I’ve been present at a lot of important events in Toronto Raptors history. I was at the game on March 24, 1996 when the Raptors beat the (eventual) 72-win Chicago Bulls by a single point. I was in Oakland on February 12, 2000 when Vince Carter won his first and only Slam Dunk contest. I was at Madison Square Garden on April 23, 2000 when the Raptors played their first-ever Playoff game. I was there for a lot of players’ first games, a lot of big wins and losses, and I even worked Toronto’s first home appearance on NBA on NBC. I would have figured that if Toronto ever hosted an NBA All-Star Game, whether I was working it or not, I would be there.
Well, yesterday Toronto hosted an NBA All-Star Game, and I wasn’t there.
Toronto pursued the All-Star Game aggressively before announcing that they’d secured it back in 2013. Back then, the Raptors were a franchise desperately searching for validation. They were more famous for high-profile desertions than they were for on-court accomplishments, and the common sentiment in the city of Toronto was that American players simply didn’t want to come and play in Canada. The organization reeked of insecurity, a trait that their fans either adopted or influenced (you choose), and the All-Star Game was meant to act as some sort of balm to the team’s fragile ego.
In fact, if you recall, the All-Star Game was setup to be the culmination of a years-long rehabilitation project for the Raptors franchise. Tim Leiweke was going rename and rebrand the team, practically rebooting the franchise for their 20th anniversary, and the 2016 All-Star Game was going to be the basketball world’s reintroduction to city and the organization.
The thing was, insecure as they may have been, Toronto was proud of its team’s lamentable heritage. As sad it it was, it was earned. It was theirs. It was ours. The years and years of disappointment and heartbreak, fleetingly interrupted by blips of promise, those were real. Fans didn’t want them rebranded out of their memory. For all the jokes made at the expense of the ‘Raptors’ name, that was the team’s name. That was the name Damon Stoudamire wore when he beat Jordan in ’96. That was the name that Carter wore when he hung off of the rim in the Slam Dunk Contest. Fans may not have loved everything about the Raptors’ history, but they didn’t ever want to pretend that it didn’t happen.
Besides, after the splashy press conference to announce the Toronto All-Star Game (the same event that introduced Drake as the team’s ‘global ambassador’), the franchise’s direction began to change itself. Masai Ujiri made the Rudy Gay trade and the team began winning. A lot. Kyle Lowry, who once expected to bolt Toronto as soon as his contract expired, excitedly re-signed that summer. DeMar DeRozan became an All-Star and made it to Team USA. The next year Lowry was voted in as an All-Star starter, and the team set a new record for wins in a season. This year the Raptors are on pace for their best season ever. DeRozan and Lowry are both All-Stars and have become the most potent backcourt in the eastern conference. The team is widely considered to be the only threat to LeBron James making his sixth consecutive trip to the NBA Finals and they are supported by dozens of the most visible American pundits like Charles Barkley and Jeff Van Gundy. By the time the All-Star Game arrived in Toronto, Toronto didn’t need it anymore.
Now the fact that the All-Star Game is in Toronto is almost a novelty. Most major outlets had written about the Raptors well before their editors required their timely Toronto pieces in anticipation of this weekend. The Raptors once looked to the All-Star Game for validation, but instead they validated themselves and just happened to host an All-Star Game during that process. No one looks at Toronto like an NBA backwater anymore after TNT and ESPN became obsessed with showing thousands of fans watching Toronto Playoff games outside of an already packed arena. No one dismisses them as a free agent landing spot. Heck, DeMar DeRozan is expected to be pursued by his hometown Los Angeles Lakers this summer and yet it’s hard to find anyone who thinks that he’ll be wearing anything other than red and white next season (partly because he was the reason that the team still wears red and white).
That’s why I didn’t go to the All-Star Game last night. It didn’t mean anything. It was just another All-Star Game. I’ve been to All-Star Games before and they are painfully boring live. Toronto basketball is about so much more than this year’s All-Star Game. Toronto basketball is now about going to the Playoffs every year. It’s about going deep in the Playoffs. If they do that, then it’ll be worth getting to the ACC. Toronto basketball is about retaining its own talent and acquiring meaningful help from somewhere else. Toronto basketball is about using their own D-League team to develop the next generation of Raptors. It’s about using their state-of-the-art training facility and advanced stat war room. It’s about what happens with the the Raptors organization itself, not extravagant exhibition games.
Yes, it was cool that Toronto got to play host to the NBA’s best for one weekend, but it will turn out to be a side note to the season, like the club’s trip to London last month. That, in fact, is the best part about this All-Star Game in Toronto: it didn’t matter. The Raptors made Toronto a relevant basketball entity all on its own.