My First Raps Memory: The Heart’s High-Water Mark
Much like my earliest memories, my Raptors fandom started abstractly. Growing up in Scarborough, with an older brother who was into skateboarding and baseball, my formative years were marked mostly by being on the periphery—of not being in “Toronto-Toronto”, coming at things second, and certain sports dominating our household.
But my parents were vigilant, giving me a wide a range of experiences as they could and balancing a kind of “no big deal” informality while making sure I could see myself in as many spaces, male-dominated or not, as possible. Now I get that it was a rare, goldilocks mix but at the time ping-ponging from the ROM to an Argos game—my dad shrugging through the rules because sports were never huge for him—was so natural, and what gave me the propensity to dive into new things, everything and all at once. But this compulsion can feel freeform and floating, abstract until there’s something to zero in on.=
There was a boldness to basketball that worked on me like bait—the bravado of the Detroit Bad Boys, Dennis Rodman, the achingly camp 90s era of NBA logos. I would look at NBA standings and stat tables in the newspaper’s sports section every day without a sense of what most of it meant, picking arbitrary favourites and being secretly thrilled when they climbed in the ranks, as if I’d willed it. When the Toronto Star dropped the news in 1994 that an NBA team was slated to expand into Toronto, and that we were going to name it, I latched on hard. It was the very start of something and I could be a part of it, it could be, in some sense, mine. That alternate logo of the little raptor chewing the same basketball it’s wrapped around was basically me.
Once the Raptors arrived, the proximal affect on me and my friends felt physical, there was a red and purple sheen on everything. Our ten-degree driveway got a hoop (which made me an efficient and fast rebounder, if not much else, when I started to play in middle school) and I spray-painted my bike, “Barney purple” according to early detractors, but I knew what I was getting at. My family went to see our first game in that inaugural season, my dad springing for $5 tickets from Shoppers Drug Mart. I cheered for every player but not by name, because I didn’t know them yet, instead screeching out the numbers on their jerseys. I snuck down several sections with my brother in tow, wanting to get as close as possible before security escorted us back to our seats. My dad got me a hat, the first piece of sports merchandise that I didn’t steal or inherit from my brother, and a lot like how the team felt, the sport, it was mine.
While this wouldn’t be the case now, because Championships change things, but as much as the Raptors felt proximal in those early years, fast-forward a few and that awareness started to invert. National interest in basketball shrank, the Grizzlies went south and if you left Toronto you’d be hard-pressed to find the Raptors in permanence or passing. When I left Toronto and started six years of moving around, falling out with the team was less intentional than it was another part of the city that became physically distant from me. Basketball went back to being abstract. Even after I’d come back and started to feel curious about the new coach, Dwane Casey, and prospects like Rudy Gay, my approach felt non-committal.
Enter Masai Ujiri. A new GM isn’t exactly blockbuster news in basketball, but Ujiri arrived and immediately gave the team a shake. Chucking what didn’t work and polishing what was there and promising, making us look again. The Raptors went from relegated in the league rankings to never missing the postseason under his tenure, but it was those first Playoffs with Ujiri heading up the franchise that gave me something to zero in on again. It just happened to be heartbreak.
Game 4 against the Brooklyn Nets, I’ll never forget it. I was in the west end of the city at Brass Taps on College Street, it was quiet. Wait one more season and there’d be no such thing while trying to watch a game out anywhere in the city, but there were only a handful of us in the back section of the bar because they weren’t playing it on the TVs in front. Halfway through the 3rd, Raptors and Nets going shot-for-shot, a gangly-tall and disheveled little brother of one of my best friends rushed in. Nick grew up around the corner from the place and knew it wouldn’t be busy. Breathless, he plonked himself down across from me. Nick was always a bit of a light in passing, bright, catching, wide-open, but with the slight sheen of sweat on him and the glare of the television he was luminous. We held our breath and then our tears back as Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry’s shot with seconds to go, the one that would’ve won the game and advanced the Raptors, finally, into the next round. We watched silently as DeMar DeRozan went to Lowry and put his body over his friend, holding the moment off for as long as Lowry needed. Nick took one look at me and shot up to give me a hug. He told me he knew this wasn’t it for the Raptors, just knew it.
Every year after, as Toronto inched farther and farther in the Playoffs, Nick kept up the same mantra every time we’d run into each other or catch games. Standing over me on the streetcar sometimes during our separate commutes, I watched as his frame filled out along with his plans for the future, and in the picture somewhere they always included the Raptors climb and eventual success. He was already an award-winning writer and we traded notes, jokes, and tried our best to put into words all the thrilling moments of those scrappy, sometimes reckless seasons, how they felt like a secret everyone in the city but few outside of it were in on. He loved that we were underdogs but he felt something starting, a wave climbing high, one that eventually, had to, crescendo. Whenever I felt myself wondering on the team’s trajectory, wavering even a little, Nick’s unshakeable hope would tighten my resolve, keep me tied and true.
Nick was killed in a car crash on the first day of spring in 2018. The last conversation we’d had was about his new job and basketball. How excited he was and how we had to get past Cleveland. The momentum that grew in the city the next season, the heartbreak of DeRozan being traded and the hard to tamp down disbelief of Kawhi Leonard being here, the crescendo he felt on the verge of all those years, it was finally happening, but without him. I lost my feet along with a lot of other people when Nick died but I felt the ground under me rise in a different way that year, with a joy and hope and determination that spread past the boundaries of the city, across Canada. Nick would have loved it, would have let himself be tumbled and taken up whatever way the wave went, happy and breathless for the ride.
When the Raptors won the Eastern Conference Finals, smashing that abiding psychic barrier, the first person I thought of was Nick. When people started to bargain for a game, maybe two games, on the Warriors in the Finals, I thought of Nick, his flinty determination hidden under a laugh that could lap you, how much of a kick he’d’ve gotten out of hedging bets with the impossible. When Toronto would go on to take it all in a hard fought win for the title, when Lowry’s ring glinted under the lights of the arena, when the banners went up and the arena erupted, I thought of Nick. It had all started with a blocked shot, getting consoled over the Nets—“The Nets,” Nick had said, shaking his head when it happened, “the Nets, Katie”—and ended with Lowry lifting a trophy.
A trophy isn’t permanent, the fingerprints on it are polished away season after season. But a Championship, the way it notches the calendar, puts a stamp on time, is. Toronto, the city and the team, is building up on a completely new wave now. Less some players and people, like Nick, who gave over parts of themselves to build the last one, but the high-water mark of the last six years is now a permanent ring around our hearts. A tether tied to something intrinsic and deeper. I loved basketball at first because it felt like it could be my own, right at the start of something. I love it now in a way that has gone beyond where it started and where I could have guessed, because of all the people it has come to encompass. Friends, family, perfect strangers, a community with a shared language of heartbreak, hope and joy, resolve and promise—the things most central to basketball and the best parts of life. Both agonizingly impermanent, crushing, beautiful, and no part of them abstract, at least not for me, ever again.