Editorial Cartoon by Graeme MacKay, The Hamilton Spectator – Saturday June 15, 2019
Basketball gets an energy infusion from the Raptors
Today, at basketball courts across Canada, the squeak of sneakers on hardwood and the thump of dribbling balls is a little more energetic thanks to the Toronto Raptors.
Twenty-four years ago, when they first took to the court, subject to jeers from around the National Basketball Association due to their purple jerseys and cartoon-like logo, few people held out much hope the Raptors would become the best team in the world. In fact, there was skepticism that NBA basketball would even catch on in hockey-mad Canada.
And in Vancouver, home of the only other Canadian franchise, it didn’t. After a few years of struggling the Grizzlies were moved to Memphis.
But Toronto was different. They played second or even third fiddle to the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays, but the Raps got a claw-hold in Toronto early. They didn’t get a lot of respect from the league or NBA stars largely disinterested in playing in our comparatively frigid climate, but they did draw fans.
They didn’t have a lot of talent overall, but they were able to draw some all-star calibre players like Damon Stoudamire, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh. Sometimes, when the team overall wasn’t much fun to watch, those players were worth the price of admission.
Then, along came Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozen. The team moved up a notch in terms of respect and credibility. But they got stuck, caught between their own limitations and an indomitable force named LeBron James.
Here’s where the Raptors story takes on the characteristics of a Hollywood script. The organization hires as president Masai Ujiri, an elegant, eloquent man from Nigeria with a great basketball mind. He makes a tough decision and trades team and fan favourite DeRozen and gets in exchange from the San Antonio Spurs a puzzle piece by the name of Kawhi Leonard. Painfully soft-spoken, injured for most of the previous year, but recognized as a potentially great player, Leonard was widely seen as a smart but risky acquisition.
Turns out Ujiri wasn’t just smart, he was a genius. The Raptors carefully nursed Leonard back to full health and Thursday night he hoisted the NBA trophy, quite possibly the best basketball player on the planet.
There is a lot to like about this edition of the Raptors, aside from the fact that they are now NBA champions. There’s Ujiri, who leads a nonprofit group called Giants of Africa, which aims to create pathways to success through basketball for African youth. There’s head coach Nick Nurse, an assistant until this season who took over from the popular Dwane Casey and turns out to be a brilliant head coach. There’s Kyle Lowry, blue collar guard saddled with a reputation of underperformance in the playoffs. Not any more. There’s Cameroonian player Pascal Siakam, who didn’t even take up basketball until he was 15. There’s Marc Gasol, who in the off season has worked to help migrants and refugees.
There’s the team’s overall diversity, with players from around the world coming together to adopt Leonard’s steely, unperturbable, never-too-high, never-too-low approach to the game. And they defeated the dynastic Golden State Warriors, led by future Hall of Fame guard Steph Curry, who played in Southern Ontario during his school years while his father, Dell, played for the Raptors.
Professional athletes are not heroes. That honour is reserved for people who dedicate themselves to helping others and not getting paid millions while doing it. But pro athletes can be admirable, collectively and individually. And they can bring welcome joy and fun into the lives of fans, which the Raptors have most certainly done. Thanks for that. (Hamilton Spectator)