Raptors fans making presence felt in enemy territory

"You don’t want to get a Canadian hyped. They reach a volume that I think might be illegal in the States," Raptors forward Patrick Patterson says about the team's fans. (Frank Gunn/CP)

INDIANAPOLIS – The concourse in Bankers Life Fieldhouse is a shrine to Indiana basketball, the state that gave the world Hickory High; the place that proudly considers itself the heartland of the sport.

Everywhere you turn there are display cases with artifacts from basketball’s history in the state, which is basketball history. There are tributes to Larry Bird (the best player to ever come from French Lick, Ind.) and Oscar Robertson (twice a state champion at Indianapolis’ Crispus Attucks High School) and John Wooden himself (a three-time state champion at Martinsville High).

But on Thursday night the Toronto Raptors were in the house, as they will be on Saturday for Game 4 of Toronto’s first-round series against the Indiana Pacers, and their fans were with them, and in full voice, and will be again.

“It’s going to be crazy [on Saturday] because people aren’t working, people can drive down Friday night or even Saturday morning,” said Kyle Hudencial, a Toronto native now working in Louisville, Ky., who was at the game Thursday night. “And now that the Raptors are leading 2-1, it might even be cheaper to get tickets.”

Estimates are that the couple of hundred fans that were in the arena for Game 3 could be something closer to 1,000 for Game 4. It is a new tradition for a franchise and a market that – unlike Indiana – is making up their traditions on the fly.

Throughout the Raptors’ dominating win in Game 3 a few hundred Raptors fans were loud and proud, their “Let’s Go Raptors” chants heard over the Pacers fans in what was supposed to be a sold-out arena.

As the hometown crowd began making their way to the exits, the Raptors fans stayed. They celebrated the win with a meet-up at the arena entrance, where they chanted We The North and sang O Canada. That part was “organized” by Nav Bhatia, the ubiquitous Raptors Superfan whose legendary passion for the Raptors earned him a profile in the New York Times a couple of years ago.

“Nav said to meet in the atrium if the Raptors won and one person told someone and they told someone and so on,” said Hudencial. “It was a classic word-of-mouth kind of thing. When Nav says do something, you do it.”

Travelling Raptors fans are not something new. The ‘We The North’ movement has made themselves heard in Cleveland and Detroit and Chicago and elsewhere.

But there is something powerful about Raptors fans gathering in a place that basketball holds so dearly and basically taking over the joint.

Cory Joseph, Patrick Patterson, Kyle Lowry
Cory Joseph, left, and Patrick Patterson, centre, greet Raptors teammate Kyle Lowry during Game 3 on Thursday. (Michael Conroy/AP)

Before the playoffs began Patrick Patterson penned an ode to Raptors fans in The Players’ Tribune. It captured the rising tide of energy he’s observed first-hand since he was traded to Toronto in November of 2013 (the Rudy Gay trade). Like anyone else, he thought he was coming to Toronto to ride out a rebuild in one of the NBA’s most easy-to-ignore markets, at least for Americans.

But the Raptors started to win and things have never quite been the same.

“We started noticing more and more red in the stands at away games,” wrote Patterson. “Hell, the Canadians were the loudest people in the arena. Yo, you don’t want to get a Canadian hyped. They reach a volume that I think might be illegal in the States. It’s unreal. And that’s when our identity really started to come out. We came to understand that we play in one of the coolest cities in the world. But we don’t only rep Toronto — this is Canada’s team. And we don’t care if you overlook us. Canadians are used to being overlooked by Americans.”

The crew who made the trip for Thursday night didn’t let the Raptors down and the expectation is there will be more of the same on Saturday.

“I hope so,” said Patterson after the Raptors practised on Friday. “The more the merrier. Toronto is definitely one of the basketball markets in the NBA, some of the best fans in the world and they’re very deserving of what we’re trying to give them. The energy and the love and support that they’ve shown us throughout the year and then to have them come out on these road games no matter how far they are from Toronto, and then, pretty much in my opinion kill the home crowd it’s a great feeling and it makes us happy every single time we step on the court.”

Said DeMar DeRozan: “It motivates us, honestly. We have 19,000 people against us as it is, just to hear some Raptors fans, it’s definitely big. We heard them during the anthems. That’s cool man, seeing the purple jerseys, the red jerseys, Raptors fans cheering, that’s cool man.”

Why do Raptors fans feel compelled to travel in great numbers, to make themselves heard in enemy territory?

Well, one good reason is that it’s cheaper. The cheapest tickets for Game 5 at the Air Canada Centre are running about $100 on the secondary market and the best ones are worth mortgage payments. Before Game 1 no market in the in the NBA saw a higher demand for tickets and the prices reflect it. Meanwhile the cheap seats at Bankers Life start at $16 (US).

“I got three tickets, three rows behind the Raptors bench for $275,” said Shankar Sivananthan, a critical care doctor who made the trip on Thursday night, one of five times he’s hit the road with his We The North Banner, but the first for a playoff game. “Those seats would be $600 each at the ACC.”

And there’s also the feeling of tribe inspired by joining with likeminded strangers away from home.

“Going to games at the ACC is great,” said Sivananthan. “The crowd is amazing, it’s a good time. But when you go on the road there’s more of a buildup. We went to Kilroys [a pub near Bankers Life] and met up with other Raptors fans, same thing after the game. There’s more camaraderie.”

What’s it like starting a Raptors chant in enemy territory? It’s fun, and it’s easier than you might expect.

When they travel Raptors fans try to congregate in seats behind the visiting bench or along the baseline on the visitors side. It makes it easier to get the chants going.

“There’s usually a pretty good concentration of fans, so if you’re loud enough they’re going to join you,” said Sivananthan.

It’s also a great way to get on TV as the sight of Raptors fans bringing the noise in an opponent’s building is hard to ignore for broadcasters.

The contrast between the Pacers crowd and the smattering of Raptors fans was telling. The Pacers had a rough night, shredded by the Raptors’ unrelenting defence. And their crowd – those raised on the game in the heartland – weren’t much better.

As Indianapolis Star columnist Gregg Doyel noted, the Pacers home building was less than energized:

“On the bright side, this debacle wasn’t watched by a full house. It was announced as a sellout, but I’m telling you: Not even close. The gold T-shirts laid out on each chair disguised just how many seats were empty — until fans started taking those free shirts, exposing hundreds of green chairs, including most of three entire sections behind one basket.

“This was a bad night all around, I’m saying, and not just for the home team — but for the home crowd.”

The visiting crowd? They came to play, and they’re just getting started.

“Toronto fans have this feeling that we’re ignored a lot and there’s a sense of trying to prove something, that we deserve more recognition,” says Hudencial.

As the Raptors begin to hit their stride in the post-season, their fans have already arrived.

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