With the Raptors in the NBA Finals after 24 years, people like to laugh and joke about the team suffering through unwatchable eras of mediocrity, but it wasn’t quite so funny in the moment. In fact, it doesn’t get darker than this longtime reality for Toronto basketball fans: Driving home at 1 in the morning in the middle of a freezing winter, the Raptors 30 games under .500 while the Leafs and the rest of the NHL dominated each and every local media outlet. Nowadays, everybody is quick to label Toronto a basketball city, but it certainly wasn’t ten years ago. Nights like the one mentioned epitomized that very fact.
Those nights were plenty, but through them, one constant remained on the radio waves: The legendary Raptorized John.
Drake is the headline-earning Raptors fan. Nav Bhatia is the Raptors fan always treasured in Toronto and suddenly known worldwide. But unlike those two, John Artis didn’t have millions of dollars and courtside seats. He didn’t befriend opposing players and charge massive appearance fees at events. However, his passion? Unparalleled.
You see, those cold, late Toronto nights were exactly the times you’d hear Raptorized John, a man who longtime Raptors fans may remember. You’d hear him at other times of the day as well. His claim-to-fame was calling into shows on The FAN 590, now Sportsnet 590 The Fan, and gearing all discussions toward his beloved Raptors. When hosts opened the phone lines for fans to chat, John was always there to give his two cents on the team. While the station often focused on other sports, the conversation would always shift to basketball when Raptorized John was on the line. He’d call in with the same trademark opening of “Yo Bobcat!”, “Yo Jonesy!”, “Yo Eric!” or any 590 on-air personality that had taken over the airwaves at the time. Despite being a caller, John had a presence greater than any host. On the air, he would go on tangents, crack a joke or two, and ultimately create great conversation. He was hilarious, knowledgeable, but most of all, passionate. He was the best and most memorable part of every show, and because of this, hosts would let him speak for as long as he wanted each time he called, including big names in Toronto sports radio like Bob McCown.
We caught up with John’s son, Evan, who’s fondest memories of his dad include listening to The FAN in the car at all times, court-surfing the old-fashioned way with picture-in-picture TV, and attending games in the Air Canada Centre’s old Sprite Zone while, he says, “screaming until our lungs hurt and dancing until our legs gave out.” He tried to pinpoint exactly what made his father such an icon for regular radio-listening Raptors fans.
“My dad always had a way with words. He loved to perform,” he recalls. “He’s a published poet and was a bit of an amateur rapper/freestyler, so even if you didn’t agree with what he was saying or couldn’t really understand him, you’d want to listen for the enjoyment of it. He was also a regular; he became someone you expected to hear. He even had his own catchphrase.”
Radio shows do a funny thing. They keep you company. For a lot of people, the familiarity of Raptorized John’s larger-than-life voice and his constant call-ins no matter how terrible it got for the Raptors was comforting. No matter what happened, both in life and in basketball, Raptorized John was always there, energy and all.
“He called in because he truly loved Toronto sports,” says Evan. “For him, it was like calling up a friend after a game. He didn’t call in to get anything out of it, or for fame or to be heard, he did it because he was passionate about sports.”
Born March 14th, 1952, John’s love for basketball began well before “Raptorized” was ever attached to his name. Growing up in Harlem, NY, he was captivated by the greats of the game, later telling his children stories about watching all-timers like Wilt Chamberlain and Oscar Robertson, then going out to the park and practicing their moves against the biggest kids there. Already a basketball savant, John moved to Toronto in 1980 in the NBA’s Bird-Magic era, and while he remained captivated, he waited and waited for a team to call his own. Fourteen years later, he got his wish.
“The Raptors came to Toronto, and he was with them from the start. I don’t think it was ever a question for him,” says Evan. “The Raptors were his team.”
The Raptors struggled early on, but John, who had a job as a mental health outreach worker in Toronto and North York, was with them every step of the way. Through the very rare excitement of winning and the more common pain of losing, nobody remained more positive than John. Evan remembers watching the Raptors famous playoff loss in 2001 to the 76ers, where Vince Carter missed a game-winning shot that Kawhi Leonard would avenge 18 years later.
