Twenty-four years ago, Toronto embarked on an improbable journey. The city made its foray into professional basketball by way of the National Basketball Association and a team dubbed the Toronto Raptors. The move was not only applauded by the city, but also the entire country. The year was 1995, a year which also saw the birth of another Canadian basketball franchise, the Vancouver Grizzlies. It was a proud time in Canadian sports history, coming just two years after Toronto’s back-to-back Major League Baseball World Series titles.
By contrast, 1995 was also an important year for hip-hop. Some would even say that it was the second most important year in the ’90s after the previous year, which saw the release of some of rap’s most influential albums of all time (Nas’ Illmatic and The Notorious B.I.G.’s Ready to Die for example). Not to be outdone, 1995 boasted some classics that, to this day, have stood the test of time. The Roots (Do You Want More), Raekwon (Only Built 4 Cuban Linx), Smif-N-Wessun (Dah Shinin’), 2Pac (Me Against The World), Mobb Deep (The Infamous) and Big L (Lifestyles Ov Da Poor & Dangerous) dropped. All historical gems that layered the musical landscape for that year and had heads bobbing to some of the most memorable beats and rhymes well into the summer, and of course, the inaugural season of the Toronto Raptors.
With the first overall pick in the draft, the Raptors drafted the diminutive, yet talented guard Damon Stoudamire. Thus began the team’s quest for the prestigious and highly-coveted Larry O’Brien trophy, which belonged to the powerful Chicago Bulls for much of the ’90s, save for a short time during Michael Jordan’s brief retirement. The Raptors would struggle for several seasons until they drafted their first full-fledged superstar – Vince Carter. With the emergence of Carter, it solidified Toronto as a viable market and no longer a trendy novelty act that paid homage to an immensely popular ’90s dinosaur movie – Jurassic Park.
When Isiah Thomas famously busted through the white, purple and red backdrop that boasted the Raptors logo and mascot to announce himself as the franchise’s first GM and president, I viewed it as a comical occurrence, simply because at that time the only other immensely popular purple dinosaur was named Barney. As a new dad to a bouncy baby boy in 1996, it was extremely difficult for me to lend any credence to this newly anointed mascot. Prior to the inaugural season, I was a die-hard New York Knicks due to the absence of anything remotely reflective of my hometown in the NBA. The Patrick Ewing-led Knicks were the closest thing to Toronto.
It is easy to see how and why the diaspora gravitated toward the likes of Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lin and Kawhi Leonard.
Things changed over the course of a few years, as the Raptors became real juggernauts in the eastern conference of the NBA and firmly implanted themselves as forces to contend with, while my beloved Knickerbockers wallowed in misery and inconsistency.
The We The North (a moniker developed by the Raptors) era, starting in 2014-15 spawned a newly formed fan base yearning for a winner, and with the additions of Masai Ujiri (president), Kawhi Leonard (2X Finals MVP) and others, that hunger for winning was fed, and done so in a methodical and calculated manner. Developing, releasing and claiming a slew of players who would shape the fabric of things to come.
After many disappointing seasons in which the Raptors failed to get over the proverbial playoff hump, the team finally clinched a finals birth and eventually celebrated the first ever NBA Championship in its 24-year history. It was definitely a sight to behold.
Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the entire world – a city with a bevy of newcomers and second- and third-generation Canadians. Many of the city’s people of colour have not ingrained themselves with the country’s national sport, hockey, the way they have with basketball. Similar to hip-hop, basketball has provided a platform for people of colour to see themselves reflected in a sport that is internationally recognized. It is easy to see how and why the diaspora gravitated toward the likes of Serge Ibaka, Jeremy Lin and Kawhi Leonard.
Basketball enabled kids like me to want to be like Mike. Or in this day and age, be like Kawhi.
Growing up Canadian while being Black, I was drawn to the sport of hockey and other winter sports, however, given my family’s financial makeup at the time, I was not able to fully immerse myself in those sports. Every Sunday afternoon, I remember watching the likes of basketball stars Magic Johnson and Michael Jordan compete on television, and I was enamored by the fact that there were so many players like them who shared the same melanated hue as myself.
The same could be said for how the likes of Black Thought from the Roots, Raekwon or Prodigy and Havoc of Mobb Deep provided a soundtrack to my childhood. They spoke my language and lived a reality familiar to me. Hip-hop and basketball went hand-in-hand. They both gave credence to an underserved population that gravitated to the success that was displayed. They both provided a platform of expression. Basketball enabled kids like me to want to be like Mike. Or in this day and age, be like Kawhi.
In June, the city of Toronto witnessed a spectacle that was beforehand unfathomable. The Toronto Raptors paraded the Larry O’Brien NBA championship trophy through the streets of downtown to throngs of adoring fans who endured the heat and congestion to catch a glimpse of their favourite team.
It was estimated that over two million fans littered the thoroughfares of the 6IX. It would be safe to say that among all those fans, a good portion of young kids will reflect on this feat as the springboard that sparked, or grew, their love of basketball. Because if, as Serge Ibaka put it in a Twitter post, “a kid from Congo … [who] was not supposed to be here” can become a NBA champion, what’s stopping them?