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On Drake, Celebrity and Cultural Relevancy in the NBA

What does Drake really mean to the Raptors, and has the team started to close the cultural relevancy divide in the NBA?

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Claus Andersen

I just want to get it on the record that I supported the Drake ambassadorship from day one. Sure, it's easy to laugh at press conferences that include a red-faced Rob Ford or goofy TV segments with Cabbie -- to say nothing of lint rollers -- but the essence of the idea was and continues to be quite sound. For the Raptors to break into the upper echelon of the modern NBA, it is going to take more than just winning the most games.

Last month at The Diss, Jacob Greenberg posted a missive that essentially boils down to a feeling many Raptor fans have had for years: win or lose, the Toronto Raptors just can't get any attention. The issue, as Greenberg outlines, starts with the NBA's current business model:

It is a poorly kept secret that just a handful teams are tasked with carrying the NBA's brand, using a combination of market size, on-court success and visibility, television market share, and historical presence to supersede the NBA as a corporate entity, and become bigger than the league as a whole.

It's a powerful assertion, one that highlights the ineffable significance some teams have in the league. As Greenberg concedes, some of this is based on history. The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics, for example, remain relevant because of their mutual legacies. The New York Knicks will always sit in the continent's largest media market. Small market teams like the San Antonio Spurs can reach a greater relevancy, but it may take 20 years of sustained organizational excellence to achieve such a reputation. And the Spurs can still sift through countless think pieces that mistakenly dismiss them as "boring."

What Greenberg points to is a relatively new path teams can take to escape anonymity. He looks instead to the effect celebrity is having on the NBA. As he states:

[T]he presence of a cultural icon - a celebrity, a politician, a socialite - can go a long way towards making a previously invisible team tangible, knowable and eventually beloved.

When people talk about success in the NBA, they usually talk about the two most prized positions for a team: the superstar-laden top and the barren wasteland bottom. The former is a group of teams that seem to vie for success year after year, going away only to reload for another run at the top; while the latter looks to move into that group through years of bad play, lottery luck and shrewd strategic moves.

Both groups have traction, in the league and in the media, as models for competitive progression. The death knell for a team, as we've been told, comes from being in that third middle group, the one that fails at reaching either the top or the bottom. Now, these positions can all be objectively explained with numbers and records. We'll always tend to respect and talk about teams that win -- unless a team pushes for competitive respectability only to find itself still outside the conversation. This alludes to Greenberg's other division, one felt by some of the league's teams regardless of position: the cultural relevancy divide.

For Raptor fans, this is nothing new. We see it when Bill Simmons writes his playoff preview that mentions every participating team except the Raptors. We see it when Raptor draft picks are met with a seemingly disinterested or confused reaction by studio analysts, their eagerness to move onto the next subject all but palpable. The national TV schedule and its marquee games? They're still mostly given to other big market franchises, regardless of standing. Yes, despite even the franchise's Vinsanity fueled apex, the Raptors have long been a team that is worse than competitively middling. They've been forgotten.

All of this scratches a Toronto-centric itch that has been screaming for the better part of a decade. When are the Raptors going to be taken seriously? What will they have to do to gain any sort of real consideration?

This all brings us back to Drake. He's just a figurehead, totally powerless to affect the competitive status of the Raptors. And yet, he's been the most visible -- and effective -- symbol of change. The team's on-court successes, buttressed by the presence of general manager Masai Ujiri, and off-court identity, boosted by the guidance of CEO Tim Leiweke, have finally begun working in tandem. Hosting the 2016 All-Star Game, building a new state-of-the-art practice facility, even running #WeTheNorth ad campaign, are all important means - along with winning basketball games - by which the Raptors can stake their claim in the modern NBA landscape. As Greenberg concludes:

What will emerge from these two contentious negotiations [the television deal of 2016 and probable collective bargaining agreement of 2017] - among many other things - will be a redefining of who deserves to be seen on the sport's brightest stages, as well as the means they can employ to fight their way into that spotlight, whether they deserve to be there or not.

The Raptors are not going to win the NBA championship in the next few years. But, they are appearing on national TV a handful of times this season, and the team's name is on more minds and tongues than it was last year. The culture gap between the prominent franchises in the league and Canada's lone team does feel a little less yawning. Winning still may be the only thing; but for the Raptors, having internalized the new lessons of the NBA, it isn't quite everything.