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Out in the Cold

Things are going better than ever for the Raptors, but it’s hard to quell the anxieties wrought by the past, the franchise’s place in Canada’s sports hierarchy, and its perception in the States. Our intrepid reporter braved the subzero conditions to take the temperature of a city and a team on the precipice of greatness.

Alycea Tinoyan

“EAT A BAG OF DIIIIICKS!”

That’s Vicki, a longtime Toronto Raptors fan and a proud owner of a “crusty” Andrea Bargnani rookie jersey. (“He is my Eastern European God,” she tells me, with an evidently tenuous grasp of both geography and religion.) She is also the colorful bar owner of Ronnie’s Local 069, a summertime staple in Toronto’s historic Kensington Market. We’re strangers for most of the game, until we aren’t. We’re sitting along the edge of the counter at Hurricanes, a sports bar that opened in the Bloorcourt Village neighborhood more than 30 years ago, for an (inter)nationally televised game between the Raptors and Boston Celtics in mid-January. With just under two minutes remaining in the first quarter, Raptors guard Norman Powell pokes the ball away from Gordon Hayward and crams a dunk down Boston’s gullet. That’s when Vicki’s primal, phallic scream comes out. On my first night back in Toronto in three years, I’d found a true-to-life scene I’d sketched out in my mind a hundred times: a crowd of drunk, boisterous, and anxious Raptors fans who, by the end of the night, will walk out of the bar and into the cold with a loss, grimacing at the knowledge that, in spite of all their success this season, the same old Raptors narrative of disgrace under pressure will resurface back in the States on ESPN, like clockwork.

They’re used to it. Nothing gold can stay with the Raptors, or at least that’s how it feels around their fan base. It’s been a decade and a half since franchise icon Vince Carter ostensibly forced his way out of town. Fans have seemingly worn their long-gestating abandonment issues for insulation ever since; Vicki still has recurring dreams of putting Vince through the kind of torture he put all of Toronto through upon his departure. Whether it’s the whims of a disgruntled star, or the will of a Hall of Fame opponent, when the Raptors lose, they are often decimated by factors and forces out of their control. As one bar patron tells me, stay a fan in Toronto for long enough, and you’ll see all the different ways the other shoe can drop.

I’m an outsider. Not just to the ways of Toronto, but to the ways of tribal sports fandom in general. Some fans are born into their condition; others make the choice for themselves. But in either case, fandom is, in a vague sense, empowering, right? Everyone starts off with the power to take a league like the NBA—which consists of 30 teams and at least 420 active players—and reorient its entire order of operations through perspective alone. Every fan sets their own protagonist, but not the time that ultimate victory takes place. I suppose that’s where power melts into powerlessness. And that powerlessness manifests as not so much a social contract but an emotional one. The reward of being a fan is experiencing true joy, but the price of true joy is a lifetime of psychic torture in the interim. That’s about as fair as humanity gets, I suppose.

Still, a clinical dissection of fandom writ large doesn’t quite get to the uniquely tortured heart of Raptors fan insecurity. Despite at one point having Carter, perhaps the most popular player in the NBA in the early aughts, and despite the recent iterations of the team being among the league’s very best regular-season performers, the Raptors have played in only one marquee Christmas Day game, all the way back in 2001. A common refrain from the fans I speak with: It’s not paranoia if it’s true. Before last season’s NBA playoffs, Toronto-based writer Alex Wong wrote about the fan base’s anxieties for The New Yorker. The Raptors had run away with the best record in the East that year; ESPN’s Zach Lowe suggested in the story that fans “be confident in your team. … Try that on, see how it feels, workshop it for a day.” They did; they got swept by LeBron James and the Cavaliers in the second round for the second season in a row. That crushing feeling of familiarity was commodified almost instantaneously for the truly self-loathing Torontonian.

