Watched the Toronto Raptors lately? Notice a few odd habits during warmups and player introductions? Pre-game rituals are often rooted in superstitions, performed by athletes to settle their nerves. But sometimes they simply grow out of big men behaving like little boys. Rachel Brady pulled some players aside and asked them to explain the origins of their zany antics.
Getting in the swing
While the opposing team’s starters are being introduced, you’ll see Amir Johnson hanging from the rim nearest the Raptors bench, while Jonas Valanciunas stands beneath him, swaying side to side while swinging Johnson’s legs back and forth like a pendulum. They’re not members of a cult. They’re doing amateur physiotherapy. “One time, I just reached up and grabbed the rim, and I was like, ‘Man, that feels good on my back.’ So I always do the pre-game swing now as a really great stretch for my back,” says Johnson.
Like duelling bighorns
Johnson and Valanciunas face each other from a distance, run forward, leap into the air and smash chests, hooking arms at the peak of their jumps. “JV and I like to keep moving to get energized and hyped,” Johnson explains. “We want to keep moving during the intros so we keep our sweat going.” They take this very seriously; Landry Fields has to fill in if either Johnson or Valanciunas isn’t playing.
No step ladders allowed
As each starting Raptor is announced, seven-foot Valanciunas extends his hand as high as he can and demands a massive, leaping high five. No exceptions – everyone has to try, no matter how humiliatingly awkward the result. “I have done that before games for a long time, since I was young in Lithuania,” Valanciunas says. “I like to do it for all of my teammates.”
Over to you, Steve and Landry
After Valanciunas has been announced, Novak and Fields stand with the big man and pretend to be an over-the-top broadcasting duo. “We like to give him our own introduction,” says Fields. “We improv something like ‘From Lithuania, he’s No.17 on his chest but No.1 in our hearts,’ and on and on. Steve and I go back and forth, and it’s really light-hearted. JV likes it.”
Magical Ninja Hands
Novak and Fields make a complex and, for grown men, embarrassing series of gestures they can only describe as “Ninja Hands,” something Fields brought from his days playing for the New York Knicks with Andy Rautins. “It’s always evolving, and Landry Fields is like the creative director,” Novak says. “We don’t even think about what we do. It just comes naturally to us. When I’m asked to talk about it – well now it’s all starting to sound kind of strange.” Really?
Kyle and DeMar are confusing
Kyle Lowry doesn’t run through the introductory lineup. He just stands among his teammates, then does a low sweeping five with Johnson as his name is announced. The team comes together long before the introductions are over, so by the time DeMar DeRozan’s name is announced, he is already inside the huddle. “Kyle and DeMar don’t really go on queue, it probably confuses people,” says Novak. “But it makes sense to us; it’s all part of the routine.”
They don’t drink alone
Novak and Fields fill up paper cups, say “Cheers Mate” and take a drink right before every game. “We have some very little Gatorade cups that we find kind of funny, so it just seems like the thing to do,” says Novak.
Comedy routines need a straight man
This season, head coach Dwane Casey began wearing a lapel pin for every game in honour of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, a leader in treating children with cancer. The Raptors visited the kids there earlier this season. What fired Casey up? He says he can remember his grandfather donating a couple of dollars to that hospital whenever he could afford it.