It’s been six years since the Raptors reimagined what sports culture could be in Toronto.
Up until April, 2014, the local rooting tradition was based in quiet misery. The teams were awful. The players were anonymous. The fans were distinguished by their hopeless resilience. There was a shabby nobility in being able to bear so much mediocrity.
Then the Raptors played the Brooklyn Nets.
The magical moment in that series was first-year general manager Masai Ujiri’s Game 1 pep rally. Ujiri workshopped a last-minute addition with his lieutenants, got up on the podium at the fan site and baited the opposition with a geo-sexual impossibility.
The Nets were staffed by NBA old-money types such as Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. They had NYC pedigree, bold-face owners and still had a bit of that new-car smell.
The Raptors were a bunch of losers who’d spent a lot of that season trying (and failing) to tank. The most famous story people told about that team was how their ostensible star, Rudy Gay, banned the distribution of stats sheets to players in the postgame locker room. He didn’t like being confronted in print by all the shots he’d missed.
With Gay gone, the Raptors were a team of nobodies led by a guy whose biggest accomplishment was trading Carmelo Anthony.
But the Raptors were the ones making threats. The first time you saw Ujiri in the midst of his profane outburst, you probably felt a thrill. It was knowing that for the first time in your life, you got to root for the villains.
Garnett tried shooting back – “I don’t know if you can say, ‘Eff Brooklyn’ and then come into Brooklyn.” To which Raptors assistant coach Jamaal Magloire responded with cannon fire – “He’s a talker who can’t back it up. And you can print that.”
When it got to the point where the Nets felt they had to respond to tabloid front pages (“Raptors vs. Dinosaurs”), you knew they’d lost the plot. Somehow, Brooklyn and Toronto had traded imaginary cities.
The Raptors didn’t win that series, but the team had already changed the civic tone.
You can trace a straight line between Ujiri’s new brand of boldness and then-Blue Jays GM Alex Anthopoulos’s decision to go all-in on trades the next summer. Ujiri also created the environment in which it was possible for the Maple Leafs to give up and start over.
Ujiri gave Toronto permission to be its authentic self. Wisely, Toronto decided to be someone cooler and began importing talent.
All those moments – Brooklyn/Raptors, Leafs teardown, the Bat Flip, Auston Matthews picked No. 1, the NBA title – are connected.
What connects them isn’t winning. That’s a small part of it. The current that runs underneath all those moments – every one of which was remarkable, if not always successful – is outsiderism.
“Eff Brooklyn” finally informed foreign athletes working in this country what Canadians wanted from them. They wanted them to absorb the national tendency toward feeling unrecognized and underappreciated. They wanted to feel chosen by people of estimation. They wanted something benign and largely meaningless to fight against.
In the United States, people signal their displeasure by tearing down institutions that keep the body politic together. Up here, we take a longer view. If we’re annoyed, we yell about things that don’t matter. It’s working so far.
For instance, the scheduling of this year’s NBA playoffs.
The NBA postseason starts Monday. Working off the tipoff times, the defending champion Toronto Raptors are the least interesting team in it.
The Raptors play the Nets on Monday at 4 p.m. ET, on Wednesday at 1:30 p.m. and again on Friday at 1:30 p.m.
That works really well for me because a) deadlines and b) watching sports for a living is not a real job, so if they schedule the games at 4 a.m. I just have to remember to stop drinking before dinner.
But I am going to presume that you have responsibilities that preclude you from taking a three-hour basketball break in the middle of the day.
Now on the one hand, this makes sense. The Nets aren’t any good. The Raptors will beat the snot out of them. The Eastern Conference series getting the evening slot – Boston/Philadelphia – is tighter on paper and therefore more interesting.
But you cannot be properly Toronto if you are not complaining about being ignored. More reliably than winning games, this sense of grievance is what juices local fans.
No Toronto-based athlete has understood that better than Kyle Lowry. Fred VanVleet has been taking pointers.
(If the Leafs’ current stars want to understand anything about how to talk to their customers, they should spend the next two months living inside the Raptors’ bubble.)
Now that the Raptors are champions, they don’t need to vocalize their complaints. It’s a tone of voice or a tilt of the head – “Yeah, they hate us. You know it and I know it. The only people we can trust are ourselves.”
To hear Toronto tell it, Toronto is badly underestimated (truth: its Vegas odds to win just shot up to 9 to 1).
Nobody likes the Raptors (truth: the team is the Sonic Youth of every U.S.-based NBA writer – the indie band they like to think no one else has ever heard of).
They don’t care what you think of them (actually, that part is probably true).
At this point, winning is no longer the issue for the Raptors. They proved they could.
They are the team that doesn’t want your approval, never mind need it. They have reached a sort of basketball nirvana. No noise can penetrate their self-contained world. At least, none has yet.
Just before this story flips back into the dreary world of wins and losses, it’s fun to reflect on how much this one team – a born loser for almost the entirety of its existence – has changed the conversation.
The Raptors have done something greater than win. Lots of teams win. But only a very few have ascended from a sports franchise to a state of mind.