Grange: United under a cartoon dinosaur

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Hoops fans in this country are a tribe in need of validation. Win or lose, these Raptors get it.

The crowd looked up at him and he looked out at the crowd. The faces, mostly young, represented all corners of the globe. They were happy. He was happy. Standing to his left on the makeshift stage in the bright spring sun outside the Air Canada Centre was his boss, Tim Leiweke. He was happy, too.

And then Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors GM—a child of Africa who knows something about standing on the outside and looking in—got straight to the point: “F–k Brooklyn.”

And then Ujiri got happier. Leiweke, the president and CEO of typically buttoned-down MLSE, roared with laughter, and the crowd? It was delirious.

Everything was going as planned.

There were half-hearted apologies. “Wrong choice of words,” said Ujiri. There was the inevitable $25,000 fine from the NBA. There were rebuttals: “I don’t know if you can say ‘eff Brooklyn’ and then come into Brooklyn,” said the Nets’ trash-talker-in-chief, Kevin Garnett, on the eve of the Raptors taking their first-round playoff series on the road.

But the sentiment had almost nothing to do with Brooklyn specifically. Had Toronto drawn the Chicago Bulls as its first playoff opponent in six years, it would have been, “F–k Chicago.” It was a message to the NBA that the meek, mild, just-happy-to-be-in-the-league Raptors were no more. It was a message to Raptors players that their organization wasn’t content to be confined to the NBA’s steerage class.

It was also a call to arms for basketball fans in Toronto and across Canada. Whether the Raptors’ surprising playoff appearance was destined to be brief or not, it was too good an opportunity to waste. A sunny April afternoon before game one was the first chance, and they took it.

“We want to take this moment and run with it,” says Leiweke. “We want to create a dynamic atmosphere and convey that moment to our fans in this marketplace and across the country. It’s a moment here.”

There has always been an element of the “true believer” in being a basketball fan in this country. Where hockey is the mainstream church, basketball appeals to a different, smaller sect that draws at least some of its identity from a feeling of alienation.

In this sense, the Raptors are different to the rest of the NBA, and not just because of the obvious: They represent a faction within a country that itself is on the outside. Is this faction divided from the rest of Canada along cultural lines? Racial ones? Urban vs. rural or young vs. old? There are examples to support all of that, but in some ways this distorts the picture. To me, basketball represents an outward-looking way of thinking, a way for Canadians to embrace a global conversation, while our hockey obsession sometimes makes it feel like we’re the guys standing nervously by the bar at a party packed with strangers until someone we recognize shows up.

The Raptors will celebrate their 20th season next year, and the franchise’s past is decidedly uneven. A popular pastime for the team’s fans is wondering what the landscape would look like if Vince Carter had stuck around longer (or if the Raptors had drafted Dwyane Wade instead of Chris Bosh, or if Kevin Durant had been available to be drafted No. 1 overall when the Raptors picked Andrea Bargnani). There’s this sense that if the right circumstances had come to pass, then what they care about so deeply would matter to everyone else. Basketball fans in Canada are a tribe in need of validation.

Credit Leiweke for sensing that. Credit Ujiri for knowing how to speak to it in a language they intuitively understand, and in a voice sure to be heard.

And if you can’t see what they see? Eff all y’all.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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