At halftime of Tuesday’s Game 4 in Toronto, ESPN host Stephen A. Smith was back in the small hallway that connects the Raptors’ dressing room to a Vatican corridor running the length of Scotiabank Arena.
It’s what players and staff use to move around, away from the courtside ticket-holders who have the run of the auditorium during game breaks.
Smith had apparently just bumped into Drake and his retainers. Everyone seemed delighted, even Smith, who is professionally dour.
Someone was inviting Smith “upstairs” for the rest of the game. You could see him considering it. Maybe just knock off and pop a bottle with the guys. Make some new friends. The contest already felt like it was over.
It was a moment because, a) U.S. sports media celebrities of Smith’s wattage rarely wander this far north and, b) Smith features largely in Drake’s basketball creation myth.
It was Smith who ruthlessly mocked the rapper years ago on live TV for being a Raptors fan. After Drake ran up his flag, Smith did something he doesn’t do: pause for an incredulous breath.
“The Toronto Raptors?” Smith finally bellowed. “Really? Really?!”
It was Drake’s big sports coming out – and not in a good way.
Shortly thereafter, he was made the team’s “global ambassador,” and the rebuild that leads directly into the current situation began.
For a moment, as you were trying to push through before someone noticed you were there, you could see a circle closing.
So, yeah. Really. Now. Maybe.
This is a good time to pause and enjoy the view. Regardless of what happens next, this is now officially the greatest season in Raptors history.
They have reached this precise point before – two wins in a conference final – but that was a full-on no-hoper against LeBron James & Co. in Cleveland. That was doomed from the start. Even the victories felt pointless.
They’re in this one. Though it’s tied at two games apiece, they may actually be up. After a comprehensive romp in the most recent game, which team would you rather be in charge of?
The NBA playoffs have a particular way of flipping certainties. When a team has a bit of momentum, they look unbeatable. A couple of days later, they’ve lost. So you have to soak this stuff up while you can.
Given how long it’s taken, why not indulge yourself? Because this is the culmination of a lot of low-grade misery.
The history of the Toronto Raptors is one of disappointment made manifest. They started out playing in a partitioned baseball stadium. They drafted right straight out of the gate; the guy they got was made a cult hero; he fled the instant he could. They rarely drafted right again – and when they did, the players eventually pulled the same act.
It’s as if the Raptors were the New York Yankees, but they steady lost and Joe DiMaggio quit to work construction instead.
For a long time there, if you were a fan of the Raptors, you weren’t really watching a basketball team. You were watching basketball in a generalized sense. The team hardly figured into the equation. They were worse than useless.
It still managed to kick up some characters and heroes (who wouldn’t take Charles Oakley over Vince Carter now? At least he gave a damn), but the best you could hope for was a standout zinger. Where other teams had legendary victories, the Raptors had the Quotable Oak. For instance, “that’s like bringin’ eggs to a barbecue.”
That’s what qualified in Raptor world as a “Do you remember where you were when …?” moment.
Out in the wider world (i.e., the United States), the Raptors were something lower than a punchline. They were hopeless and pitiable. They were beneath mockery. When Smith did it, it seemed unusually base, like kicking a small dog.
It is hard, verging on impossible, for that sort of team to make anything of itself. This is not to say it will never win, but that it will never be taken seriously even if it does.
Nobody talks about it now, but the Golden State Warriors existed in this reputational limbo for decades. It took a couple of championships and the emergence of Steph Curry as a ubiquitous lifestyle brand to turn them into a franchise of estimation.
Good enough wasn’t good enough. The Warriors had to become the Greatest Team of All Time before people would give them much credit at all.
So there’s some work to be done. But this is a start.
There is a possible future in which the Raptors become the next Warriors. Perhaps not as dominating – it’s conceivable no team ever will be – but occupying the same imaginative space. As the outsider who managed to cut in front of the Knicks, Lakers, et al. and sneak inside.
That would suppose a whole bunch of things happening: that they win this series; that they at least show well in the final against Golden State; that Kawhi Leonard stays; that everyone else gets better; that through some wild stroke of luck the draft pipeline continues to provide.
The Raptors have done the hard part. Up next: the even harder bit.
How likely is all that? Not very. The NBA is not set up to reward the little guy. The little guy doesn’t make everyone else money. His tide floats no boats but his own.
But it is – just in this moment before Game 5, before momentum swings again, before we know how this will all turn out – possible.
That’s why you followed for all those years – or have just started to now. For that possibility to finally present itself and to be given some small bit of hope in return for all that gentle suffering.