Move over, Leafs! It’s the Raptors’ time to shine.
Homer Simpson as a Toronto sports fan.
In a city known for its love of hockey, something magical is happening. It was less than a month ago when the Toronto Raptors and Toronto Maple Leafs were both sitting in third place in their respective conferences, bound for the playoffs. The NBA basketball team remained steady, while the NHL hockey team took a nosedive. A recent eight-game skid has put the Leafs on the outside looking in of the postseason race. And for the first time in a long time—maybe ever—Torontonians are gravitating towards the Raptors.
With five games remaining on their regular season schedule, the Raptors have a chance to tie or set a new franchise record for wins. That’s pretty impressive for a team that was destined to tank after trading away their “star” in Rudy Gay. Toronto’s improbable rise to the top of the Atlantic division has sparked the imaginations of many. Fans pack the Air Canada Centre to watch the Raptors play. The team is 11th in league attendance, with over 18,000 fans showing up to every game. That amounts to 91.8 per cent of seats filled every night, which is not too shabby for a hoop team in a hockey market.
Even the players have noticed this phenomenon. Patrick Patterson, who came from the Sacramento Kings in the Gay deal, told raptors.com, “Canada, I figured, of course it’s hockey. I never would have imagined that the fans would pretty much sell out every game we play here. The first game I came here, I was shocked. It was packed and we were playing Philadelphia and fans were passionate through and through. They knew about basketball and they cared about the Raptors.”
The “Sea of Red” at the Air Canada Centre in 2008, the last time the Raptors made the playoffs.
Yes, there are fans who care about the Raptors. There happens to be tens of thousands of them who have endured years of half-assed rebuilds, “organic growth,” and inconsequential games late in the season. It’s been six years since this team and its fan base have sniffed the postseason. Now that it’s coming, Raptorland is abuzz with praise for the head coach (whose head people were calling for early this season), sophomores who are suddenly peaking, and the team winning despite injuries to key players. Raptors faithful are losing sleep over the prospect of advancing to the Eastern Conference semi-finals. The most optimistic are crossing their fingers hoping they’ll still be watching the Raptors in June, not on Open Gym, but in the conference finals.
In addition to the people who know about basketball and care about the Raptors, there are people who are beginning to tune in more. Since the Gay trade on December 8, Raptors TV ratings have increased by 56 per cent, according to Yahoo Sports. People were curious. Some wanted to watch the team crash and burn. When they didn’t, people wanted to know why. The Raptors’ gritty, team-oriented style of play and the success that has come with it have gotten people hooked.
Above: Toronto Raptors against the Boston Celtics on March 28, 2014. Below: Toronto Maple Leafs against the Detroit Red Wings on March 29, 2014. Courtesy: Eric Prime and Megan Robinson
At the core of every sports fan is the desire to back a winner. I’m not saying the Leafs can’t make the playoffs, but with a 1.4 per cent chance and Joffrey Lupul and Jonathan Bernier out of commission, it’s safe to start booking tee times. When the Leafs threw up a stinker against the Detroit Red Wings on March 29, a faction of the crowd chanted “Let’s go Raptors!” That normally doesn’t happen in Toronto, but both the eye test and studies suggest that’s changing. Basketball is the most popular and fastest growing sport in the country amongst children aged five to 14 and racialized communities, Solutions Research Group and Statistics Canada reported. There are eight active Canadian players in the NBA, with more on the way via the upcoming draft. Canada Basketball counted a record-high 105 Canadians on NCAA rosters this year, most of them from greater Toronto.
People line up to meet DeMar DeRozan at Future Shop on March 3, 2014.
For Leafs and other Toronto sports fans desperate for a club they can be proud of, the Raptors are an irresistible alternative. The team has managed to shake giving up leads late in games, a habit that defined them all of last season. They work hard and they work together. They have a 1300-pound boulder to remind them to pound the rock. Off the court, the players immerse themselves in the local culture. Between practices and games, the Raptors lead several community projects. For instance, DeMar DeRozan runs a book club for kids and Amir Johnson will treat a lucky bunch of fans to dinner and a tournament at Medieval Times this Thursday. The Raptors have been spotted supporting other Toronto teams. DeRozan threw the first pitch on Sunday at the Toronto Blue Jays game against the New York Yankees.
The ballers embrace the city and the fans. Raptors fans are just as passionate about the team. They lost their collective shit Saturday night over Sportsnet cutting out of the end of the Raptors’ win over the Milwaukee Bucks. While the network made a mistake, the outcry is symbolic. When it comes to media coverage in Toronto, the Raptors regularly get shafted. Their broadcasts are pushed to the baby networks that fewer people have access to watch. The one network that gave a damn about their sport has been gobbled up by a bigger network that doesn’t give a damn. Raptors fans are sick and tired of people disrespecting their team. It was bad that the feed went black with 10 seconds remaining in a four-point game. It was a slap in the face (one Raptors fans are used to) to watch broadcasters laugh off the technical difficulties and swiftly transition to highlights of the Leafs’ 4-2 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
Happy thoughts. The Raptors have punched their ticket to the postseason. The action tips off in two weeks. More people will hop on the bandwagon, and who knows? Maybe the networks will honour the team’s accomplishments. In the meantime, Raptors fans are hunting for tickets, securing Dino flags on their cars, and saving their voices. I’m prepared to dye my hair Raptors red if Toronto lands the Washington Wizards in the first round, despite the fact that it will abolish my chances of finding employment this summer. Let’s go Raptors!