What we’re talking about when we talk about the Raptor Championship.
I sat in a Coffee Time across the street from my high school with my misfit friends. We talk about how lame the choices for the name of our NBA team are: The Toronto Beavers?! The Hogs? …The Toronto T-Rexs or Raptors - Lame. Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park was a popular movie, but what about five years from now when dinosaur fever is over? What we’re really worried about is that we are going to be the laughing stock of the NBA, because deep down we already know we are.
No one is lying when they tell you that Toronto was a Hockey town. But my parents are immigrants from Trinidad, I don't have a love of winter and an inherited pride for the official sport of Canada and past. I never got it, the Leafs are losers. It felt like Leafs fans are delusional, the sport itself is shrill. I grew up with a resentment to the cold and never enough money for ice skates. In Toronto, hockey is a rich kid sport. Anything to do with winter is for the rich, skiing, snowboarding, flying to Florida…
This was a leftover of the Toronto that fit in with the rest of Canada, a big city that knew its place and towed the party line as quaint, polite, humble. The great white north.
A baseball fan I was not, despite my neighbourhood’s proximity to Forest Hill. My enjoyment of baseball was limited to the excruciating moments before our world series wins. If my family was going to watch live sports it was Soccer at Varsity Arena that would draw my ethnic Toronto’s comfort zone.
It clicked in high school. I went to Oakwood Collegiate Institute, UNESCO’s most diverse school in Canada. Toronto's best music program. The OFFSA champion basketball team's girls and boys. Real talk, Oakwood was divided along very specific racial lines That exposed me to the reality of Toronto’s relationship with diversty, here, the ”others” were the majority and basketball was king.
Think about where Oakwood is located: city spaces, where all you need is a ball, some cement, a hoop - not even - a wall. A sport with edge but very little violence and the skill level between boys and girls similar enough that we could all play together with little of that ’run like a girl, throw like a girl’ nastiness (not saying it didn’t happen, just saying girls who ball don’t stand for that shit for long). But what else?
Oakwood and St. Clair is one of the most diverse intersections in the city. Basketball is a sport where Black and Brown Men and Women can go from poverty to a dynasty in a matter of a decade. It is a sport about hope and hard work. It takes focus and ability. It’s not about luck, it’s about taking chances and knowing the game. It was inspirational, aspirational. And when we heard that the expansion was coming to Toronto I witnessed a sense of pride and excitement that Toronto was waking up to something we at Oakwood already knew. We weren’t just a city of hockey fails and baseball mediocrity and invisible football. We were a ball city. Basketball is fashion, it's hip-hop, it’s pop culture. Basketball is an urban sport for city kids.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Basketball is the sport for People of Colour.
And we were also a laughing stock. Pegged the underdog for years we were desperate to be taken seriously, we worked to make our players household names. We were made fun of for naming our team after a popular movie villain and playing our first games on a make shift court in the middle of a cavernous baseball stadium. I’m not even sure if WE took ourselves that seriously. Then came Vincent Carter. For those who don’t know the facts, what you need to understand is that he made HIMSELF a celebrity - Skilled beyond our wildest dreams, he drew attention to Toronto in a POSITIVE LIGHT he was PROUD to play for us. We became proud to have him. The Raptors were a team that folks knew because they knew him.
All the more heartbreaking when he walked away and it took time for us to heal. We went back to being an underdog team in an underdog city with dreams of greatness…
Then an ad came out that articulated something we forgot - WE THE NORTH - a battle cry that reminded me of the power of advertising. It was persuasive, it made us proud, and as we started to see ourselves as Proud to be the Underdog, it was our secret weapon. The Raptors are a team ready to kick the institution down.
We climbed, scrapped to the top, created icons of our players. Every blog article about how a player fell in live with out city, reminded us of our pride to be a part of our town, they reminded us how it's a city that is proud of our diversity. The Raptors got cool with the NBA and the NBA got cool with Toronto. Then Toronto got cool with itself.
I dare say the lens shifted, Toronto stopped seeing itself as a city with small-town appeal, we aren't Hog Town, we are The Big Smoke. Hoser humor doesn't fly with us. We will not be put on out place. We are fashion, we are hip hop, we are pop culture.
We knew this was our year, and the Raps finally getting our championship means that the world gets to see Toronto for who she has become: a big bad-ass city that makes no apologies for being people of colour.