Fan Duel Toronto Raptors

Atmosphere, Identity and Rivalry

On Game 1, We The North and F-Brooklyn.

Late Saturday morning, I got off the subway at Union Station and took the longer walk – out of the station on Front and south on York – so that I could check out Maple Leaf Square. It was only about 11:30, with tip-off set for 12:30, so I wasn’t expecting anything crazy quite yet. The scene met my expectations, more or less, with empty grandstands constructed and 4 Korners hyping up a moderate crowd.

In the time it took to eat delicious, savoury ground horse hooves street meat, the square filled up. When we entered through Gate 6 around noon, there was a pretty substantial crowd settling in behind us, and it had the makings of a pretty good game-watching environment brewing.

Inside the Air Canada Centre was unlike any Raptors game I’ve been to. There have been some damn good ones, but I’d never attended a playoff game before. Based on some late-season crowds, my expectations were pretty high, and the crowd didn’t disappoint from the moment the Brooklyn Nets walked onto the floor, showered in boos.

The choice to have the Raptors enter the arena to Started From the Bottom for warm-ups – hopefully tongue-in-cheek, given how overused the phrase has been this season – didn’t do what the game operations crew had likely hoped for, but it only took a few minutes longer for the crowd to fire back up. A few bars into Oh Canada, the anthem singer conceded to the raucous crowd, allowing 19,000 strong to do the honors.

From there, it was a steady stream of the standard – “De-Fense,” “Let’s Go Rap-Tors” – and the less standard – “K-G Sucks,” “Ref You Suck,” “Bull-Shit” – echoing through the ACC. The crowd was, in a word, insane, and was hanging on every single possession. It was awesome, and I say this as someone who often loses sight of the fact that not all fans are of the hardcore variety, rolling my eyes at the wave or the free pizza chanters. The Game 1 crowd came correct, was gasping with every 3-point attempt and yelling at every perceived missed call. It’s a testament to everyone who was there that the normally grating game-ops crew was neutralized in much the same way DeMar DeRozan was.

Only a 15-minute delay in the third quarter to fix an embarrassing shot clock malfunction could quiet the crowd, and even then it simply allowed for an extra window of time to lubricate voice boxes before taps were shut off for the fourth quarter. Down the stretch, it was 19,000 Raptors fans giving it to the referees, riding Kevin Garnett and being stomach-punched by Paul Pierce. All uniform in our atrocious (but free) white “Northern Uprising” shirts, all uniform in our disappointment at the final buzzer.

In all honesty, this was probably the second-best crowd I’ve ever been a part of for a sporting event. Better than any Blue Jays home opener, better than any Leafs regular season game, surely better than any Raptors game before it, even topping Canada-USA in the World Baseball Classic, opening round March Madness action or (non-Gold medal) World Junior Hockey action – I think the only crowd I’d rank higher was UFC 83, when I was one of 21,000 watching the first ever live UFC event in Canada, as hometown hero Georges St. Pierre won the UFC Welterweight title.

You’ve surely read the quotes from players about the atmosphere, and it’s good to know they appreciate it. What’s more, between the incredible live crowd and the ridiculous cost of tickets on second-hand sites, the message being sent is very, very clear: Toronto is basketball-crazy, at least when there’s reason to be. No, it ain’t hockey and the Raptors will never be the Leafs, but there’s damn sure enough people that live and die with this team’s record, now that there’s reason to be invested once again.

After a season of vague marketing that hinged mostly on the promise of what was to come and a poorly-defined global ambassadorship with Drake, MLSE put its marketing muscle into the Raptors once the playoffs drew near. “We The North” is the new rallying cry, and the commercial that you’ve surely seen 100 times by now is excellent.

The shots of the city, the genuine looking basketball highlights, and the excellent visual effects of rain, fire, lightning and snow make it an eminently re-watchable spot (plus, that Husky, #foreshadowing). The message is one of othering, whereby the Raptors, Raptors fans and, by proxy, Canadian basketball fans as a whole are somehow different, and it’s absolutely right, even if it’s not for the reasons conveyed in the commercial.