Serving as the canvas to all the workaday anxieties of team performance is the fact that the team’s civic identity is seemingly caught between two sides of a death trap. On one end is the 102-year-old monolithic big brother/civic religion known as the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Leafs are second all time in Stanley Cup wins, but haven’t won one in more than 50 years. Hockey is oxygen in Canada; you’ll breathe in fumigated air if you have to. If the Leafs and Raptors share a night, good luck finding a bar that will even bother to have the Raptors on a screen. On the other end is the unsolicited weight of representing not just a city, but the entire nation of Canada. The Raptors will celebrate their 25th anniversary next season, but solidifying their place in Toronto’s firmament is still a work in progress, and their success over the past six seasons has seemingly only exacerbated the conveniently nationalistic Us vs. Them narrative device that unfairly turns the Raptors into a much larger vector than they ought to be. They are both the baby brother of the Toronto sports landscape and potentially the modern face of Canadian sports. Henry VI was crowned the King of England and France in 1422 when he was just an infant; he had a mental breakdown by his early 30s. That is to say, Raptors fans are the way they are for a reason. They’re always feeling the squeeze, even—no, especially—at 37-15 this season, their best start in franchise history.

I had to see it for myself. That, and I wanted to experience subzero temperatures for the first time.

NBA: Denver Nuggets at Toronto Raptors
Danny Green
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

“You picked the greatest weekend to come,” Danny Green told me with a forkful of scrambled eggs in hand. “Welcome!”

I’d just sat down at the cafeteria table on the second floor of the Raptors’ practice facility in Toronto, overlooking Lake Ontario, and finished my breathless preamble about being a native Angeleno who’d never seen snow fall in my life before this trip. As far as weather-related salutations went during my stay, that might’ve been the nicest. (Others: “I’m so sorry for the weather,” or, “I hope you didn’t freeze your nuts off.”) There are longer-tenured Raptors, to be sure; Green has been with the team for only 52 games and counting. But there might not be a player on the roster better suited to be giving me the polite Canadian welcome than Green.

Before Green ever stepped onto the court at the Air Canada Centre (now Scotiabank Arena) as a professional, he took a solitary drive two and a half hours north from Pearson International to Huntsville, Ontario. After finishing school at North Carolina, Green was recruited to head up north and participate in the Olympia Sports Camp by Gene Banks, a former Duke standout who had been a regular at the camp for more than a decade. Over the past 10 summers, Green has been a frequent speaker at the camp, where he got his first glimpse of Canadian life. “Back then, there was no cell service or anything,” Green said, referring to his early days at the camp. “So it was kind of a getaway from the world.” He made the trip alone his first year; the next, he brought his brother; after that, his brother and a friend. The stays grew longer and longer. Eventually, they weren’t just heading straight to Huntsville and back. They made sure they’d carved out enough time—the weekend at least—to enjoy Toronto itself. Unlike most Raptors in franchise history, Green had learned to embrace the city long before he had any professionally binding reason to. The night before our chat, Green attended his first Leafs game, getting a feel for the rules of NHL play and the speed of the action with the guidance of Larry Tanenbaum, the chairman of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns four of the five major professional sports teams (excluding the Blue Jays) in Toronto.

Green, a member of the San Antonio Spurs for eight seasons before an offseason trade to Toronto, has felt at home on the Raptors for a number of reasons; it certainly doesn’t hurt that he moved from the second-most-populous city in Texas (with a persecuted fan base) to the fourth-most-populous city in North America (with a persecuted fan base). “I think they’re very similar,” Green says. “It’s just like a Northeast version of [the Spurs community] here.”

There are, however, differences. For one, San Antonio’s complexes are built around the injustice of having one of the most successful 20-year runs in professional sports history largely uncelebrated by the national audience. Given that Toronto doesn’t have the same pedigree in the NBA, its complexes are more nebulous. “You can tell that they come from a city that hasn’t been on top for long or haven’t been given much,” Green says. “You can tell they’re enjoying it, and excited about it. Our team is good. In San Antonio, they expect the team to be good.

“Here, the fans are very appreciative of people coming to the city and playing for the team. Not saying they weren’t appreciative [in San Antonio], but you can tell here. You’ll hear, ‘Thanks for being a part of this. Thanks for everything you do for the team and just coming here.’ You know, it really wasn’t my decision, but I’m glad to be here. Trust me.”

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors
Nick Nurse and Greg Monroe
John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

On a Monday after practice, Nick Nurse storms into the media room and readies a … stand-up set? Judging from the uninterested expressions from local beat writers, this seems to be a regular occurrence with the first-year Raptors head coach. It’s been only hours since Tom Brady and the Patriots advanced to the Super Bowl on a game-winning overtime drive that lasted just under five minutes, and Nurse has some thoughts. Sure, he admires the Patriots and has read every book ever written about them, but the greatness of the final drive wasn’t what caught Nurse’s attention. It was whatever the hell kind of apparatus Brady was propped up on over on the sideline.

