Sports

Diehard Toronto Raptors Fans Describe the Highs and Lows of Remaining Loyal

With the NBA finals starting tonight, we asked fans about the impact the team has had on Toronto.

by Noel Ransome
May 30 2019, 1:34pm

Images supplied by interview subjects. 

The current 2018-19 Raptors bandwagon is a heat seated, Wifi ready, full-on automatic joyride. And if you rest your butt in this hitched and ergonomically snug wagon long enough, you might take the tail end of a team with numerous playoff woes and several decades of disappointments for granted. Thanks to a recent defeat over the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference, the Raps are in new promised land known as the NBA Finals, and everyone’s looking to bum a seat, even if some have a better appreciation for how the Raps got here.

On Saturday May 25th for example, it would have been damn near impossible to miss the hundreds of phone-recorded videos of Torontonians chanting in the streets, from high-rise condos to the roofs of cars, all yelling at the sky. It was a united sound that declared a Canadian basketball team as the Eastern Conference champions, and it was a victory that a city shared despite its past.

Over the last 24 years since the Raps became an official organization in Toronto, it’s been plagued by a certain caricature; the little-brother face of an American-esque big-brother. Much like the juxtaposition of a growing city looking for acceptance from a larger market, the Raptors have been an NBA team with an earned inferiority complex—we’ve lost players, games, and fans as a result of a respect we’ve always felt we deserved.

As an occasional watcher, I’ve admittingly jumped in and out Raptor wins and defeats with a surface level understanding of this journey, from Tracy McGrady heartbreaks to the Kawhi Leonard remedy. But with the Raptors aiming to extend their history with a championship, VICE decided to speak to the most die hard fans in Toronto about their views of this team, and the impact they’ve had on this city.

Jordan Hayles

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VICE: As a longtime fan, what does it feel like to have witnessed all the lows of the Raptors only to see them reach this point?
Jordan Hayes: What’s incredible is the ongoing mentality of being from Toronto and having had to represent on a stage where our American neighbours were hyped and spoken about with a glitz and glamour that we’ve rarely had. It’s a city that fought its way to relevancy with outsiders looking in. Living here, you wondered when it was going to be our turn, and how we were going to put the pieces together in order to solidify ourselves as not just a team, but a city deserving of respect. That’s an inferiority complex that everyone from this city has talked about. We’ve had so much talent here and we’ve been shouting it out in damn near every industry.

Beyond just being a team from Toronto, when did your fandom for the Raptors really solidify?
A lot of that connection came as a Black kid who really didn’t play hockey. When you live in places Regent Park, St. James Town, that’s downtown. But when you live in the ends of the city, it’s anywhere in Scarborough or the West End, where it’s predominantly immigrants consisting mostly of Black and Brown families. In these areas, there was a large influx of basketball courts. Were there hockey arenas? Absolutely, but hockey is a very expensive sport. With basketball, we would set up shopping carts taken from the grocery store and play ball there. It’s a culture that many people in this city grew up on and it’s natural for many people to lock into the Raptors in that sense.

We couldn’t always call ourselves a patriotic city, so what’s your view on what the Raptors have done for the unity of this city?
When you grow up in a neighborhood consisting of 90 percent immigrants, that’s pretty much all you know growing up. Hockey isn’t something that becomes prominent or even something that you play in school either. So in terms of promoting Toronto itself, the We the North campaign played a huge part in that, because there wasn’t a mentality of identity before that.

For the Raptors, it took a lot of suffering and branding to get here. Now there’s an entire country that can get behind this team and merge as a singular collective. Just today, I was wearing a red Raptors jersey with white lettering and I walked into a Tim Horton’s coffee shop, and the cashier looked and said, ‘We the North’, and we started talking about the Raptors. If you know anything about the employed representation of a Tim Hortons spot, you’d know that it’s immigrants who may not speak english that well that dominate these locations. But yet, I was able to have a full conversation with these people about a basketball team.

In saying that, there’s the debate about Toronto sports teams, and who best embodies the city. How do you view the Raptors in that conversation?
This is where the team hit its mark because this is a millennial team. The Toronto Maple Leafs are basically boomers. The Blue Jays are Gen X, and the Raptors are millennials. That’s why you’ve seen the progression of diversity and inclusiveness in this fan base over a collection of time. Look at things from the viewpoint of age, class, income, race and gender, and the Raptors basically check these boxes, where you’ll see their signage from as far west as Kipling to as south as the lake. It’s a base point conversation for immigrants, because you don’t need to know english, but you can still pick up a ball and find opponents to play pickup ball with if you’ve got some shoes and can play.

Hockey by comparison isn’t necessarily this inclusive. It’s historically racist from the fan base to the organization itself. You can go to any neighborhood and find a basketball court, often in low income neighborhoods that serves as a common link. No disrespect to Leafs fans, but they’re really the old guard. They’re a 100 year-old team. We’re talking World War ages. Diversity wasn’t mandated into law until the 70s. The Raptors that started in the 90s a diversity reflected by its very team from the Congo, Asia, to Europe itself.

What’s your prediction?
I have the Raptors winning in 7 games.

