Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri has his pre-game rituals.
He often doesn’t come down from his office until just before tipoff. He doesn’t sit in the crowd – he and his lieutenants cram into the team’s video room to watch the game. And if Drake’s there, the NBA’s most famous fan pops his head in to wish the executives good luck.
Ujiri missed Drake’s pre-game hello on Saturday night. So the first time he saw the Humboldt Broncos hockey sweater was along with the rest of the TV audience.
“Everyone in the room turned to each other and said, ‘He wore the jersey’, like we couldn’t believe it,” Ujiri said on Sunday.
Ujiri held up his hands and pawed at the air in front of him, trying to get at how elemental the gesture seemed in the moment: “It was so much bigger than basketball.”
When Drake was first shown on the big screen inside Air Canada Centre, the crowd did not cheer as it usually does – reflexively.
Instead, 20,000 people took a moment to read the front of the shirt and make the mental connection. The resulting roar was one of deep emotion, rather than the rah-rah sort. More bass than trill.
Because Drake had done it, the image became an international phenomenon. For just a moment, the Raptors were the most observed sports franchise on the planet. Vince Carter might’ve been the only other person to manage it.
This club has been many sorts of teams over their quarter century – the cool, new thing; a niche concern; a running joke; a best-ignored civic embarrassment; and, in recent years, all the way back to cool, new thing.
But on Saturday, the Raptors reached another level – Canada’s Team.
For cynical marketing reasons, the club has been selling this line for several years. The beauty of ‘We the North’ is that it that it works just as well in Lethbridge as Leaside.
But the rising basketball tide always had a strong whiff of Centre-of-the-Universe-itis. The ur-image of a Raptors fan was a west-end hipster or Mississauga teenager. The team’s sudden rush of volunteer hype men – Drake, Andrew Wiggins, R.J. Barrett, et al – were all born in the 416/905 area codes.
That’s what made Drake’s small, personal tribute different – it was real national outreach.
There have been dozens of lovely tributes to the Humboldt community, all of them meaningful in their own way.
This one was just slightly different because it was neither widely anticipated nor arranged ahead of time. It wasn’t put together by a corporate entity. No one had to send a group e-mail to make this happen.
Different sport, a week later, opening game of the NBA playoffs, but no less a Canadian place. It was ever so slightly unexpected in the perfect sort of way, drawing you back to the central purpose of all these tributes.
“It brought people together,” Ujiri said. “It’s all you dream of for our team, and our city, and our country. I thought it was a shining moment.”
This was always the vision Ujiri had for the Raptors – a sports team about something more than sports. That’s the root of Giants of Africa or the many tributes to Nelson Mandela – that sport is the lure that encourages people to engage thoughts and dreams that have nothing to do with being a seven-foot-tall multimillionaire.
This year’s Raptors team has touched that, also in an organic way.
“Winning helps, but I think all kinds of people can identify with this team,” Ujiri said. “How diverse it is, guys from such different places, and they’re so together. It’s expressing something to Canada, and to the world.”
Hockey does that for us as well, but in a way that is very particular to the people who live here. The sport is a binding force that no professional team can fully encapsulate. The seven Canadian NHL teams are regional by design.
Basketball is different. There is just the one pro team to consider. Since it has no Canadians in the mix, it’s a blank slate. Everyone involved in the Raptors is a visitor, like everyone else here was as some point.
If you squint just right at the sport’s origin myth, it’s a Canadian creation, capturing the essence of the Canadian experiment – a country more open to the world than any other.
Particularly in this geopolitical moment, what makes Canada Canada is that we continue to embrace that idea.
A few weeks ago, I was in a shop in Sorrento, Italy – a touristy town which, at that moment in late winter, had no tourists. The guy working the till was wearing a Raptors ball cap. He spoke no English.
I pointed at the hat and said, “Raptors. Canada,” and then pointed at myself.
“Canada good,” he said, brightly. “Andrea Bargnani,” I said. “Bargnani no good,” he said, darkly.
There’s international understanding for you.
Ujiri’s right. Whether the country embraces the Raptors in the next few weeks is a function of performance. No one chooses to be a member of a big, happy, losing family.
But you can feel something happening, something more than a fun run and a night in the bar with friends. Ujiri has always felt it, and feels it more now.
“[The team] is not even close to being where it will be,” he said. “There is just something special about here, even if America doesn’t want to pay attention so much. One day, people are going to say it. I may not be here when it happens, but there’s something special about this place – the people, the city, the country. You can reach the whole world from here.”
Although it seems like a while ago, Canadian teams have won before on the world stage. But that? What Ujiri’s talking about? That would be a new one. Not for basketball, or Toronto, or this player or that. But for a country.
The Raptors beat the Wizards on Saturday. Regardless of how the series goes, few will remember that in a few months’ time.
But the spontaneous display of Canadiana that preceded it? No one will forget it.