“Tom Brady was sitting on—when he was sitting on the sidelines—sitting on some type of throne,” Nurse says. “Seriously. If you can find some video, this thing he was sitting on, I’m not shitting you, was like, this freakin’ wide.”

Jennifer Quinn, the Raptors’ communications director, tries to cut the set short. “This is not your crowd,” she tells him.

But he persists: “Listen, why would they have to make this thing look like a jacket? The whole thing was a jacket. The jacket had to have been, like, Size 88! Why did it have to look like a jacket? There was something fishy going on.” Nurse tosses out a few theories before being escorted out of the room by Quinn. On his way out, he implores the fine journalists to look into it when we have some free time—that last bit gets the biggest reaction of his five minutes on stage.

The Raptors’ rookie coach also did not need a sales pitch on Toronto. Even before he joined former head coach Dwane Casey’s staff six years ago, Nurse had hoped he’d land in the city. He was good friends with Jim Kelly, the Raptors’ longtime director of international scouting and now a scout for the Mavericks, who used to run free agent camps in the city in the late spring. Nurse, then a head coach in the British Basketball League, would volunteer his time at the camps and help out however he could. He’d made it out to Toronto more than a handful of times before getting a call in the summer of 2013 to coach the Raptors’ summer league team—one week before the team boarded the plane to Las Vegas. “I was always hoping,” Nurse tells me. “[I told myself] if I ever had a chance to coach here, I’d jump on it. I mean, I’d been coaching overseas and loved the international feel of the city, the diversity, and I couldn’t wait to get here. I was over the moon that I was coming to Toronto to coach.”

Back then, the city wasn’t quite reciprocating the same energy. “When I first came here as an assistant six years ago, when I’d be talking to somebody and they found out I was working for the Raptors [it] was a chuckle and a smirk,” Nurse says. “Not a very respectful response. Obviously that has changed dramatically.”

Nurse has been relishing Year 1 of his NBA head-coaching career, endearing himself to media with dad-rock music references and his Iowan brand of Midwestern nice. During postgame interviews, he makes sure to address each query by acknowledging the beat writer posing the question by their first name—a rarity, even among the most media-friendly coaches in the league. In Nurse’s laboratorial offensive framework, players aren’t just empowered to be themselves, they’re empowered to ask what else they can become. More than halfway through the season, Nurse is still mixing and matching, combining the contents of his many beakers and flasks and seeing what blows up in his face and what doesn’t. There are nights when it is maddening—Nurse recently closed a third quarter against the Mavericks with Greg Monroe and four guards no taller than 6-foot-5—but more often than not, his endless array of lineups produce small kernels of important data for later use: how to maximize Kyle Lowry off the ball, where best to station Kawhi Leonard in isolation, how to give Pascal Siakam enough space for his disarming forays to the rim.

Siakam’s transformation from role player to fringe All-Star seemingly overnight has been one of the best stories in the league, and certainly the most promising development in a Raptors season otherwise tethered to Leonard’s every move. More than any system, Green suggests it’s the players who have put the onus on the coaches. Siakam has been a shining example in that regard. “If you show you can do it, and you’re comfortable at it, why not?” Green explains. “If you work on your game and do it the right way, and you show you’re capable of playing pick-and-roll, or playing in the post, why wouldn’t they put you there or allow you to play that part of the game?”

It’s been smooth sailing for Nurse thus far, and he’s spreading cheer for as long as he can. There is an elephant figurine on his office desk, a reminder to both himself and the players that constant communication is required to remedy any issues the team might have. But it’ll be a few more months before Nurse will have to address the elephant hanging over the coaching staff. It won’t always be this easy.

A cabinet of historical basketball ephemera at the Toronto Reference Library
Laura Legge

These should be considered boom times. All six of the highest single-season win percentages in Raptors history have come in the past six seasons. In that span, only the Warriors and Spurs have recorded more wins. Of course, both those teams have won at least one ring; the highest achievement the Raptors have garnered in this era, or at any point in team history, is losing to LeBron and the eventual NBA champion Cavaliers in the 2016 Eastern Conference finals.

