After Friday night’s game in Brooklyn, we headed to a licensed establishment that’s walkable from the Barclays Center, but not so close that it’s filled with howling yahoos.
We’d discovered it during last year’s playoff round between the Raptors and Nets. Quiet place. No basketball connection. We’d never seen a sporto in there, only locals.
An hour after Friday night’s game, it was rammed with fans. Every single one of them was wearing Raptors gear. Presumably, the locals were at home, hiding.
This wave of travelling/sleeper-agent Toronto support started out as a bit of a stunt. It’s now the leading edge of a sea change in the city’s sports order.
A year ago, the Raptors were the third team in town – a distant third.
The Air Canada Centre audience was good, but still had a front-running tendency to go wobbly for visiting superstars. You’d spot nearly as many Kobe jerseys at a Lakers game in Toronto as one in L.A.
This was a scene-based crowd, not a real fan base. It is shocking how quickly that’s changed. These supporters don’t just travel well. They’re actively intimidating.
In Washington on Saturday, there were far fewer Toronto fans – maybe a hundred speaking up for themselves. For long minutes, they took over the sold-out Verizon Center.
Washington tried to scream them down.
One friendly young person behind us was reduced to shrieking “Why don’t you [expletive] people shut the [expletive] up!” Maybe she got her dates confused and ended up at a basketball game instead of the book burning.
That handful of Canadians would not be quieted. They kept on chanting. Not the ha-ha-fun sort of chanting. No, a screw-you chanting. This was the Thermopylae of sports fandom. I may have felt a small quiver in my gnarled, black heart.
Right now, the Raptors are not just the most robustly loved team in the city. They may be the most romantic club in the town’s modern history – certainly more than the title-winning Jays (too mercenary) or the Pat Burns-era Leafs (too in love with themselves).
Seriously, who isn’t swooning over these guys? It’s not just the winning. It’s the quiet swagger. It’s the way players such as DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have sold an entire country on the idea they’ve switched sides – “Nous sommes tout Canadiens maintenant.” The really weird thing? There may actually be some Stockholm in their syndrome.
For most of three years, coach Dwane Casey said “Toronto” like every American – hard consonants and three distinct syllables. Over the past few weeks, he’s slipped into local argot – “T’ronna.”
That’s the two-fold key to the Raptors’ magnetism – the outsider allure of “We The North” married to the subversive thrill of turning Americans into creatures like ourselves. They’re not winning us over. We’re winning them.
Over in Flatland, the Maple Leafs continue to be pounded into two-dimensionality. They’re also a fairly American group, but no one here cares if they pronounce “Etobicoke” with two hard c’s. As far as Toronto’s concerned, they can go home whenever.
The Leafs’ travelling support has been reduced to jonesing expats who need hockey the way some people need a fix – price being no object for a few hours spent fighting the nods in a comfy chair.
There is nothing romantic about the Leafs. If they have any sense, their only romance over the next few years will be of the Bad News Bears variety.
Internally, management favours a controlled implosion. The biggest advocate of the tank/teardown route is outgoing MLSE chief executive officer Tim Leiweke.
Leiweke sold the MLSE board on the same idea for the Raptors – a path eventually not taken. He’s not going to do that sell-job for the flagship franchise. Right now, he’s waiting to be freed from his contract.
Everyone else is waiting for the board to hire Leiweke’s replacement. Leafs president Brendan Shanahan is empowered to do whatever he wants, but wouldn’t you hold off until you’d had a chance to talk it over with the new boss? If only as a function of good manners.
I once put it to Shanahan that while ignorance would prevent the new CEO from monkeying with the basketball and soccer set-ups, there isn’t a Canadian born who doesn’t believe he can fix the Leafs.
Shanahan didn’t say anything. He just smiled. It was the sort of smile you get when you’re thinking about a fight.
There are two ways to go with that – get the fans on board with a planned teardown; or continue on in hopeful mediocrity until everyone’s coming to games in straitjackets. Either way, the Leafs are taking a step back for three or four or five years.
After several buoyant seasons, the Blue Jays also have the feel of a club entering slow decline. The inept way in which Rogers Corp. tried to submarine team president Paul Beeston was a dog-whistle to the rest of baseball.
The boardroom goons are taking over and the Jays are packing it in as a serious firm.
My guess – everyone gets fired in the ugliest possible way, and it hobbles the baseball team for two or three seasons.
Winning could have the same long-term effect, widening a wound at the top that can’t be stitched with money and extensions. It’s all got very Borgia over at the Rogers Centre.
That leaves the field open to the Raptors for a good long while.
A few months ago, I wrote that this would always be a Leafs town. Hockey may recede now and then, but the throne is always open when the Leafs are winning. Even a little. I think that still holds true.
However, the Raptors are reimagining what a truly representative Toronto sports franchise looks and feels like. You can’t win love with contenders any more. You have to sell people a story. You have to woo them.
What’s the Leafs’ narrative over the next five years?
That’s just as important for them to figure out as filling the holes in the roster.Report Typo/Error
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