The cost of being a fan isn’t something that sports fans talk about very much, if only because the word doesn’t mean anything.
You invest in a team, often for decades, and rarely, if ever, receive anything back on that considerable investment, if only because the joy of cheering for a team is enough. Sometimes that joy can lead to heartache. Or lots of shared misery. But fandom is a club, and for diehards, it really isn’t predicated on winning. All winning does is bring out the casual fans. The Blue Jays did that in 2015 and 2016, and the Raptors did it last year.
For diehard Raptor fans, we know what it’s like to be bad. Who can forget those 17 and 22 win seasons, the years of bleakness when there was no chance we were making the playoffs and settled for the occasional win over “good teams?” The cost of being a fan, such as it was then, was that our team sucked, we all knew it sucked, and we embraced it as a kind of cooperative gathering. Like a book club getting together to drink beer and celebrate how bad the writing was in a particular novel.
And then, well, IT happened. We became good. An aborted trade gave us KLOE. Demar became Deebo. And MLSE brought in Masai.
Dwane Casey helped establish a culture, and slowly the organization – at that time a battered, creaking ship lulling on its side – slowly righted. And piece by piece, the Raptors started to win. Most fans have forgotten those tweener years when the tide turned, and often skip right to the playoff disappointments, but in the beginning, it seemed impossible that we were even in the tournament. Noon playoff starts? Didn’t care. Never picked by critics? Didn’t care. Still mocked by journalists complaining about Canadian weather and customs? Nope. Wasn’t a problem.
The NBA is not the NFL. Unless you get a generational talent like LeBron or Shaq or Wade, you don’t go worst to first. You have to build. First, you’re a playoff team. Then a good playoff team. Then a contender. More than any of the Big Four sports, success in the NBA is the easiest to predict. There are fifteen players on the roster, nine or ten who get playing time, and only five on the court at once.
When the Raptors began the slow climb up the different tiers, the cost of being a fan became greater. Those first round playoff losses to Brooklyn and Washington were painful. Far more so than the twenty win seasons. And the sweep at the hands of LeBron in 2018 in the second round was downright gutting. There’d been a time when most fans would have given anything for a second round appearance, but those days were long gone. And what was left was the empty feeling of gorging on rotten sandwich.
Much has been said about the changes Masai Ujiri orchestrated at the end of that heart wrenching loss in 2018. The firing of Casey. The trade for Kawhi. But less has been said about what it meant for the battered psyche of the fans, and the optimism, however cautious, that played out in 2019. Starting 20-4 helped. Early season wins at the Clippers and the Warriors helped. But I think most of us held in our minds what had happened the past few years. And the cost to fully investing in the team was much more difficult. It was ironic, considering the way we’d so easily embraced losing teams. But cheering for losing teams doesn’t require emotional investment. Not really.
When the Raptors lost the opening game to Orlando in Round One, fans were apoplectic. When a few of the more reasonable analysts tried to explain why it wasn’t that big a deal, most fans, myself included, were having none of it. Winning the next four did not help much. When the Raptors went down 2-1 in the Philly series, again it felt like a re-living of past failures. The pain was real.
It wasn’t until Kawhi’s four bouncer to win game seven, the most important shot in Raptors’ history, did it feel like investment in this team, in this year, might be worth it. Even down two games to Milwaukee, things felt different. And when they defied the experts and finished off Milwaukee, the cost had evolved into something Raptors’ fans had never really experienced.
Oh sure, everyone was hoping for a championship, but the investment had finally paid off. A game was going to be played on Canadian soil in the NBA finals for the first time. No expert or national reporter (outside of Tim Bontemps of ESPN and Cris Carter of Fox) picked the Raptors to win. For most Raptors’ fans, just getting to the Finals was everything.
When Siakam finished off the Warriors with a Euro-step in Game Six, the city and the country went crazy. Millions attended and watched as downtown Toronto was buried in screaming and glassy eyed celebrations. In my elementary school, along with many others, the kids held a rally and paraded along streets. It was, in every way, the explosion we never expected. The realization of an investment that almost never happens. An investment made steeper because of the closeness to finality.
And that’s what it was: finality. When Kawhi left to go back home to Los Angeles, it was something of a body blow. Losing the Finals MVP, a first in the history of the league, would put a massive damper on thoughts of next year’s team. But even then, it almost didn’t matter. Because next year was no longer next year.
As in, next year we’ll do better. Next year we’ll go further. Next year we’ll finally take that final step.
That didn’t mean we wouldn’t cheer as hard or say as many ridiculous things on social media or complain about the officiating in an October game. (I’m guilty of all three.) But what it meant, even if we didn’t know it, was how much that return on investment would linger.
It lingered into the preseason this year. It lingered during the ring ceremony. And it certainly lingered during the unveiling of the banner, the one that will hang forever.
Even now, just thinking about this team, this team that I have cheered for a quarter of century, this team that cost us so many shared shrugs and sleepless nights and barking frustration, fills me with emotion. Good emotion. That’s what a championship does, especially the first one. More than an eraser, it’s a magic slate that has wiped clean the pain of all before it, with only the moments of the journey to celebrate.
It costs to be a fan of any sport. And generally, it’s worth it, if only because of the fun and joy that world gives us. But for Raptor fans this year, for all we will celebrate and cheer and urge our team to victory, there is no cost.
This year? Well, this year is free.