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The Front of the Jersey

It was hard in the beginning. The Raptors had been an excellent team for many years, but these past twelve months, they’d made trades. Trades that made the team better. But trades that still hurt. Not because they weren’t the right basketball move, or the right business move, but because sports aren’t just a logistical exercise.  

Trades are part of sports. But when it comes to your favourite team, it becomes personal. You become invested. Not just in the team, not just the front of the jersey, but the back of it.

The Raptors had traded a Raptors icon, Demar Derozan, just before the season began. They acquired a former all NBA talent and consensus top 3 player in Kawhi Leonard coming off an injury. Just before the trade deadline, the Raptors traded away Jonas Valinciunas, Delon Wright, CJ Miles and a second round draft pick for Marc Gasol. It was a good trade, as was the Derozan trade, but when it happened I was upset. It wasn’t about the return, it was about the players.

Like all Raptor fans, I’d watched Jonas grow into a formidable player, a kid growing up. Delon was the young one with the funky moves that seemed to be coming on. And CJ, well, he was Papa Bear. And even though he’d struggled with his shooting, his calling card, he was revered and loved by his teammates and fans alike.

And what could you say about Demar? He was the star that wanted to stay. He was the Compton kid who wanted to end his career as a Raptor. The humble star who wanted to stay. The one who talked about his mental health issues, and gave a platform for people, people like me, to talk about the things we don’t like to talk about. He was, and to me, will always be the ultimate Raptor. Not the best, but maybe the most important, in terms of all he did, and how he affected the fan base.

The front of the jersey is a cold business. We get attached to players, and there’s no questioning how true that is here in Toronto. Numerous reporters who cover the team have given anecdotes to just how great JV was as a person. The same is true of CJ and Delon. Ask Doug Smith, the two decade beat reporter from the Toronto Star how he feels about Derozan, and you get a soliloquy. So even in the midst of a successful season, it was difficult to say goodbye.

There were still games this year when the Raptors would win and I wished Demar was there. It was especially true when they hoisted the Larry O’Brien trophy. And again, not because the trade was wrong. Not because Gasol, the MVP of the parade, wasn’t awesome. (The Raptors seem to only bring in good humans. It’s a thing.) And not because they didn’t need to upgrade in the bloodbath that is the East.

It hurt because I remembered the moments. I remembered when Demar set the franchise record of 52 points. I remembered the kid we drafted. I remembered JV holding the sign “52” behind him when he broke the franchise record for points in a game and then holding “22” for Fred when he broke his own personal scoring record. I remembered CJ’s PJ’s, and watching him talking about his baby girl  

None of this changed who I cheered for. The Raptors were trying to win a title, and the only way to do that was to be the best. Talent wins in the NBA. And luck is not nearly as much a factor when you have only five players on the floor. My head understood all of it, and so while I applauded the moves, I still felt it.

Building a team “brand” is very much like writing a novel. You create, or expose, likeable characters to the public. You document their journey. People become attached.

It’s great marketing, but it’s only great if the players, the characters in the play, are actually like that. And I’m not sure there if there’d been someone more appealing than Derozan in Raptors history. What was difficult about the trade was thinking, “damn, we’re better. We can do this.” And in the same breath “Damn, Demar won’t be there if we do.”

The trade cemented the new Raptors from the back of the jersey to the front.

I have no doubt that the players traded this past year will be loved forever in Toronto and across Canada. But Masai knew. The back of the jersey had reached a ceiling. It was time to address the front.

History will record what he did as gutsy and necessary, replacing a beloved iconic All-Star and Coach of the Year, but more than any other league, perhaps due to its small roster, the NBA is dominated by the name on the back of the jersey. No one had been more loyal than Demar. Casey had brought nothing but success during his tenure, his classiness established not only by the media but by his players.

The opportunity to sign Kawhi Leonard was not something a good GM would ever pass up, even coming off an injury. The chance to get that type of player are few to non-existent.

Masai rolled the dice. He bet goodness against greatness, a bet few executives are willing to take.

It took a while. Demar’s ascension, through hard work into a perennial all-star, allowed them to get a generational player. He is part of this. He always will be.

Going into the playoffs, it seemed as though every favourite had a sexier story. Boston, Philly, Milwaukee, Golden State, Houston. The Raptors were good, but were they?

When they lost Game One to Orlando in the first round of the playoffs, everyone looked at the front of the jersey. The same was true when they went down to Philadelphia after Game Three and Game Two to the Bucks.

But here’s the thing. jerseys matter until they don’t.

Gasol. Green. An innovative coach in Nick Nurse. And of course, Kawhi. It wasn’t the same team, and as the grueling playoffs proceeded, the colours were the same, but the team was different. Very different.

It wasn’t that I didn’t miss the guys from the past teams I cheered for, it wasn’t that I didn’t hope for them, and it sure as hell hurt a bit they weren’t there when the confetti fell after a miraculous two months. Two months that changed the NBA and the landscape of basketball in Canada forever. Two months will go down as one of the greatest fan experiences we’ve ever known.

It has often been said that two things can be true. I wish Demar and JV and Delon had been part of the Championship. But I also know it wouldn’t have happened if the Raptors hadn’t done what they did.

Cheering for the front of the jersey doesn’t mean I, or any fan, will ever forget all the names on the back. What it means is that we have a connected web of players and stars and heroes who have turned our favourite team into something great. Sometimes it was unrecognizable and went unnoticed. Sometimes it played out in the public. And sometimes it just hurt.

But the result is something greater than we ever imagined.

The Toronto Raptors will forever be champions. and all of those names, past and present, from Carter to Bosh to Derozan, are part of it.

Ultimately, the front of the jersey matters, but so does the back. And it always will. 

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