All it took was one week of the NBA returning to feel the full brunt of what has become a staple of Raptors basketball consumption.
First, Toronto convincingly defeated presumptive favourites the Los Angeles Lakers to spark a Saturday night filled with slander on the timeline. Subsequent recognition from major American outlets was interpreted as backhanded compliments by Raptors fans due to acknowledgement for their style of play while discrediting the team’s star power. By the time the Phoenix Suns were mistakenly being praised for being the only undefeated team in the bubble, Raptors Twitter hit full tilt.
Jokes and clapbacks in equal measure, Raptors fans have made their presence felt across the NBA Twittersphere for several years but the swagger of winning a title has elevated them to another level. It’s the power of a chip on their shoulder for always being overlooked to a literal chip last season.
This is the story of how Raptors Twitter came to be the force it is today.
Imman (currently _NopeName on Twitter): Raptors time!
That’s how it all began for the woman now widely regarded as the Queen of Raptors Twitter and co-host of the rapidly growing all-women’s podcast Dishes & Dimes. ‘Raptors time!’ was her regular game-time tweet a decade ago when the NBA’s lone Canadian franchise mucked it up with fellow teams trapped in purgatory. No sense of community or belonging, fans of other teams telling her to pipe down, and only Jordan Hayles aka @MR_STiXX to keep her company.
For perspective, Bryan Colangelo was president of basketball operations, Jay Triano was the head coach, and the franchise was in the hands of Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, and Hedo Turkoglu. They finished what would then be considered a respectable 40-42, but the franchise soon plateaued with Bosh leaving for Miami in free agency to team up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
“We were the only two people tweeting about Raptors games and we were tweeting about every single one,” Imman said. “And then I would say after the lockout is when it started to grow a little bit, and then of course, We The North is when Raptors Twitter really took off.”
We The North has now become a movement synonymous with an extremely passionate fan base, perennial success on the court, as well as excellent executive leadership off it. But, there was a long road to being perceived as a model organization and there is perhaps no tweet more reflective of that journey than the one sent by DeRozan on June 28, 2010.
At a time when Raptors fans were licking the same wound that had grown steadily deeper through the departures of Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Bosh, a Compton native was pledging his allegiance to a city and country that was as foreign to him as Twitter was to sports fans as a community.
Twitter is interesting in that one can curate one’s feed to consume exactly the type of information they want to consume, but who wanted to consume the Raptors during that time outside of the true diehards? The Raptors needed to appeal to the masses and the marketing team identified a potential path through what is now the iconic #RTZ hashtag.
"It became this therapeutic thing for everyone to come together and make the same jokes over and over. At some point, when LeBron is beating you and embarrassing you every year, what can you do but just make jokes about it?" - Alex Wong
Fans were not only given an easy means of being part of the conversation, there were prizes that ranged from tickets to a game to signed jerseys to bobble heads for those who came up with particularly funny or engaging tweets.
“The Raptors social and digital team had done such a great job from Day 1 of engaging that community and building it up,” Conor Clarance, Head of Sports at Twitter Canada, said. “They’re sort of at a point now where they’re at the top of the heap because they looked at the opportunity Twitter provided in terms of not only communicating and engaging with our fans, but we can lift them up and put them on a pedestal. Now they have this really interesting opportunity where the conversation is so vibrant around them and it’s growing massively year-over-year.”
#RTZ mentions peaked during the 2013-14 season, when Toronto made a return to the postseason under the stewardship of Kyle Lowry, DeRozan, and Dwane Casey and bowed out of the first round in excruciating fashion to the Brooklyn Nets in seven games. Mentions outside Toronto ranged from Hamilton to Ottawa to Vancouver domestically, with Los Angeles providing the most international mentions. It had become the online Jurassic Park.
“If you were doing it back in the day and if you weren’t using hashtag RTZ, you weren’t doing it right,” Chris Walder, host of the The Walder Sportscast and a major presence in the Raptors Twittersphere said. In fact, he is the go-to source for consuming content on Raptors Twitter, with an online list that curates pretty much every bit of information there is to know about the team.