Being a hardcore basketball fan in Canada isn’t easy. Getting a game on at the bar is a struggle, finding fellow hoop-heads outside of the city limits can be tough and the constant reminders that basketball isn’t this country’s main sport can be infuriating. And don’t scoff, because there are constant reminders – the never-ending hockey coverage and the inexplicable broadcast decisions stand out, but it goes deeper. Go look at the Facebook comments on any basketball post by theScore; compare the type of ads we have on this site with those of similarly-trafficked Leafs sites; count the number of people who didn’t give the team a lick of attention until the Leafs season ended. (There’s nothing wrong with that last point, by the way – Raptors fans should be welcoming of non-fans or casual fans aboard the bandwagon.)

It’s doubtful that MLSE was trying to galvanize the already-hardcore among us with these spots. They’re trying to get greater buy-in from casual fans by making them a part of an us-against-the-world mentality, and that’s probably a strategy that’s going to work, at least in the short-term. As a second layer, though, it’s a nice, if unintentional, nod to those of us who have always identified as the others, in the greater NBA scene and in our own country’s sports culture.

If that makes us outsiders, we’re in.

Shortly after we entered the ACC on Saturday, the scene outside in Maple Leaf Square got even crazier.

General manager Masai Ujiri yelling “F— Brooklyn” was not an accident. MLSE and president Tim Leiweke have replaced a pair of oft-verbose, media wet-dreams with a pair of far more measured bosses in Ujiri and Brendan “White Abed” Shanahan. Since the day of his arrival, Ujiri has chosen his words very carefully, playing most matters close to the chest. His delay on the stage, waiting for the crowd to quiet before yelling, and Leiweke’s smile as the pair left the stage after are clear signs of this, not that any additional evidence is needed.

Why do it? Well, for one, it grabs the headlines and puts attention firmly on this team. But, like with the We The North campaign, it serves to make fans invest more deeply in the team right now. First, we’re outsiders, and it’s us against the world. Now, “the Nets tanked to get the Raptors,” “the Nets are more experienced,” and the Raptors are underdogs despite having posted a better record. The soft-spoken GM, Terrence Ross’ Reddit AMA and the Toronto Sun have helped draw the battle lines, while Pierce, Andray Blatche and the NY Daily News have gleefully accepted a war of words.

Of course, this isn’t a rivalry to the Nets. A rivalry needs to be two-ways, and not a single player on that team would identify the Raptors as a rival. Growing into the role of pesky little brother picking a fight? Sure, and that’s a start. But the Nets will walk away from this series, regardless of the result, feeling the same as if it had been any team.

Maybe the Raptors players aren’t buying into it, either – Amir Johnson’s “if he says F-‘em then F-‘em” aside, it’s hard to see how they’d find reason for this to be a rivalry, too – but for the franchise, there wasn’t a better round one opponent to help fire up the fanbase. Pierce, Garnett and Kidd are household names, and it’s fairly easy to find a reason to dislike any of them. Seven-time All-Star Joe Johnson bumped Kyle Lowry from an All-Star spot. Blatche is running his mouth over an innocuous Reddit answer. They’re from New York. They’re veterans, they’ve got experience, they’ve got rings, and they’re shrugging the Raptors off like only they would do.

Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment likely couldn’t be happier with the way things have turned out, aside from the Game 1 loss. The crowds and the acknowledgement of them from outside of the fanbase can do a great deal of good, from a marketing and ticket sales perspective but also in facilitating a reputation as a tough place to play and a city where fans (and GM) support the players with volume. The fanbase – with plenty of new members thanks to the Leafs, Jays and the additional coverage Ujiri and a tight Game 1 have surely provided – are engaged, ready for what should be another incredible game on Tuesday. Another loss would strike a pretty quick blow to the momentum the franchise has gained over the past weeks, but an 0-2 start would have done that anyway. The way the team has been positioned is such that a win on Tuesday is going to send the ever-growing group of Raptors faithful into frenzy, because we’re outsiders, because We The North, and because F— Brooklyn.