On paper, the 2013-2014 Toronto Raptors never stood a chance. Back in October, they didn’t qualify as the upstart; they were just – there. Sure, they were unappealing and unattractive, but to their credit they weren’t begging for anyone to love them. They had little talent, and they had even less direction. Commonly in the NBA today, the train of thought is that if a team, like Toronto was, is rutted in stagnation, there is no worse area to be than in the in-between. In other words, be good or be bad, don’t just be.
Toronto didn’t matter, like always. There’s a saddening comfort that Raptor fans have taken over the years in accepting irrelevancy. Losing in Toronto somehow circumvented toxicity, and it weirdly always has in Toronto. Not every losing situation produces accusations, screaming and yelling, hostility. When the Raptors lost, it was, well, kind of normal. The fans couldn’t do a thing about it; they’d look silly if they did. It had gotten to the point where if anyone outside the Raptor organization suggested winning as the solution, if not in an ironic sense, was fair game to mock openly.
I mean, the Raptors that Torontoians had come to know best occasionally limped to success, but perpetually paddled in the mellow stream of losing. You see, the horrible truth of it was, the Toronto Raptors represented the stereotype every Canadian has heard and every America has caroused in jest – Canadians are nicer than Americans, and the Raptors were viewed no differently when pitted against the rest of the NBA. I can’t speak for either nation entirely (duh), but I’ve lived in both countries. I have my own opinions and beliefs (which very well may be wrong), but when I say the Raptors were nicer than other teams, don’t think I’m saying the Raptors don’t have grown, ultra-competitive people up-and-down their organization. They do, they have.
What I’m saying is the Raptors personified the average ‘nice guy’ Canadian stereotype and I should feel totally abnormal typing that. But I don’t. And the reason I don’t feel strange saying it is because never acknowledged who they truly were. It’s not an indictment for a lack of effort from either the team or the fans, but before the 2013-2014 season: what Canadian outside of Toronto would fight that analogy? What Canadian inside of Toronto would dispute that notion? Passionately, seriously, with conviction? Again, I’m indicting nobody here, there’s no lion’s share of the blame to be placed anywhere. I wouldn’t have stood up against the idea that — maybe; just maybe, the fans never having a reason to cheer might be because there’s so little precedent of winning.
I’ll use the team I grew up watching as a comparison. What’s the difference between the Toronto Raptors and the Chicago Bulls? Quick synopsis: Pretty much everything. The Bulls have everything the Raptors only fancifully fathomed. From purely a basketball-achievement standpoint the two teams are polar-opposites of one another. From a fan’s perspective there’s two drastically different set of expectations predicated upon that achievement and lack thereof.
Bulls’ fans would be offended to be classified as anything less than high-class of the NBA. Meanwhile, clowning on the Raptors? More commonplace than insulting. But make one thing clear: It’s not about a fan’s pride, with either fan base. That’s the point I’m trying to make. Fans are completely incidental to the manifestation of winning and they’re intrinsically involved when the team actually wins. Both Raptor and Bulls fans have forever wanted their teams to win (again, duh), the difference is one set of fans has experienced winning while the other hasn’t. Therefore, unless the Raptors started winning they’d continue to just be the nice guy, that wasn’t necessarily picked-on, but wasn’t cared for enough to be taken seriously either.
The thing about being the nice guy, is if it is truly who you are, embrace it. The nice guy will never win sulking, feeling sorry for himself. The nice guy wins when he wholly and completely views his nature as advantageous. Or in other words, kill ‘em with kindness. In my eyes, the 2013-2014 Raptors are so important; they matter, not because they lost in a memorable seven game series to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs and in addition the fans deservedly received all the praise they absolutely earned. They matter because somewhere along the line, they believed they could be the best of who they were all along, the nice guys.
The Raptors have an identity, and they’ve only scratched the surface of the potential they can maximize out of that identity. To me, that’s progress that makes the accolades that coincided with a newfound winning formal that much more meaningful. There’s future, there’s belief, there’s optimism. None of it being misplaced or misguided, there’s genuineness in how the Raptors figured out how to utilize the talent on their roster by coming to the realization: let’s be who we are, not who we’re not.
From here, the Raptors grow and with that the growing pains will come. From here, learning how to win will require failure. But the Raptors already accomplished the hardest part, maybe the most important part in becoming great – having an identity. Next season and beyond, if the Raptors can withstand the temptation of altering their identity, then failure will be a learning tool rather than a disappointment.
All I know is that when I look back on the 2013-2014 Toronto Raptors, I’ll remember a team that found a city that loved their team for who they were, second. I couldn’t speak more highly of Toronto fans, and they deserve it all. But what I’ll remember first is a team who found itself and did it in their own unconventional way. The Raptors aren’t the underdog; you couldn’t ever really call them that this season or in the past because the description didn’t fit, wasn’t appropriate. Turns out, the Raptors are the secret weapon. They are the North.