J.E. Skeets and Tas Melas are now co-hosts of the No Dunks podcast, but began their quest for a place in the industry as Toronto locals with a strong passion for basketball airing their takes on The Basketball Jones podcast. Skeets, too, remembers having no idea what Twitter would entail, but definitely wasn’t going to leave any low-hanging fruit on the table in case it offered room for growth not just in terms of improving their knowledge but expanding their fan base. And a big part of that was always going to be talking about the Raptors.
“When Tas and I first started the Basketball Jones, our very first show, we had a segment called Raptors News,” Skeets said. “We were doing an NBA show, but because we were diehard Raptors fans and had season tickets and lived in Toronto at the time, we wanted to add this little specific part about the Raps and we had that in our first show and it continued for a long time.
“We didn’t care when people said, ‘Why do you talk about the Raptors so much? Move on, they’re not even that good.’ We were just doing it for fun at the beginning and hoping to maybe one day spin it into a career, but we were Raps fans before we were podcasters so we were gonna merge that as much as we could. And it helped! Our popularity in Toronto and Canada, mainly because of the Raps, and especially the timing of it all, when we moved to Atlanta and became The Starters and had a television show? Well, that’s when the Raptors started to become good and they sort of went hand in hand a little bit in terms of even helping us.”
“It’s so cool to watch it grow because it corresponds with the growth of basketball in Canada as a whole" - Imman
They are just one example of many who have built careers for themselves with the aid of the Raptors’ success and engaging with the Twitter fan base. Alex Wong, better known as @steven_lebron, is always ready with jokes and has gone from a corporate, 9-5 gig to one of the most recognizable writers and voices of Raptors Twitter, so much so that you know when it’s him tweeting from the Yahoo Sports Canada account.
“Raptors Twitter didn’t develop a personality until they got into the playoffs and Masai (Ujiri) said ‘F*** Brooklyn,’ Wong said. “It just became this communal experience of coming together to be negative about the Raptors because they would always lose in the playoffs. It became this therapeutic thing for everyone to come together and make the same jokes over and over. At some point, when LeBron is beating you and embarrassing you every year, what can you do but just make jokes about it?”
Misery loves company but no one is laughing at the Raptors now as they stand tall as defending champions. Even Yahoo Sports’ Chris Haynes had to bear the online brunt of reporting that Kawhi Leonard had no intention of playing in Toronto after the biggest trade in franchise history as the former San Antonio Spurs superstar went on to not only report, but play a seismic role in helping Toronto win its first NBA championship.
Just as there was a spike in the team’s following with the regular season success between 2013-2018, Leonard helped take the team’s following to another level with a championship run and those who have remained have provided even more to cheer about. When the 2019-20 season shut down, Canadian NBA conversation volume on Twitter had seen a 67 percent spike year-over-year. #WeTheNorth has become one of the most iconic Twitter hashtags in Canadian history, getting more mentions in 2019 than 2015-18 combined. The Raptors are also the most mentioned Canadian team on Twitter.
“You can’t control how teams perform,” Clarance said. “There’s definitely a bump that happens when you see success on a regular basis and then there’s also a bump when you are particularly newsworthy. The Raptors as an organization have these incredible players who are personable, they want to engage with fans, they want to feel connected and they really play up the fact that they love playing in Canada.”
It’s a far cry from having superstars who wanted to leave and hearing nothing but crickets when tweeting about them. Now, there is a community that ranges from slandering other teams to defending Lowry’s honour to creating collages of each and every member of the organization. You can read for the deepest analytics or the ethereal or how to feel, you can watch for highlights focused specifically on defence or shows that cover every aspect of the team in a Pardon The Interruption-style format, or you can even listen to someone pour out their heart on one podcast while another reminds you that everything’s fine.
“It’s so cool to watch it grow because it corresponds with the growth of basketball in Canada as a whole,” Imman says about the huge community she has to interact with now. “So, just to see something that felt very niche and felt very ignored become mainstream and something everyone’s talking about, and feeling you’re part of the discourse in terms of what people have to say about the team is pretty cool.
“Finding a community of like-minded people with similar interests has been a lot of fun.”