Torontonians support the Raptors, no doubt. Some even believe the team can make the playoffs, and (maybe) one day win the Larry O'Brien trophy despite only witnessing five playoff seasons in its 18-year history. But it's a love/hate relationship. The Raptors have been dropping the ball in the last few years, and fan excitement just hasn't been the same.
But the question is, can Drake really help the Raps become the hottest team in the league, or at the very least, let Torontonians finally root for their hometown team without being embarrassed?
On Sept. 30, 2013, the Toronto Raptors named Drake its new global ambassador, a decision it claimed would help reignite that fire. Tim Leiweke, president and CEO of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment said the franchise would be getting a face lift, adding that the rapper would be heavily involved in the re-branding. But the question is, can Drake really help the Raps become the hottest team in the league, or at the very least, let Torontonians finally root for their hometown team without being embarrassed?
Toronto got its first basketball team in 1946, when the Toronto Huskies became a charter member of the Basketball Association of America, the forerunner of the NBA. But it folded just a year after, following poor attendance and money woes. It would be another half-century before another franchise was started. But when that day finally came, the city couldn't be more hyped. The announcement of the Toronto Raptors came in 1993, and just a month after, $20 million in gear was already sold. By the end of 1994, the team was already seventh in the league in merchandise sales, despite being a long way from playing its first game.
In the first season, the Raps became just one of 9 teams to beat Michael Jordan's 72-10 Chicago Bulls (the Pacers beat them twice). We also picked up Damon Stoudemire, who would end up being the Rookie of the Year. In the years that followed, Marcus Camby and Tracy McGrady became part of the lineup. You couldn't tell us anything.
Then Toronto made a 1998 draft day trade for Vince Carter and changed the whole fucking game. A season later, the Raptors finally made it to the playoffs—and to the conference semi-finals, no less (they would lose to Allen Iverson's Philadelphia 76ers in seven games). Carter also brought some excitement to the game, thanks to his emphatic dunks.
Growing up in Toronto during the "Vince Carter era" was great. The Raptors were the only team I knew, save for Jordan's Bulls (my dad is a fanatic). Carter, Morris Peterson, and "Junkyard Dog" (Jerome Williams) were exciting to watch. Fans were proud to wear the purple, red, and black. So the loss of Carter to the New Jersey Nets in the 2004-2005 season was a big blow. Chris Bosh was on the team by then, and while he showed promise, he was no half-man, half-amazing.
In the years that followed, Marcus Camby and Tracy McGrady became part of the lineup. You couldn't tell us anything. Then Toronto made a 1998 draft day trade for Vince Carter and changed the whole f***ing game.
To the players' credit, the team made it back to the playoffs in 2007 and then 2008. But they lost (to Carter and the Nets in '07) in the first round both times, and it didn't get much better from there. In 2010, Bosh left the team to join a star-studded Miami Heat. Andrea Bargnani, who former GM Brian Colangelo hoped would do great things, was mediocre, and eventually asked to be traded. Even Rudy Gay, who was brought on last year was traded to the Sacramento Kings this past December. Now you get the sense the fans are becoming restless, and that the Raps are increasingly losing its appeal.
This is where Drake comes in. From a branding standpoint, he's the perfect choice to help them. Drake's like a modern day hero back home. For the most part, Torontonians take pride in knowing he's from our city, that some of us grew up with him, or that we used to see him around the block, at the same places we went to. The OVO billboard in downtown Toronto has become somewhat of a landmark. If there's anyone who can make the Toronto fan base enthusiastic about the rebuilding, it's Mr. 416 himself.
This was evident two weekends ago at "Drake Night" at the ACC. Everyone rocked the limited edition Toronto Raptors x OVO shirts (yes, the same ones selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars). Most of the crowd stayed in their seats during halftime in anticipation of a possible Drake performance (a rare occasion because everyone knows half-time is for weird performances, and to hit up the bathroom and refill beers). The night definitely became as much about the rapper as it was the game, if not more.
If there's anyone who can make the Toronto fan base enthusiastic about the rebuilding, it's Mr. 416 himself.
If you ask me, the Toronto Raptors are smart in partnering with Drake. It's no secret that it's been tough for the team to attract free agents, perhaps because of additional taxes American athletes have to pay, and maybe even the climate. Not to mention, playing for the Raptors doesn't exactly have the same allure as being part of, say, the Miami Heat roster. On top of that, the city of Toronto isn't really known for its sports teams—the Toronto Maple Leafs was a let down, losing in the NHL playoffs last year. The Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993 and have struggled to remain relevant ever since. I'm not even sure people outside of Canada know the Toronto Argonauts exist. Given Drake's popularity and the influence he has, he could not only change the Raps' reputation, but also the city's.
So does this mean the rapper will be able to take the team to the playoffs? Not a chance. Can he use his cachet in the music world to bring superstars to T.O.? Maybe. Still, he's a rapper, a fan, and a face for the Raptors brand. Whether or not the team performs well is up to the team. (They're looking promising right now, though, holding down the number one spot in their Atlantic division.) But Drake's buying the Raptors some time until GM Masai Ujiri, can figure out his next move.
Drake said in this weird promo video that he "wants to bring that energy here", referring to the passion people have for soccer overseas. He also said "everyone is dying to support Toronto." And he's right; that's the feeling you get from the city. So let's hope this works. If not, the franchise will need a plan B—fast. We're tired of being known for just the CN Tower, Kardinal Offishall, and Rob Ford.