Dig through the archives and there will be plenty of videos and headlines about Raptors fever spreading across the nation; in recent years, public support swelled behind well-planned marketing campaigns and, of course, the leviathanic influence of Drake, the team’s official global ambassador and an executive committee member. The semantics of “fever” in the vernacular of fandom has always puzzled me. A fever is, by its nature, an internal, and intensely personal, mechanism of self-defense. The concept of an acute affliction spreading among a large population—well, that’s more like a viral outbreak. But a fever is something that, given time, fades away; in the land of the Maple Leafs stronghold, Raptors fever might as well just be considered a passing phase. For some, however, it never subsided. For some, it grew incandescent, charring the typical notions of fanaticism and turning it into something else entirely.

In the darkest depths of Raptors fandom is where you’ll find Julie Khaner, one of the most unlikely—and most unconventional—superfans you’ll ever meet. Khaner, 61, is an actress perhaps best known in the States for her role as Bridey James, the proto-Siri/Alexa personal assistant that is the first voice and face seen in David Cronenberg’s prescient 1983 cult techno-horror movie, Videodrome. For years, I’ve enjoyed Khaner’s Raptors tweets, which can often read like unhinged vitriol screamed into the void. There is a level of contradiction and disconnect between intent and delivery—imagine the superego’s intrinsic need for perfection, broadcast in the voice of the id—but above all else, her tweets are rooted in a very specific perspective: From a fan who has watched a lot of basketball and understands just how far away the Raptors always have been from truly contending for championships.

It admittedly scans as trollish grammar, but the tweets themselves are rarely ever directed at anything in particular. She doesn’t get into debates with other fans, nor does she reply to official team accounts. Her tweets, often collated with #LimpDickNation, a play on Red Sox Nation (“I’ve always said Toronto fans were like Massholes but with none of the winning,” Khaner says), or #DunceBubble hashtags, are largely sent out into the vastness of Twitter, only to be caught by stray observers like myself.

“What I rant about more is the atmosphere here; the kind of head-up-the-ass provincial boosterism that comes from [being in] a bubble here,” she tells me. “Two wealthy corporations, media corporations own everything. They own all the teams, they own all the venues, they own all the sports networks. … So when there’s even a glimmer like this when they’re good as opposed to great, this could go on forever because it’s profitable, because there’s no owner at the top who really, desperately wants to win. There’s owners at the top who desperately want to see that profit.”

Khaner can sound as though she’s living a John Carpenter plotline. In a freezing city drunk on hope (among other intoxicants), she sees the mechanisms in place that keep the Raptors from elite status, and she can’t unsee them. Her rage is amplified in the ugly wins the Raptors have often had to wrest from far less talented opponents—one of the true hallmarks of this Raptors era—after which both the local broadcast and print media tend to gloss over the negatives in favor of extolling the win itself. “Sometimes a win is not a win,” she says. “Sometimes a win is the blueprint that’s showing you how they’re going to lose when it matters. … And then, inevitably, it just comes out: ‘Am I insane or something? How does nobody else see this?’ And I wish, in a way, I could see—so I could get out of my ass and out of my head and watch them the way you or any normal, rational person that has nothing invested in them [does]—how you see them so that you actually think, ‘Oh, no, I think they could do it …’ because I’m beyond that now.”

Caught up in her own frenzy, her voice softens. “It’s only out of love and a desire for them to win that I always only see what is not gonna work,” she says. “All I want is to be able to eat my words. I so desperately want to be wrong. I so desperately want them to win.”

Things didn’t always feel so dire. She was once the “wide-eyed and bushy-tailed” fan she both loathes and envies today. Her Raptors obsession started at the same time it did for most Torontonians living through the turn of the century. “It was Vince,” she says, with a reminiscing lilt. “It’s probably a cliché right? But it was Vince.” Talking to fans around the city, there is a generation of early zealots who may never forgive Carter for engineering his exit the way he did. In 2004, after missing the playoffs for the second straight season, Carter began questioning the front office’s commitment to building a contender; the Raptors had hired Rob Babcock, whose vision for the franchise didn’t align with their franchise player’s. Trade demands were made. Carter played listless, passionless basketball for 20 games before being traded to the Nets. Fans burned his jersey. Khaner, on the other hand, has forgiven him. She doesn’t hate him for wanting to choose his own destiny, nor does she see his departure as a net negative; the procession of NBA-caliber athletes coming from the area is evidence of his lasting impact on the city.

