It has taken 19 long years, but the Toronto Raptors and their fans are finally earning some respect—both on the court and off it.
Let’s start with this struggle of a playoff series between the Raptors and the Nets. If Brooklyn did indeed tank down the stretch in order to matchup with the inexperienced Raptors (as many fans and pundits believe), they might be rethinking that plan—and the lack of respect it showed for Toronto—now. With the series tied, it has turned into a best of three, with two of those games to be played in Toronto (if both are needed). The Raptors have shown the Nets they’re not going away. It’s as if Toronto is saying, “We respect your experienced championship-calibre team, but we also want to win and you’re in our way.”
The series has also sparked much discussion about NBA officiating and how it bends toward marquee names and franchises—another issue of respect. It was something I highlighted as a key for Toronto. If they were going to win the series, they had to play through the experience and the whistle—in short, point out perceived mistakes to the officials, then let them go and rise above.
That started to happen in Game 4. After failing to draw a key call in a charge-block situation when Paul Pierce and Amir Johnson collided, the Raptors respectfully let it be known they disagreed with the way things played out. They then received a favourable whistle late in the game when the same two combatants again slammed into one another. That may have been a sign that yet another important measure of respect is starting to come Toronto’s way. If so, it’s well deserved; earned by an effort on the part of the Raptors in Game 4 that said “we are going to win tonight—no matter what.”
That same resolve is also drawing casual fans to the team. As long-suffering Raptors supporters are rewarded for their years of loyalty, bandwagon jumpers are also starting to recognize and appreciate the gritty nature of the club. It’s the biggest game in town right now with the Blue Jays’ season only a month old and the Leafs sitting on the sidelines, and the Raptors are dancing in the spotlight.
It was interesting to hear the comments from Nets veterans heading into Game 3, claiming that the Brooklyn crowd would be just as raucous as those long-suffering fans at the ACC. I was there and the atmosphere was good for Games 3 and 4, but it had nothing on Toronto. For those vets—Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams—that had been playing in Toronto for years, the building they walked into for Games 1 and 2 wasn’t the one they’d gotten used to during the regular season. Toronto’s fans have reached another level and they, too, are finally starting to get some long-overdue respect.
The scene in Maple Leaf Square during every game has opened some eyes south of the border. Former NBA coach of the year, Mike Fratello, currently the Nets’ television analyst told me that Raptors fans in this series are reminding him of the Golden State Warriors’ following. That’s as high a compliment as you can get as a fan base, and I agree with Fratello. Raptors fans have turned up the volume.
All of the enthusiasm starts at the top, with management at MLSE. Masai Ujiri issued an apology for his language at the “pep rally” before Game 1. His language was bad, yes, but the idea that Toronto is no longer content just to play, that this team wants to win, was the underlying message behind the expletive. His boss, Tim Leiweke, was right there, and I’ll bet he chipped in toward to $25,000 fine. The whole thing reminded me of the first time my dad had to come get me from school after a fight. He scolded me, but asked if I got a couple of good shots in. The message? I’m proud you didn’t back down. Make them respect you.
Dwane Casey—and his “Pound the Rock” mantra—has also been crucial. Through the whole roller coaster ride of the Raptors’ last three seasons, Casey’s message has been consistent: We’re going to keep working because we want more. He implored all his players to “keep coming” and the results can be seen in the young DeMar DeRozan. Despite getting beat up on drives without receiving calls for years, DeRozan kept taking the ball to the basket. This season his will to “keep coming” paid off as he finished ahead of notable names like Chirs Paul, LeBron James and Paul George in average free throw attempts per game.
You bet that growing up in the south, Casey had to hold his tongue at times and fight for respect with a quiet “you might not respect me now, but I’m going to hang in there until you do” attitude. He has instilled that in his team and they are playing it out on the floor.
Win or lose in Games 5,6 and 7, the Raptors and their fans have gained some crucial respect this post-season. It may have taken a while, but it’s something they can build on for years to come.