What is it that makes one a devoted sports fan? What cruel twists of fate condemn millions of regular people from all walks of life to allow the literal playtime of a few well-off athletes to affect their daily mood and demeanor? In these days of uncertainty in Raptor land, where heated arguments regarding our beloved team’s future rule the day, it is as good a time as any to reflect on how we got here; to look back to the honeymoon days of that fiery, passionate love story that has brought us a measure of happiness, but also much anguish and undue stress. We all have a story of becoming a Raptors fan, and I’m going to share mine. I would encourage everyone to post theirs in the comment section, so that we may remember the good (or funny, or awfully bad) moments that unite us all in the common thread of Raptors fandom, notwithstanding our many differences. To remember in these trying times, that despite it all, we’re all on the same side.
I wasn’t always an NBA fan. Living across the pond in the old continent for much of my life, I grew up with football as my main source of entertainment, along with a side dish of Euroleague basketball. Having begun playing organized basketball myself, that side dish became my main, and quite quickly, ball became life. Meanwhile, I missed a wildly exciting era of Raptors basketball – the famed Vince Carter days, catching only his occasional highlights on the local sports news edition. The little I did follow of the NBA consisted of watching a certain tough, undersized (much like myself at the time) scorer from Philadelphia. A scorer who, ironically enough, eliminated Vince Carter in the second round in 2001, a result I was quite happy with at the time. Funny how time changes things.
The Euroleague, unlike the NBA, is generally the domain of hard-nosed head coaches. The coach’s word is law, and no star, no matter how talented, is above the team. That, along with the fact that the most gifted players hone their craft in the NBA, means the entire game overseas is more team oriented. With all that considered, the rare occasion when a true star shines above all the others is that much more special. And for a number of years, that star was Anthony Parker.
Anthony Parker was the ultimate role model – a talented, hard-working basketball player, that was also a humble and genuine human being. He came to Europe after an unsuccessful four-year stint in the NBA, and did not look down on his new teammates. Instead, he worked on his game, determined to return to the big leagues, while giving full effort for his club’s fans. And he became a star. Parker won 2 consecutive Euroleague titles with Maccabi Tel Aviv in 2004 and 2005, leading a historic destruction in the 2005 final, beating Italian powerhouse Skipper Bologna by an unfathomable 44 points. That iteration of Maccabi Tel Aviv was one of the most exciting teams in Euroleague history, and Anthony Parker was its most valuable player (he won Euroleague MVP in 2005 and 2006). He even drained a game winning basket at the Air Canada Centre as Maccabi defeated the Raptors in one preseason (a REALLY big deal for a European team at the time).
All the while, Parker remained candid and warm in every interview, and was a uniting presence in his locker room. His ego could have grown leaps and bounds based on his achievements and star status, but it hadn’t. At this point you may have an easy time deciphering that Parker was my favourite basketball player. And in 2006, he signed for Canada’s struggling team – the Toronto Raptors.
I had immigrated to Canada (Calgary) myself in 2003, and was still adjusting to life in a new culture and nation the following few years. I tried to get into hockey, the only legitimate sports franchise in town, but it was not to be. A pleasant surprise it was then, when I read about Parker’s arrival to Canada. I would now once again have a chance to watch him play without a significant time difference, and satisfy the pangs of nostalgia in the process. It would be a little taste of home.
And so it was, that the Toronto Raptors became a fixture at my place two to four times a week. At first I was only watching Parker, hoping he gets his minutes, gets his touches, gets his points. And he did quite well. Soon enough though, I started noticing other things. Chris Bosh, another highly talented and team oriented star was hard to miss – fighting bigger and stronger men than him in the post, rattling powerful dunks as well as stroking it beautifully from mid-range. Running the offense with a distinctly familiar European flavor off the bench was Jose Calderon, whose team-first attitude was impossible to dislike. His Spanish counterpart with an Everest high basketball IQ in Garbajosa completed a group that immediately made me feel like I was watching an evolved version of Euroleague ball. I couldn’t resist it.
It didn’t hurt that the 2006-07 season marked a franchise record for wins and an Atlantic division title. The playoffs saw a painful exit to the Nets and good ol’ Vince Carter, which no doubt hurt most of the fanbase much more than it did me at the time, but I felt the sting nonetheless. By the beginning of the following season, Anthony Parker’s exploits were no more than an aside to the second coming of Nowitzki in Bargnani; to the arrival of the Raptors’ very own version of Reggie Miller in Kapono; to the unearthing of the diamond in the rough, a former Harlem Globetrotter and future NBA hall of famer in Jamario Moon.
With none of those prophecies fulfilled, there was always another around the corner. The addiction was in the system, and it wasn’t going anywhere. I still watched Parker when he took his talents to Cleveland once in a while, but the Toronto Raptors were the mainstay. There have been some truly dark years for the Dinos in between the early period honeymoon and the current rough patch, but the organization has grown leaps and bounds since then. That doesn’t mean there aren’t a multitude of things to criticize about the current roster’s play; it doesn’t mean that anyone is definitely right or definitely wrong in any of their Raptors opinions, since we all come from different backgrounds and have potentially different definitions of success or what constitutes quality basketball.
What it does mean is that we love our Raptors enough to have such strong opinions one way or the other, and that we want (our version of) what’s best for the team. So, what’s your Raptors love story?