My Four Quarters of Raptors Fandom

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A few weeks ago, my wife and I went out for dinner. Good food, good wine. A really nice, relaxing time. We ran into friends on the way home. My buddy, another near-obsessive basketball fan, asked me if I saw Bargnani’s line. Huh? There was no game tonig…

I froze.

It happened.

Did I misread the schedule? No. It seems that while my relationship to the NBA has never been stronger, my Raptors Fan Ranking has gone from “sorry-officer-I-was-speeding-because-I-forgot-to-factor-in-potential-overtime-when-I-set-the-PVR” to actually forgetting about a game entirely.

How did it come to this? There are marriage counselors, family counselors, career counselors, but since sports counselors don’t exist, I’ve had to take a cold, hard look at my 15 years of Raptor fandom. In doing so, one thing became clear: the circumstances leading to this crisis (and I use the term loosely) are directly tied to my age (29) and my location (Toronto). In other words, being a Raptors fan born in the early-mid 1980’s is unique, complex, and at times, difficult.

In the process of this analysis, a parallel became evident between my trajectory from pubescent screaming superfan to balding, coughing Raptor skeptic – the framework of a typical NBA game:

First Quarter: Tip off. The game begins.

The Raptors: Pinstripes! Dinosaurs! Mighty Mouse! Isaiah! Professional basketball in Canada is here! The sky’s the limit. No one cares if they lose, we just love that they’re here. Oh, and Zan Tabak!

The Dinosty: Already a huge basketball fan thanks to Jordan, Penny, and Shaq, I couldn’t sleep the night before the first Raptors game. New toys are always so shiny! Their inaugural season coincided with the first year I was allowed to take the subway downtown with a friend. Watching my NBA heroes play in my city, AGAINST my city, took me from the couch to the court and offered entry into the “true fans” club. The team and I shared a tandem evolution.

Second Quarter: Teams are establishing their rhythm and flow. Starting to get a sense of who’s bringing what to the table.

The Raptors: A high-octane, high-flying highlight reel named Vince Carter was quickly becoming the most exciting player in the league. And in Toronto! We’ve never had the most exciting anything in, well, anything. Vince was complemented by an entertaining and talented entourage: T-Mac, AD, MoPete, Boogie, JYD, Onions, Goomba, HotDick… (the last two were to see if you’re still paying attention. Obviously, HotDick played for the Mavs.) Everything was looking up – The city of Toronto was riding the rush of the Raptors.

The Dinosty: Best described as 12 minutes of pot and heavy petting. The Leafs sucked, the Blue Jays played baseball, and no self-respecting teen gave two shits about the Argos. The Raptors had a monopoly on sports buzz, and it was easy to keep track through a haze of smoke and general indifference. Add basketball video games to the mix and I had a bad case of Purple Fever.

Halftime: A break to regroup with a plan for the second half.

The Raptors: Full-on Vinsanity. Sellout crowds experienced three consecutive playoff trips, including a last-second loss in the Eastern Conference Semi’s.

The Dinosty: It was during this time that my family moved to Arizona. In true teen form, I was bitter. I rejected everything American for its familiar (though often inferior) Canadian counterpart. That the Raptors had become one of the darlings of the league – #15 jerseys were EVERYWHERE in the states – helped keep me interested in their progressions, when it would have been easier to adapt the local Suns as my squad of choice.

Third Quarter: Teams implement their new plan. Sometimes it works, and sometimes…you get blown out.

The Raptors: Vince leaves, forcing management to Frankenstein a marketing plan and usher in “The Bosh Era”. Plus, a season of Kevin O’Neill, who later went on to a sterling career as the Travelocity Gnome.

The Dinosty: University years. Occasionally, drinking and sports got in the way of attempted intercourse and drug experimentation. The Raptors and the Dinosty both slip into a dark period. Luckily, we both graduated and moved on to bigger and better.

Fourth Quarter: Time is running out. You pull out all the stops in hopes of a win.

