A bandwagon fan's guide to the Toronto Raptors
Everything a new basketball fan needs before the NBA Finals begin
Being a bandwagon sports fan often gets a bad rap, as if watching sports requires years of misery as an entry fee. But what, exactly, is wrong with getting spontaneously excited about something new and expanding your horizons a little?
That's the situation many Canadians find themselves in when it comes to the Toronto Raptors.
The country's lone NBA team is playing for a championship for the first time and it's got people tuning in. Since many of them are only recent basketball converts, there's a fair amount of catching up to do.
Fret not: this handy guide will transform any bandwagoner into a bona fide superfan like Nav Bhatia just in time for Game 1 in Toronto on Thursday. Barring that, it'll at least make any novice sound knowledgeable ahead of the team's showdown with the Golden State Warriors.
Four bounces that changed everything
Perhaps this was the moment when you first started paying attention to the Raptors.
After dispatching the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs, Toronto endured a gruelling, back-and-forth series with the Philadelphia 76ers. The mood of fans throughout Game 7 ranged from quiet confidence to familiar fears that a once-promising playoff run would come crashing to a halt once again.
Then Kawhi Leonard hit a shot that sent diehards into a delirium and caught the attention of casual observers nationally.
The momentum from that buzzer-beating, physics-defying shot inspired murals in Toronto and raised fans' hopes, but then the team quickly fell into a 0-2 hole against the Milwaukee Bucks. The slide ended there, however, as Toronto got solid performances from all-star guard Kyle Lowry and bench players like Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell to rattle off four straight wins en route to a berth in the NBA Finals.
But how did we* get here?
*Remember: as a fan, you should refer to anything the team does as something "we" have done, even if your last dunk was on a Fisher-Price net. For added effect, use the first-person plural "We, the North."
The first 23 years of the Raptors' existence was at times more laughable than laudable. Just ask any hardcore fan about Primož Brezec or Primo Pasta.
Star players like Vince Carter and Chris Bosh came and went, and for a while the biggest cheers came when Toronto scored 101 points to earn fans free pizza — win or lose. Even the team's playoff runs over the last five seasons ended in disappointment, including three times at the hands of NBA icon LeBron James.
That's why the Raptors made a pair of startling but shrewd moves this past off-season — firing head coach Dwane Casey in favour of assistant Nick Nurse and trading star guard DeMar DeRozan — in hopes of finally breaking through that plateau.
Dealing away a beloved player in DeRozan was a bittersweet moment for many devoted fans, especially given the bond he and Lowry formed over their years together. What the Raptors got in return (in addition to three-point specialist Danny Green) was Leonard, one of the NBA's premier two-way players — albeit one with some baggage.
Leonard, who was named NBA Finals MVP in 2014, missed the majority of last season due to injury and there was tension with his former team heading into the final year of his contract. With the trade made, the Raptors would get at least one year of his services filled with overtures for him to extend his stay in Toronto.
With a new coach and superstar in tow and a playoff-calibre foundation headlined by Lowry and promising forward Pascal Siakam, Toronto had a stellar regular season. Leonard's workload was managed by the coaching staff to ensure a healthy transition back into the game which, while frustrating at times, is so far paying dividends.
Raptors fan favourite Jerome Williams answered audience questions about the NBA Finals:
Who's on the other side?
The Raptors have home-court advantage over the Golden State Warriors due to a better regular-season record, but these Warriors have indeed come out to play.
Golden State is eyeing its third consecutive title — and fourth in the last five years — and boasts an arsenal of all-stars. Guards Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are lethal from three-point range and forward Draymond Green couples offensive efficiency with defensive nastiness.
The Warriors also have versatile veteran and former NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and an underrated but capable bench, but it's the two elite players who are currently injured who could impact the series one way or another.
Reigning back-to-back NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant was officially ruled out for Thursday's Game 1 with a calf injury, while tenacious centre DeMarcus Cousins continues to rehab his quad. The Warriors haven't appeared to lose a step without the duo, so don't expect any respite despite the high-profile injuries.
Secrets to sounding smart
Feeling confident? Well-informed? Slightly terrified by the other team's high-wattage star power? Now you're just like any other Raptors fan.
Before you go show off to your friends, here are a few fun facts to round out your education:
- Steph Curry has a strong connection to Toronto. His father Dell closed out his career with the Raptors, giving the younger Curry a chance to shine as an eighth-grader. Oh, and Curry's wife Ayesha was born and raised in Toronto (though the two met in Charlotte).
- Fans in Toronto who can't get a ticket but still want a communal experience can take in the action at Jurassic Park. The Raptors broadcast the game outside Scotiabank Arena for the crowds in the paleontologically inaccurate park — raptors lived in the Cretaceous period — and other cities are looking to get in on the action.
- It wouldn't be an article about the Raptors without mentioning Drake, the team's global ambassador and sideline superfan whose antics are either endearing or egregious depending on who you ask.