Suna Bari

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VICE: So what moment in particular made the Raptors your official team?
Suna Bari: I’ve been watching this team for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is watching Damon Stoudamire, but my crazy, obsessed fandom as it stands today probably solidified when we acquired Vince [Carter]. That guy changed everything for me. I still don’t think I’ve ever truly experienced a more devastating heartbreak than the day he was traded [ laughs]. I mean, maybe the missed shot against the Sixers, but it’s definitely in the top two. Even now I catch myself watching his highlights on a regular basis and I’m still hoping he comes home next year.

What are your views about the ways in which everyone is rallying around this team right now? I mean, I remember when this was a smaller fanbase.
I’m not going to lie, when the Raptors started playing well and made their first playoff appearance after so many years, I couldn’t help but roll my eyes at all those who gave up on the team back in the day. Now, it’s one of my favourite things to see. Friends, family, coworkers and even random people I follow on Twitter have all expressed that they’ve happily joined the bandwagon and that’s totally fine. It’s great in fact.

Of all Canada’s teams, how do you view the Raptors in the great debate of who represents Toronto best?
Oh boy. This is definitely a controversial topic [ laughs]. Let me make it clear, I’m a die-hard Toronto sports fan. I’ve been watching the Leafs and Jays for as long as I’ve been a Raptors fan. So while I may get heat for this, I don’t think there’s a debate here. It’s been said over and over that Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world. It’s the best thing about us and the Raptors completely encompass that. The other teams...eh not so much. The Raptors carry an appeal that overlap cultures across the city, from the young to the old. Not to say that other teams don’t, but there is a huge difference.

So what do you think is the biggest lasting effect from the Raptors?
It ignited a pride we already have for this city. We’re proud to be from here. We’re proud to be fans of this team. And for a long time, we fell into that “what about us?” mentality, which switched to, “here we fucking are”.

What’s your finals prediction?
I hate this question [ laughs], but Raptors in 6.

William Lou

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William Lou (right) with a familiar fan seen further down.

VICE: Beyond reporting about the Raptors and living in Toronto, when did your love of the team really begin?
William Lou: I have this distinct memory of listening to sportscaster Paul Jones call TJ Ford’s game winner against the Clippers on Toronto’s Fan590 radio station. It was 1 am and I had my alarm clock radio under my pillow so I wouldn’t wake my baby brother. I jumped out of bed and pumped my fists, silently of course, before going to sleep with a smile. That’s when I knew this shit was going to be a lifetime passion.

I asked everyone this same question, but as far as Toronto sports, how does do the Raptors represent the city compared to others?
It’s reductive to paint the Raptors in one way or another because there’s plenty of people who are exceptions or follow both franchises. The reality is that the culture of basketball and hockey have different appeals to people of different upbringings. The Raptors fan base is more diverse than that of the Maple Leafs, but I wouldn’t say one or the other is more representative. If anything, both clubs in tandem is most representative, because Toronto is very much two cities in one.

How would you describe the cultural impact of the Raptors on this city’s worldwide view?
Honestly, I don’t think the Raptors as a brand has done much to elevate the city. It's not as if the TV crews and reporters are going to flock to Toronto to cover basketball, and suddenly learn and spread our culture beyond a surface level. I guess if the Raptors won it all, it would improve the rep of the city, but do you feel more positively about Cleveland because they won in 2016? Not really.

Prediction?
Raps in 7, but my heart says 5.

Sasha Kalra, former VICE socials guy

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A young Sasha working his beat.

VICE: What was it like to witness the Raptors reach the NBA finals?
Sasha Kalra: I honestly didn’t believe it. Even when they looked like they were going to win with seconds winding down, deep down, I wasn’t going to allow myself to fully believe it until the buzzer went. It was surreal. You spend your life as a sports fan imagining your team winning, especially when they’ve been really bad. But in this case, I had a few friends over and I had to walk away from the living room and take a moment in a corner, away from the action just to let it all out. And it really hit me when point guard Kyle Lowry was hugging the Raptors GM, Masai Ujiri. Those are two guys were here the longest since 2012. And just seeing them embrace each other after all the shared heartbreak was something special.

As a fan, some would say that it’s easy to develop trust issues with the Raptors, and not just over losses, but moves that felt like betrayals. While most would abandon a team with these problems, why did you keep at it?
[laughs] I guess I was a sucker for punishment early on. I don’t know how else to put it. I became a Raptors fan when they were good and persisted when they were bad. I actually started in university blogging for a Raptors website when they were at their peak shittiness. So the only way to explain it is that I associated my identity with the team and I couldn’t imagine my life without the sport and the Raptors. It’s why the last five to six years have been insane, which has coincided with my 20s. It’s been a ton of fun, and it’s what made last Saturday feel like a coronation...it’s like a cork on a champagne bottle went off and the entire city has collectively lost their shit.

