As motivational tactics go, “us against the world” is nothing new. But it often works, and the Toronto Raptors have embraced it wholeheartedly.
Heading into their 20th season the NBA’s only Canadian franchise has always struggled to be taken seriously. They are the red-headed stepchild of basketball, with everything from taxes to weather to life in a hockey-centric universe as reasons why the Raptors have never quite been viewed as one of the “it” franchises in the NBA, even in their own country.
Being a Raptors fan is the sports equivalent of getting a highly visible tattoo while young: It’s a public statement forged by passion if not a full consideration of the consequences.
Whether posting 13 losing seasons in 19 years is the cause or the effect of being left shivering outside the basketball cool club while the Lakers and Bulls and Knicks and Heat cruise into the VIP lounge is a matter of debate, but at the end of the night the Raptors have typically remained unloved.
But the days of moping about it are over. After two decades of trying to fit in, the Raptors have decided to embrace what makes them different, and forge an identity based on what sets them apart.
“As an organization we’ve got a chip [on our shoulder],” MLSE president and chief executive officer Tim Leiweke told Sportsnet on the eve of the Raptors' first playoff appearance since 2008. “Which is: I get it that we’re the only team up here. I get that people underestimate us, that people don’t even know we exist. But we feed off of that now.
“And that’s the change. Those were the excuses a year ago. Today it’s the very thing that drives us on a day-to-day basis. We love being underestimated. It’s fantastic.”
It’s been a remarkable year for Canadian basketball. In the span of 12 months, a country known primarily for hockey, winter and apologizing could well boast the first overall pick in the NBA draft in consecutive years and as many as five lottery picks (not to mention two Canadian women chosen in the WNBA draft).
The NCAA tournament was a month-long infomercial for the strides the sport has taken north of the border and the Raptors have been perhaps the biggest single surprise in the NBA, transitioning from a 6-12 club in December seemingly jockeying for a high lottery pick to finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference since Dec. 9.
But the Raptors went the entire season without being shown nationally on U.S. television. They remain the team fans in other cities don’t care about—the Raptors were the 29th-worst road draw in the NBA, ahead of only the Orlando Magic, a franchise that has tanked the season for the second straight year.
Even with the Raptors drawing the sexy Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs they were given the 12:30 start start for their first game—the throwaway game as Leiweke calls it.
You know what? Screw it. At this point, that's pretty much become the franchise’s unofficial mission statement.
Accordingly, in the coming days the Raptors will unveil a marketing campaign that speaks precisely to the sense of alienation that fans of the sport in Canada can’t help but feel sometimes and the fierce pride that being left out of the conversation can stir.
Called "We the North,” it’s the first step in the Raptors' Drake-inspired rebranding that will wash over the team as it heads into their 20th-anniversary season next year. But with Toronto’s first playoff date in six years upon them, Leiweke pushed to get the campaign launched now to tap into what he believes will be a seminal moment for a team that has scuffled for most of its existence.
“We are the north side, a territory all our own,” sounds the voiceover spoken over a montage of uniquely Canadian basketball images. “If that makes us outsiders? We’re in.”
It’s a powerful statement, more of a brand manifesto than a simple ad campaign. The finished spot will be shown to the team on Thursday after the regular season ends and to the public shortly thereafter. Chances are you’ll have it memorized by the time the playoffs start.
“This campaign we’re coming out with, it talks about Canada and the chip we have and [that] everyone counts us out here,” says Leiweke. “Great. Do that. Because it’s the fire in the belly of these guys… it’s miraculous the character it created on our team.”
The Raptors' new self love means, for example, that despite heavy consideration the franchise won’t be changing its name as many thought they might for their anniversary season. The Raptors will remain the Raptors, Leiweke says, the club's rocky past part of a bright future.
“That’s what Drake said. Don’t underestimate that all these kids didn’t grow up thinking about the Raptors,” Leiweke said. “I wouldn’t be so quick to think about changing it.”
There has always been a touch of the evangelical about Leiweke, but for long-suffering Raptors fans, hearing someone embrace their team the way the former Los Angeles Lakers executive has can’t help but be a tonic.
Leiweke sees nothing sacrilegious about citing Kyle Lowry, the Raptors' take-no-prisoners point guard, as an example for the iconic yet punchless Toronto Maple Leafs to follow. How does he want the Leafs to play in the future? Just like the Raptors: an underdog club that plays above its perceived ceiling most nights.
Newly installed Leafs president Brendan Shanahan got a taste of what Leiweke is talking about when he met the Raptors for the first time the other day.
“Shanny saw it,” said Leiweke. “He came to me and said: 'Wow, I get it now. How together they are, the chip they have on their shoulders.'”
Almost regardless of what happens when the playoffs begin, this season has been an unexpected bouquet for Raptors fans. What was quite likely going to be a tank job by mid-December has instead become an epic tale of resiliency and proof that adversity can bring a team together if they choose to confront it as a group.
Leiweke understands that moments like these don’t come around very often and is determined to leverage it for all it's worth, not only for his corporation's benefit, but for the greater good of Canadian basketball, a responsibility the Raptors have that is unique in the NBA.
“That’s part of the pressure we feel,” he says. “We need a break-out moment. We get that we are at that one moment in time where there is that inspiration where a new generation is going to be inspired by Amir or Kyle or Jonas or DeMar. We get that now and our guys get that and they like that."
Ready or not world, the Raptors are coming.