Day 6

Before they were the Raptors, Toronto's NBA team was nearly the Beavers, Hogs or Dragons

In 1994, the Toronto Raptors were an expansion team in a foreign land saddled with a Spielberg-inspired name and a cartoon dinosaur on the players chests. Today, the Raptors are Canada's team, the purple jerseys are throwback hip and the name is just a name.

Once the butt of Barney jokes, at least they didn't get named the Terriers

The Raptor, the well-known mascot of the Toronto Raptors basketball club, is introduced at a news conference in June of 1995. (CBC Evening News/CBC Archives)
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When Toronto Raptors founder John Bitove Jr., unveiled the team's name, logo and mascot at a 1994 media conference, he described the franchise as having "the newest, freshest and hungriest look in the NBA."

But Toronto urban planner and Raptors fan Gil Meslin remembers that public reaction to the name was more mixed than Bitove Jr. may have initially hoped.

"I think if you were younger, dinosaurs were really hot at the time ... and if you were older and more steeped in Toronto sports history, perhaps you'd been rooting for the Huskies," said Meslin referring to the short-lived Toronto basketball team that played in the Basketball Association of America from 1946 to 1947.

Setting aside the imagery invoked by a ferocious Cretaceous Period predator tearing apart its prey, however, the Toronto Raptors name bears little relevance to the city of Toronto. It also has no connection to Canada or even to the sport of basketball.

And whereas some other teams in the NBA, like the Los Angeles Lakers, carry names with few or no ties to their home cities, a brief glance at basketball history often reveals flimsy connections.

Before the Lakers were Los Angeles's team, for example, the team's home was the city of Minneapolis and the U.S. state of Minnesota — the Land of 10,000 Lakes.

Dragons and Bobcats and Raptors, oh my

Meslin explained that finding a name for the Toronto Raptors wasn't as simple as looking at a list of popular nicknames for Toronto and coming up with a clever title.

Instead, the as-of-yet unnamed team worked with approximately 125 media partners, he recalled, to launch a competition to find a suitable moniker for the organization.

Each partner submitted a list of 10 potential names, which judges used to compile a final list of 10 names open to public voting.

That final list contained selections ranging from Beavers to Raptors to Scorpions to Terriers, though the list notably contained T-Rex as another indication that 1994 Toronto had dino-fever, likely brought on by critical and commercial darlings like Steven Spielberg's 1993 summer blockbuster Jurassic Park.

"... the NBA and their creative team decided basically to throw dignity out the window." - Paul Lukas, founder and editor of Uni Watch

"Dinosaurs, whether through Jurassic Park or also through Barney the Dinosaur ... were just an important part of pop culture at the time," he said.

Voters were able to cast ballots by calling dedicated hotlines, culminating in a list of three names that the NBA's marketing and team officials used to make a final decision.

"Those were Dragons, Bobcats and Raptors," said Meslin.

Michael Leo Donovan, a screenwriter and teacher at the McGill University Writing Centre and the author of The Name Game: Football, Baseball, Hockey & Basketball — How Your Favorite Sports Teams Were Named explained in an email that Huskies was also a fan favourite, but that "no one could create a logo that didn't look like the Timberwolves in Minnesota."

The big, purple dinosaur in the room

Early reception to the Raptors name and brand identity was also hampered by the team's cartoon-like mascot and purple away uniform, explained Paul Lukas, founder and editor of sports uniform analysis blog Uni Watch.

"The purple uniform has come to be known as the Barney uniform," explained Lukas, in an interview with Day 6.

"Of course, Barney is a famous purple dinosaur, but the Raptors dinosaur himself was not purple — he is red — but nonetheless, the jersey has become known as the Barney uniform."

Former player Tracy Murray was with the Toronto Raptors' during the team's inaugural season in 1995. (Getty Images)

Despite the colourful criticism, Lukas said that the team's early uniform and brand identity represented a shift from the sometimes stodgy, more traditional NBA uniforms that predated the Raptors.

"[NBA uniforms] had a sense of dignity about them, and around the mid-1990s, the NBA and their creative team decided basically to throw dignity out the window and go with a much more flamboyant approach," said Lukas.

"They started using a technique called sublimation where designs could be printed onto the fabric and they went with a much more freewheeling, much more pop cultural approach to uniform design."

And the rest is history

Those early purple Raptors uniforms may have been mocked, but Lukas acknowledged the modern popularity of the so-called Barney uniform.

"It's almost a truism in the uniform world that what looks outlandish and clownish in a given year will seem endearingly nostalgic a decade or two later," he said.

"If you're a fan who grew up with this, that's your childhood...it's the Toronto basketball that you fell in love with."

Gil Meslin expressed a similar sentiment regarding the Raptors name:

"To my kids who stay up to 11 o'clock every night watching these games on the couch with me, the Raptors are just the Raptors."


To hear more about the Toronto Raptors' early days, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.

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