I remember when Toronto was a barely known city outside of Canada, and over the years there’s triumphs Drake and other artists accomplished to remedy that. What did this sports do to improve Toronto’s notoriety in a similar way?
I think it all happened at the same time really. You’re right, Toronto didn’t have much rep 10 years ago. But with the rise of this team and the music scene as a whole, it all contributed in different ways. There was a moment when the top five artists on the Billboard charts were all from the Greater Toronto Area for example. And while I don’t credit everything to Drake, at the end of the day when you have the most popular artist on the planet name-dropping streets like Weston Road, you’ll have a kid in Malaysia who’s never been to this city, rapping alongside Drake to a song called Weston Road Flows, and that’s insane. There’s no way to quantify or ignore that. And he’s the Raptors ambassador now. It’s just weird adjusting to Toronto being cool, when for the longest time we weren’t. Just two years ago I was in Iceland and I mentioned that I was from Toronto and people started losing their shit. It’s all so weird and it takes some getting used to.

As a Canadian city, do you feel like we still have an inferiority complex when it comes to recognition by our American neighbors?
It has shifted and the Raptors played a huge part in that to be honest. Historically, we’ve craved attention from the people south of us, sure. But with the way this team is doing now, and what they’ve done to shed the years of psychological trauma they’ve put on us by punching through the glass ceiling is something else. At the same time, I think a lot more people out there are becoming aware of just how fucked up America. Years ago, if you didn’t consume much new media, you might of had a certain idealism about the States, because maybe you went on a trip to New York at one time with your parents and saw Times Square. Now we’re more aware informationally in both the good and the bad...especially with that guy in the White House. In general, everyone would be up and arms about our city being insulted in the past, but you couldn’t say that it’s the same today. Toronto’s a great city and we no longer need to beat our chests and yell at others online about why. They know it is and if they don’t, it’s their loss.

Who do you got?
Raptors in 6.

Shankar Sivananthan

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VICE: When did your relationship with this team really start?
Shankar Sivananthan: The Raptors played their first game when I was in middle school and the glory days of the Leafs and Jays were starting to fade. I think it was around their second season, after Damon Stoudamire won rookie of the year, that I really became a fan of the team. Like most, I struggled with identity and fitting in during middle school and the Raptors were in the same spot. That battle to defeat the odds was the same battle I faced. The same many immigrant kids faced.

As someone that kept watching from the beginning, how did the Raptors influence Toronto?
I think the "We the north" campaign was brilliant in that it defined the culture of the Raptors and mirrored the culture of Toronto. In 2014, Drake was cementing himself as the biggest rapper in the game and The Weeknd was becoming a global superstar. Kardinal and Choclair represented this city so well through the 90s and early 2000s but could never really break through in the mainstream. "We the North" reinforced that Toronto was different and nothing else matters. We could be ourselves and still be successful, like Drake and Abel.

Who do you got?
My heart says Raps in 6. My brain doesn't want to admit what it thinks.

Nav Bhatia, aka Superfan

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VICE: You’ve probably been watching the Raptors longer than any fan to the point of seeing every low point.
Nav Bhatia: I’ve seen a lot of those low times and I’ve seen players come and go. I remember when the American media spoke negatives about the Raptors. And even among our own fan base, when people kicked this team while it was down. I’d go to Tim Hortons, get a coffee which I do on a daily basis, and I would hear people stating how the team sucks. When we were winning, the Raptors suddenly became everyone’s king. I’ve heard it all during my 24 year journey with the Raptors.

I gotta ask, why are you so loyal to this team?
I’m a loyal guy. Whether it’s with my family or whoever, I never kick them...I’d rather lead them. You’re supposed to be there during the hard times when others need you the most and that’s what I do. When the Raptors were down, I worked with them the most during those times and supported them the most. At this point, I’m happy for all of the fans not just myself. It’s been my job to promote the Raptors and I say, let’s all just enjoy this moment.

What was the most rewarding moment for you as official biggest fan of the Raptors?
There was a very special moment with Vince Carter. A child from the SickKids Hospital in Toronto asked me on his deathbed to meet Vince Carter who he was inspired by. I was able to arrange a meeting at the arena during a very difficult situation. It was an amazing moment with Vince taking off his socks, shoes to give to this child before hugging him. It was one of the most amazing and touching moments in my life. To see this child smile for the first time in a very long time.

What’s the best thing about having this platform you’ve gained as a result of being one of the more famous faces of the Raptors?
Just god bless the almighty god that he’s given me these opportunities when I go to a game in Toronto. People will come and hug me and want to speak with me. They’ll ask for a picture and look to have a bite with me. That’s all the real reward. Bringing these people together and getting love from different shades of people from different places. It has also given me far more ways to help others. I’m a Sikh and I wear a turban, and yet, I’m the only non-Christian guy serving as an ambassador for WorldVision by helping with the assistance of girls in the poorest of poor areas in the world. I only ask that everyone to pray for me so I can stay healthy and live to do more for others.

You’re a fan of this team, but what would you like your fans that you’ve earned to know?
I want to say thank you for giving me more love than I deserve. I have to thank them with my folded hands, and keep praying for me and continue to support the Raptors, especially in this series. We need every fan to cheer for them. Let’s help them bring a championship home.

How do you see the Raptors doing in the finals?
With god’s grace, it will be Raptors in 7.

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