The Raptors: Chris Bosh’s emergence as a premiere big-man (deleted, “Franchise Player”) helped right the ship and led an entertaining run, including a return to the playoffs. A volley of missteps and tangential strategies (EuroRaptors, JO, Kapono) aimed at keeping CB4 happy led to some serious PR tightrope walking from our head office, and some serious vitriol from fans.

The Dinosty: Got a job, got a house, got married, got bills. Went from being a fan to being a consumer. The longest 3pt. streak in NBA history stopped being enough. I became disappointed as they continued to offer up a declining product year in and year out, wrapping their efforts in transparent spin – all while increasing ticket prices significantly and cramping two new seats into many ACC rows. Increased price + decreased product = re-evaluation.

At the buzzer: Ice your knees, lick your wounds, and review your performance.

The Raptors: Bosh leaves, yielding nothing in return. The team searches for answers, essentially back to square 1. Could the current team beat the expansion-season roster? Who cares, as they become a non-factor in the NBA, especially within the context of a pivotal season in the league’s history.

The Dinosty: Disenfranchised with the team, the front office, and the lack of relatable personalities, I stop defending them in conversation with casual, uninformed fans. I didn’t care enough. It’s easy to develop a man-crush watching guys your age do things you could never dream of. On this Raptors team, who can I rally behind? I must admit, I do like Reggie. It’s something, but it’s not enough. And what is “sport” if not a fantastical outlet? The youth movement is considerably less appealing when you’re not caught up in the hype. My buddy Jon made a great point about Kobe. We used to hate him, but these days we like him a lot more, having the frame of reference and maturity to respect what he’s done in the past and what he’s able to do at this point in his career. Younger me would murder current me if he read those words…but they’re true. There’s no one on this team that I can hang my allegiant purple flag on. They may be headed in the right direction, but that direction isn’t clear yet. And for the first time in my life, I’d rather watch a Spurs game than a Raptors game. It’s a sad day, and it’s no one’s fault.

(wipes tear, makes unnecessarily dramatic Facebook update)

The most important part of being a fan is loyalty. I get that. That’s how rivalries, dynasties, and reputations are built, cultivated by a caring fan base over multi-decades worth of 4-quarter intervals. But loyalty has its limits. The unspoken requirement for a sports fan to pledge blind allegiance to the cartoon logo of a multi-million dollar corporation is an anomaly in the Relationships of Life.™ If your spouse treats you poorly for long enough, you’re going to reconsider your relationship, at the very least. Same goes for parents, business partners, etc. Why do sports teams get an infinite leash? After a while, are you loyal for sticking around, or a sucker for staying put?

I expect the comments section will have its share of “fair-weather fan” slinging, drawing first-blush ire that deviates into a stream of acronymic insults. But make no mistake, this is an important conversation to have. You can only be drunk on passion for so long. One day you too may wake up with an emptiness you can’t quite rationalize. You may find yourself cringing every time you read “Young Onez”. The Raptors aren’t fully to blame, and neither am I. Call it a third-life crisis. Call it a re-prioritizing of emotion. But be careful before you apply a negative label my way. As The Dude put it, “there are a lot of ins, a lot of outs, a lot of what-have-yous, man”. Life is complicated. Sports are complicated. Sometimes, the two get tangled.

The greatest thing about the NBA is that there’s always a chance for redemption. Another 48 minutes around the corner. I don’t know if I’ll ever get back to my former level of involvement with the team. I hope I do. Thanks to PVR, the internet, the blogosphere, and countless other tools in the new Sports Swiss Army Knife, there’s never been more ways to find a reason to care. And I crave the connection. There’s no greater testament to sport than feeling in sync with thousands of people cheering, jeering, holding their breath for a glorious outcome. But I will tell you it has nothing to do with wins or Nike-sponsored smiles, and everything to do with one franchise and one fan – born at the same time, in the same place, recently disconnected but searching for a chance to be fused together again.

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