“I’ll always remember watching Game 7 against Philly in 2001 with him and my best friend in our basement. We were 10 or 11 then and probably cried after Vince’s miss. He told us to stay strong and have faith. That the Raptors would make it one day.”
Right he was.
Later on, John became Raptorized John, calling the FAN590 to share his thoughts on the Raptors. He would call no matter the time of day, no matter who the host was, simply to talk Raptors basketball, quickly becoming a regular. Listeners quickly grew to both expect and enjoy his calls. It was on the air where John let his personality shine through and won the hearts of many fans as a daily caller.
“Raptorized John is the best talent the FAN590 has and he isn’t getting paid!” reads a RealGM Message Board comment from 2008. “Raptorized John is the best thing about the radio!” says another. For diehards in a tiny fanbase endearing the worst of times for the Raptors, John was a man of the people.
Where did the name Raptorized John come from? You’ll have to ask hosts like Paul Jones or Eric Smith, says Evan, who are both longtime FAN590 personalities and big fans of his father. In fact, during his many years of call-ins, Evan admits he never really saw his dad as the local radio figure he was. “At the time I never thought of him as a minor celebrity. Friends would sometimes tell me they heard my dad on the radio last night but I didn’t think much of it. That was just normal.”
In late December 2012, FAN590 host Roger Lajoie announced on the airwaves that Raptorized John had passed away. His passing created a void on the station that will never be filled and it was the outpouring support that followed the announcement that made Evan realize the icon that his father was for so many hardcore Raptors fans. His father’s passing generated a reaction that Evan could have never imagined.
“After he passed, speaking with Eric Smith and seeing the reaction on Twitter that has continued to this day,” says Evan. “That has amazed me. The number of people he brought a smile to. He was always good at that”.
John’s catchphrase, “#YoJohn”, became a trend on Twitter in Toronto. Multiple hosts across the station, including like Mike Wilner of Blue Jays Talk and Paul Jones on the Raptors side of things, invited Evan to call into their shows to talk about his father. Many fans online wrote tributes to their favourite regular. Raptorized John had become a figment of their lives and a part of their routine. Though they didn’t know him personally, many would miss him very dearly. The FAN590 has had something missing ever since, and to this very day, both radio hosts and fans alike have continued to talk about the legend that is John Artis.
If one thing is certain, it’s that Raptorized John remained a diehard Raptor fan until the end. When he passed away, the team was an abysmal 4-19, which was nothing out of the ordinary. The game after his passing was announced, then-rookie Terrence Ross, the topic of many of John’s calls at the time, recorded 26 points. “Raptorized John would be so happy to see Terrence’s performance,” remarked a longtime listener online that evening. “He is smiling down on the team tonight.”
Seven years ago, a young player scoring 26 points in a meaningless game was the pinnacle of the Raptors’ success. Something that would have made John light up like a Christmas tree. Now, to say the Raptors have achieved new heights is the understatement of all understatements. Today they get ready for Game 3 of the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors. A week and a half ago they clinched a spot on this stage, creating a magical moment for diehard fans that was 24 years in the making. Two weeks before that, they hit a buzzer beating shot in Game 7 of Round 2 of the playoffs. And when the buzzer sounded in Game 1 of the Finals, Canada went into a frenzy. The once irrelevant Raptors were not only on the biggest stage, they were thriving.
Because of this, it’s hard not to think about what this would mean would mean to Raptorized John, especially for Evan.
“He would be loving it! This is something I think about a lot these days.” he says. “Both over this amazing Raptors run and the previous years. I imagine us sitting together either at home or out somewhere watching the game cheering and yelling at the screen. And I’m pretty sure, regardless of the outcome of the game he’d be stepping away after to call into The FAN”
In the next ten days or so, the Raptors have a chance to achieve what Canadian basketball fans could never have imagined in their wildest dreams: An NBA championship. It will be an incredible moment for so many around the country.
If it happens, somewhere, somehow, Raptorized John will continue to smile down on the team. And there will be nobody happier than him.
“Yo Jonesy!” he’d say to Paul Jones to start off his call to The FAN, just like he did for so many years. “We finally did it.”