Part One: Who Are They?
Andy Doyle wrote that the Raptors had—thank the Lord—finally found an identity. And what an identity it is.
By now we know that Canada’s team is a counter-puncher. It is a team that adapts, that mucks up your game more than it imposes its own. A team without players who were high picks, but a team with defensive pedigree. It’s a 15-years-on revival of the 2004 Detroit Pistons without their defining starlessness.
Sounds pretty good, right?
Still, I have qualms, and there’s history to support them. The Raptors’ identity has always frustrated me: that irksome gap between what I wanted the team to be and what it was, especially on offense. I loved DeMar DeRozan and hated DeRozan’s midrange iso game.
Maybe this represents a flaw in me, an analytically-influenced utopianism; possibly, pure aestheticism; but what I admired were teams that shared the ball and had intricate off-ball action. The exemplar of this style was and, I suppose, is Golden State.
The Raptors were never going to be Golden State, but I was excited. With DeRozan gone, what would be the Raptors’ new offensive identity?
We saw as the season unfolded. There was the Kawh-iso; the throwback, Lowry-led, walk-it-up pick and roll; the dizzyingly Pascal-centric days of load management.
A plurality of identities, some I liked better than others—then the Marc Gasol trade, and finally I could see it: a vision of utopia where, in the half court, Gasol always has the ball at the elbow about to execute a handoff or pass to one of: Kawhi, who is always cutting hard and sharp off a Lowry screen; Pascal, who is always diving hard to the hoop; or Danny, who is forever fading to the right corner. And in the full court, simplicity itself: Pascal grabs and goes, and everyone else runs his lane.
But what is a utopia in this world?
Even the Garden of Eden had a snake.
Part Two: Who Are We / I Am Canadianism
In 2000, the year before Michael Heisley was to whisk away the Vancouver Grizzlies and make the Toronto Raptors, by default, the most Canadian team in the league, beer giant Molson had produced one of the most popular Canadian ads of all time. Released as part of the company’s second stint with the nationalist “I Am Canadian” slogan, it was called “The Rant.”
- According to the ad, who is Canadian?
- Who is not?
- What does it mean that the ad’s conception of Canadian identity is largely negative (“I’m not _______”)?
- What does it mean that Joe doesn’t eat blubber?
- Are the Toronto Raptors a “Canadian” basketball team?
Part Three: The Ship That Returned
The Raptors are no long DeRozan’s Raptors. Canada is no longer Joe’s Canada.
But instead of becoming what I had always wanted them to become, this Raptors team became other things, most of which I could never have imagined. Whatever I thought I knew of the Raptors at the start of the season has been disproved by now.
It reminds me of a story about a story: a story about the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece.
For those unfamiliar, Jason of Ioclos was a dispossessed king whose uncle gave him a series of impossible tasks. If the young man wanted to regain his throne, he would have to do the impossible. Jason assembled a team of heroes, the greatest ever assembled until Avengers: Endgame, and set off for far-off Colchis in a custom-built ship, itself then the largest ever devised: the Argo.
In the Argo traveled Jason and his Argonauts (etymologically, Argo = the name of the ship, after its builder; nauts = nautes = Ancient Greek for sailors), on a quest for a winged ram’s golden fleece. The adventure was perilous and the Argo took a beating. Again and again, the ship was damaged in different ways. Again and again, it was repaired and renewed. When the Argo finally returned to Iolcos harbor bearing its crew and the precious golden fleece, not a single piece remained of the ship that had departed. Every plank, every sail, every nail was different.
And yet, both ships were the Argo.
As Maggie Nelson writes in her story on the story, quoting Roland Barthes:
The subject who utters the phrase “I love you” is like “the Argonaut renewing his ship during its voyage without changing its name.” Just as the Argo’s parts may be replaced over time but the boat is still called the Argo, whenever the lover utters the phrase “I love you,” its meaning must be renewed by each use, as “the very task of love and of language is to give to one and the same phrase inflections which will be forever new.”
Our words renew themselves as we speak. No matter what they have been, the next time they are spoken they will be something else. This is true of the words “Canada’s basketball team.” It is true of “I am Canadian.” Of “the Toronto Raptors.” And it’s true of “I love you.”
And sometimes I love you is spelled
And even if he doesn’t, we love him anyway.