Plain white tee, plain Raptors logo and of a quality that will last three machine washes – maximum.

It still took a great effort not to run through the empty arena stuffing dozens of them down my pant legs. A man has to eat.

(Notably, Drake was wearing the same shirt in a much sharper black. He wants you to be like him, but not so much that you might get confused.)

Pregame, Raptors coach Dwane Casey addressed a series of pointless questions about – ugh – basketball, before getting to the important stuff.

“Pumped for Drake night?!”

“Uuuuuhhh …,” Casey said, searching for le mot juste. Or maybe trying to remember which position “Drake” plays on the Brooklyn Nets.

“He is pumped,” one of the team’s flacks offered.

“I am pumped,” Casey confirmed, not sounding very pumped.

You’ll forgive him. Late in games, Drake likes to stand in precisely the spot Casey usually occupies – a few feet north of the Raptors bench. Whenever the coach speaks about the team mascot, it’s equal parts a- and bemusement. Eventually, Casey is going to “accidentally” punch Drake in the head on live TV. But lovingly.

It strikes you that Casey feels about Drake the way much of this city does. He’s an exasperating attention seeker. He presumes too much. He’s too familiar.

He continually refers to the Raptors as “we” or “our,” as if he were up in the practice gym every day helping design the defence. And you just know, that if someone let him, he’d love to design the defence.

But all that melts away when you acknowledge that the foundation of this business relationship is love. Someone asked him if he plans to eventually take an ownership stake in the team. That’s an obvious step – he’s hugely wealthy, and won’t be a musician forever.

“These guys are my friends and the city is my city,” Drake said. “I’m not really looking to monetize or capitalize on my involvement. I’m here strictly for support and to be more unified.”

I’m not sure what that means, but it means something to him.

Early on, when there was nothing to be gained from it, Drake bound his artistic identity to a deeply uncool city. It may have been a function of hubris, but the cause doesn’t matter when compared with the effect.

A year ago, with a lot to be lost, he extended that embrace around a deeply uncool basketball team. More than a few of the good things that have happened since then have to be credited to him.

“I just show up at the games,” Drake said, demurring so hard you can hear it in the next room. “What the franchise has given to me just in terms of a purpose, confidence … I just try and give it back.”

Again, you’d almost laugh. But, man, he means it. It’s hard to mock a man who cares that much, even if he’s asking for it.

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Follow on Twitter: @cathalkelly

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