“I still can get teary-eyed watching highlights of [Carter’s] games. I remember vividly those games and that initial excitement. He literally introduced me to the NBA—I mean, I’m sure I’d seen NBA games before but it never mattered to me at all. And he brought that to me. So maybe, actually, I should hate him,” Khaner says, laughing. “Look what he’s done to me.”

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Toronto Raptors
Kawhi Leonard
Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi isn’t Vince. He’ll never be the most popular basketball player on the planet. He will never be the kind of superhero avatar that Carter was. He is perhaps the best and worst possible star for a desperate and paranoid fan base. His face betrays no inclination. His movements show little exuberance. There are no tells. There is no reading the tea leaves. There are only results. There is only waiting. The franchise is already his; it’s just that no one knows whether he wants it.

On May 15, 1994, Toronto’s NBA expansion team unveiled its name: the Raptors, edging out nine other competing monikers. It is popularly assumed that the name “Raptors” was because of the popularity of Steven Spielberg’s 1993 blockbuster Jurassic Park. The franchise’s mascot and logo were likely based on the dinosaurs incorrectly labeled velociraptors in the movie. In actuality, the velociraptors in Jurassic Park were modeled after a related species, deinonychus.

Deinonychus is derived from Greek. It means “terrible claw.”

I’m learning early on that the easiest way to ingratiate oneself with the locals at a Canadian bar is by asking about their favorite Heritage Minute. Eyes widen, heads tilt back, and frayed smiles begin to creep up—classic, almost involuntary responses to an overwhelming sense of nostalgia.

For the uninitiated, Heritage Minutes are 60-second vignettes that capture important moments and milestones in Canadian history, using the seductive power of drama to instill a unified sense of the country’s mythology. Created in 1991 (and relaunched in 2012) by Historica Canada, an organization that aims to raise awareness of Canadian history, Heritage Minutes quickly became an inescapable cultural marker, airing as TV commercials and movie previews. I end my first drunken night in Toronto watching a playlist full of them on YouTube; I’m simultaneously disgusted and delighted by some (I smell burnt toast, Dr. Penfield!) and genuinely enthralled by others (did the Halifax Explosion video win any awards? How do I retroactively give it an award?). The impetus for creating the series was simple, albeit intrinsically linked to a modern tension within the country. In Minute by Minute: The Making of Canadian Mythology, a documentary about the origins of the series, former Historica executive director Tom Axworthy said, “We have trouble telling our own story in our own land and having access to our own imagination just because of the weight of the neighbour beside us.”

It’s nearly impossible to imagine the Masai Ujiri era of the Raptors without that same framing device. “Fuck Brooklyn,” We the North, Northern Uprising—these are rallying cries that double as declarations of independence, slogans and mantras that aim to obliterate those central anxieties with that same seductive power of drama. In September, Ujiri sat alongside new acquisitions Leonard and Green at their introductory press conference. More than 15 minutes into the presser, the two new guys are asked how they feel about changing the perception of the city just by being there, knowing that all eyes will be on them. Green does his level best to answer diplomatically. “Hopefully the city will embrace us,” he says. “Hopefully they’ll love us regardless of which way it goes.” Masai jumps in not long after: “Guys, the narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone. I think that’s old, and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourselves. First of all, here in Toronto, we have to believe in ourselves, right?” He’s met with raucous applause.

But uniting a country through its own history and uniting a country around one team are two drastically different goals. “You’ve got that added layer of it’s more than just a team,” Khaner says. “It becomes a symbol of a much bigger thing that’s gone on ad infinitum here, you know? It’s not that it represents a country, because it doesn’t. It represents a cultural identity, which, even that, it’s not an identity so much, unless the identity is struggling against a behemoth bully right next door.”

Ujiri has been tough to track down these days. He doesn’t have much left to say. For the past six months, he’s largely fine-tuned the same mission statement: He has a mandate to win. For the past six years, he’s been building momentum for this season’s all-in push. Given the stakes, it’s fair to wonder just how big an offer Ujiri might make for the opportunity to pair Kawhi and Anthony Davis together. This could be the best team in franchise history; Leonard just might already be the best player in franchise history. It’s all immaterial. The records don’t matter, the standings don’t matter, the numbers don’t matter. The only way to secure their future is to win—and not only win, but win big. The only way to win is to make the most of their present. And the only thing in the way is their past.

An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the Raptors hadn’t played in a Christmas Day game.

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