There’s a Montana’s located about five minutes from my place in Edmonton. It’s a homely Sunday afternoon joint, the kind of place that usually broadcasts four different hockey games at once. Mid-March deviation from the NHL is never anything more than an empty nod to the the NCAA, so finding a booth to the tune of Raptors vs. Nets in the background was a signal I took with cautious optimism: The tide of Canada’s sports culture may be turning.
The Toronto Raptors have attempted to sweep the nation before, to varied success. Alternate road jerseys tacked with maple leafs and the moniker “Canada’s team” can take an organization only so far; certainly not the 3,000-kilometer gap between Toronto and Vancouver. It’s especially tough in Canada, where the zenith of sporting and patriotic fervor elicits images of Terry Fox, Wayne Gretzky and Sidney Crosby’s famed Olympic goal.
Without a strong philosophy or a winning team, the Raptors have constantly lacked a force for fans to hitch their wagon to. The Vince Carter era is underscored more by his leaving Canada than it is his tenure in it. Chris Bosh didn’t think he could get NBA League Pass north of the border (he could). In their 19 years, the Raptors never eclipsed 47 wins. Since marketing themselves as Canada’s team in the 2008 offseason, they haven’t even made a playoff appearance.
Canadian NBA devotees outside of Toronto share a certain degree of passion for the Raptors but align themselves with a separate cause: LeBron vs. Durant, Boston vs. Los Angeles, Steve Nash vs. universe.
The Raptors don’t have the benefit of history. It’s easier for Lakers fans to swallow Kobe Bryant’s freshly penned albatross when viewed through a veneer of certainty, but Raptors fans have never been able to reference the team’s greatest hits album and think, “Yeah, we’ll trust you guys.” The smart money tells them to invest their emotions in a less precarious place.
The Raptors’ identity has always been “the Canadian team,” but like most forms of Canadian identity, no one really knows what that entails. But there are benefits to not having any preordained expectations to live up to.
Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, one of the smartest basketball minds on the planet, has creative authority in an organization that is a blank whiteboard. On Dec. 6, with the Raptors looking at a 6-12 record after five straight losses, Ujiri traded Rudy Gay, the high-priced star wing brought in before last season’s trade deadline by the previous regime. The seven-player deal netted the Raptors Patrick Patterson, Greivis Vasquez, Chuck Hayes, John Salmons and a chunk of savings.
Since the trade, the Raptors have evolved. They’re more than just that team north of the border. Rather, one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference, outscoring opponents by 4.8 points per 100 possessions, sixth in the league since Dec. 8. DeMar Derozan is a candidate for most improved player, Kyle Lowry is having a career season. While Tyler Hansbrough’s tenacity appeals to the conservative hard-hat West, Toronto waxes poetic on DeRozan’s silky smooth post repertoire. Now, if only they retained Mickaël Piétrus.
The Raptors’ offense is simple, yet not unlike the San Antonio Spurs', the wrinkles make it effective. It’s hard for opponents to stymie pick-and-rolls when Amir Johnson is so adept at slipping screens; or maybe it’s Patrick Patterson and Tyler Hansbrough discretely floating into open space. Vasquez delivers pick-and-roll passes like it’s pizza for Hedo Turkoglu. DeRozan has transitioned from an abysmal passer to one who’s slightly above average, taking whatever the defense throws at him in stride -- be it in the form of a 30-point barrage or a cerebral read-and-react outing. While other squads would develop complicated tactical maneuvers for the various types of coverage DeRozan is prone to seeing now, the Raptors rest their laurels on just knowing where to be. It has paid off. The Raptors’ offensive rating has gradually increased with their chemistry, peaking at 112 in April.
Toronto is bringing back the dearly missed purple dinosaur jersey as an alternate next season, marking the first time since 2006 that a Raptors uni won’t be accentuated by Canada’s red and white. The Raptors’ latest rebranding effort, featuring an advertising campaign and a #WeTheNorth hashtag, skews dramatic with its fire pits and snow-filled arenas -- the climate is hyperborean, though DrakeWeather.com can tell you it’s not that cold in April -- but it works because of the substance behind it. Finishing the regular season with a franchise record 48 wins and the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Toronto is brimming with excitement to face the Brooklyn Nets in Round 1.
If a deep playoff run is really as imminent as some fans hope, the Raptors might just permanently latch onto a semblance of identity, something to get fans across the border to tune in on Game 1 of 82, not in a mid-February win streak. After all, if memories breed fandom, Raptors fans have few that aren’t accompanied by a I-missed-the-good-cable-in-America-esque sting.
Canadian sports culture will always be defined by the nation’s dispersed Hockeytowns but it’s still a heady time for hoops fans north of the border. Just ask the slew of portable basketball nets swarming driveways in suburbs all over Canada, some of them flanked by the occasional patch of ice: Nike has yet to produce the preeminent “Be Like DeMar” commercial but Canada’s basketball culture is growing with this team; by no explicit maneuver, Canada’s team.
Seerat Sohi writes for the TrueHoop Network. Follow her, @DamianTrillard.