For most of the first 20 years of their existence, the Toronto Raptors were the idiot brother-in-law of the NBA. The league took no notice of the team, until those occasional times when it had to step in and save them from themselves.
That species of benign neglect has changed. The once mildly annoying and largely anonymous club up in Canada has become a serious problem.
This week, the NBA slapped the Raptors with a $25,000 (U.S.) fine for tampering after comments made by the team’s global brand ambassador, Drake.
The offending enticement was made on stage at a concert – not the ideal fomenting ground for illegal conspiracies.
“You know, my brother [Oklahoma City Thunder star] Kevin Durant was kind enough to come to the show tonight and watch us,” Drake said. “I just want him to see what would happen if he came to play in Toronto. Let him know what would happen.”
The crowd cheered. Durant was delighted. Drake burnished his local-hero status. For the sake of all concerned, it would best have been left there. Instead, the NBA completely freaked out.
Through Drake, the Raptors had forgotten their place in the grand order.
They are a small, insignificant team. They don’t start fights. They don’t poach.
Jay-Z was allowed to flirt with all sorts when he was part owner of the Brooklyn Nets, but he’s from New York. The big American markets work to different rules than everyone else.
Toronto has been in the crosshairs since GM Masai Ujiri’s profane outburst against Brooklyn during the playoffs. That small tempest fed off a general, leaguewide discomfort with Drake’s role and influence.
The Toronto hip-hop star has a title, but it cannot be claimed he is an employee of the basketball team. By definition, an employee works for wages.
Drake draws no salary. When the Raptors gave out Drake-branded OVO T-shirts at a game in January, they were purchased at cost. Drake didn’t make a nickel of profit from them.
Everyone involved has been at pains not to cross that line, because they understand how this looks. Without ever saying the words, they also understand that it’s Drake’s job to recruit players.
That’s everyone’s job in the NBA – the owners, managers, coaches, other players, any random fan who runs into Kevin Love at an airport. There is a framework in place that controls how that happens. It isn’t the CBA. It’s having the good sense never to do it in public, or in indictable phrases.
This would all be good for a laugh, if the practice weren’t so rampant.
Is LeBron James tampering in Cleveland’s pursuit of Love? Do they talk? And if they do, does every sentence start with the word, “Hypothetically …”?
Last month, the Washington Wizards hired David Adkins as an assistant coach. For the last five years, Adkins worked as an assistant for an NCAA women’s team. That’s a hell of a promotion. Before that, he worked at the high-school level, where he coached several current NBA players, including Durant.
Is that move made in the hopes that a friendly face from his formative years will attractive to Durant when he becomes a free agent in 2016? Well, very obviously, “Yes.” But you can’t prove it, which is all that matters to the NBA.
What the league wants is to make grand statements of displeasure. Getting down on the ground to wrestle with the Wizards would just be sad. Apparently, Toronto suddenly qualifies as an illustrative example to the rest of the herd.
This has risen beyond the level of a spat. It’s an executive knife fight. Raptors officials would not comment on the Drake versus NBA situation. They are plainly loath to make their secret war public.
They also refused to address a key detail – that the NBA offered to drop the tampering fine if the team agreed to strip Drake of his title. The Raptors apparently refused.
There’s plenty here to get worked up about, if that’s the way you’d like to take it. Toronto would be better off celebrating how the NBA has outmaneuvred itself.
A year ago, the idea that Durant would leave Oklahoma City seemed unlikely. That’s a money play. That he might leave to come to Toronto seemed preposterous. That’s a sanity play.
Somebody’s worried about it now. Someone has picked up a phone – likely Thunder owner Clayton Bennett – and chewed the face off someone else at the league office. The league reacted by cooking up a financial penalty for a musical entertainer guilty of musing in public about a professional athlete coming to play for his local team. If that’s the new normal, everyone in the hip-hop business had better start putting money in an NBA Swear Jar.
In making a big deal out of a very small misstep, the league is acknowledging what everyone’s been muttering about for months – that the Toronto Raptors are off the leash. They are no longer willing to play by the rules. That heedlessness is what separates the NBA’s aristocrats from the serfs in Sacramento or Atlanta. They do what they like, and peel a few bucks off the billfold afterward.
All the league has managed here is helping to establish the Raptors’ new credentials as serious players.
If that’s what people like Durant come away from this thinking, it’s the best $25,000 any team has ever spent.