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We The North: The Rebrand that Sparked a Basketball Nation

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With their 20th season in the books, and the first full year of "We the North", we look back at the latest run of the Raptors and basketball in Canada.

John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Masai Ujiri reached into his pocket and made a phone call; the mastermind behind the Toronto Raptors dialed out to Sid Lee and asked for aid with a franchise forever on the brink of extinction. A partnership was struck and a motto was born. Three simple words soon reverberated from the arenas, bars, and barbershops of a nation long seen as a home of puck and ice.

We The North.

Necessity is the mother of all invention, and after trading Rudy Gay, their most talented player, the Raptors looked squarely at tanking the remainder of the 2013-2014 season. But then the magic happened. The team found that intangible gift called chemistry, and a slew of surprising wins piled up. The bandwagon rolled and the Raptors found themselves on the precipice of something they knew very little about: being relevant in the NBA landscape.

The franchise was erected in 1995 and there were many lean years for the purple Spielberg experiment, with questions of whether professional basketball could survive in north of the border. Suddenly everything changed one night in Oakland. Vince Carter put on a masterful, jaw dropping display during the 2000 Slam Dunk Contest. America was watching. The fan base exploded. Vince and his cousin Tracy McGrady were seen as the future of the NBA.

It was all short lived. A year later during the 2001 Playoffs, Vinsanity reached its peak, dueling head-to-head with league MVP Allen Iverson. Hours before tipoff of Game 6, Carter infamously went to North Carolina to attend his college graduation. He flew to Philadelphia for the game that night, and missed a corner jump shot-back of the rim-as the clock struck zero. The Raptors slowly slid back into basketball oblivion.

Ujiri arrived 13 years later, taking over a team that had narrowly escaped the fate of its long lost twin the Vancouver Grizzlies. There were two other key personnel: Tim Leiweke, the forward-thinking CEO who ran the franchise for MLSE, and newly appointed global ambassador, Drake, with his tremendous cultural status, Rolodex, and finger on the national pulse. Together they reached out to Sid Lee, a Montreal based marketing firm, with a simple end goal: connect with the average Joe and speak to something that affected the nation at its core.

Being an outsider.

The Canadian identity is a delicate flower perched in the shadow of the sequoia that is America. It's the kid who grew up wearing hand me downs from the older brother who won every trophy, every spelling bee, and dated the prom queen. There is an inherent sadness and complacency across the country. Sid Lee latched on this melancholy:

The genius of the initial video was in how it brought us together. The images of a dark, gritty Toronto evoke thoughts of The Dark Knight. A hero motif is established. The montage brilliantly weaves Raptors players with blue-collar playground stars, the frozen terrain, an internal national hellfire waiting to erupt. It's all tied together.

Some would say we're on the outside looking. But from our perspective, we're on the outside looking within.

Sid Lee reaches deep into our national scars. It echoes Prime Minister Stephen Harper's words from the 2010 Olympics, telling the country it okay to celebrate. Let loose. Show your pride. Strangely, this brings me back to Germany in 2006 during the soccer World Cup. Team Germany was the surprise squad of the tournament, and local people were waving national flags for the first time since the days of Hitler and the Third Reich. It was historic on many levels; the elder generation stood in awe of the long dormant show of national pride. Millions and millions of Germans lined the streets with red, yellow, and black. After decades of isolation and shame, a once great nation had finally forgiven itself.

One of Ujiri's greatest gifts is his innate understanding of identity. Raised in Nigeria, he has a global mindset that values the Raptors unique position in the National Basketball Association. One team. One country. With that mantra, Sid Lee made us realize we're in this battle together, and most importantly: to believe in each other.

We the North

Art by: Craig Caucasian

The team road this momentum into the 2014 Playoffs, facing the Brooklyn Nets and newfound nemesis Paul Pierce. A new color scheme was created for the Raptors metamorphosis. Sid Lee went with bold black and white. It evoked toughness. It evoked purity. And it was the colors of the new rival. Sid Lee was poking the bear.

Support for the movement began to grow nationwide. It was breathing on its on. This was uncharted water for a Canadian basketball team. Even Montreal which was notoriously anti-Toronto reached out with open arms. I spoke with journalists around the country on what they experienced.

Josh Eberly of HoopsCritic.com in Calgary, Alberta:

I remember watching game seven in the Calgary Airport at a little Chili's bar. Initially only a couple people were watching the game, but headed into the fourth a large crowd had collected just outside. As the game winded down, Kyle Lowry catches the ball, dribbles, pulls up, CLANK. A collective sigh as the Raptors season ended in one resounding misfire. ...That collective sigh, was a thing of beauty. For the first time in my life I felt like more than the basic niche of basketball lovers had actually paid attention to the NBA.

Sean François, HoopHeadsNorth.com in Halifax, Nova Scotia:

There have always been basketball fans across Canada. Atlantic Canada for example has always celebrated the game, especially at the University level, but the NBA's influence & presence and youth growing up with a Canadian NBA franchise has helped inspire them to play, whether recreational or to follow dreams to play at the highest level.

Travis Nicholson, FlagrantFowl.ca in Vancouver:

Today, an NBA franchise could thrive here. The level of support for the Raptors here is an indicator of that, and when the team held their training camp here they sold out a pre-season game against the Sacramento Kings. In a city full of transplants from everywhere, a preference for the Raptors is one thing that has definitely made the trek west. At pick-up games throughout the city there are jerseys ranging from Stoudamire to Bosh to a DeRozan throwback. We The North is represented hard here in this quiet, rainy bubble.

Justin Rowan, FearTheSword.com in Winnipeg, Manitoba:

To me, We The North is more about acknowledging that Canadian basketball has arrived and is here to stay. It's not a recruiting cry; it's a rally cry for all the hoops-heads in the country. Of course it's tied to the Toronto Raptors, with Toronto serving as the Mecca of Canadian basketball. Bout to me it's always going to be about the passion of the fans. It's the outlet we've been looking for to display our love for the best game ever.

Pascal LeBlanc, La Presse in Montreal:

"We The North", a su rassembler non seulement les passionnés de basket et les résidants de Toronto, mais le pays en entier. Cette phrase réussit à exprimer notre singularité, notre fierté et notre richesse collective. Pour la première fois, des Canadiens et des Québécois qui ne sont pas réellement des amateurs de basket voulaient voir les Raptors gagner. Lors de leur visite à Montréal en octobre, les Raptors ont traduit leur slogan en français: Le Nord c'est nous. Depuis ce moment, les Raptors sont réellement devenus l'équipe de tout un pays.

Ryan Henry of BelowTheHardwood.com in Toronto:

We The North is more than a slogan for the Raptors. It's an anti-culture movement, a war cry and a driving tool to get more than just Canadians but the world to see we take basketball just as a serious as they do. To give Canadian aspiring athletes hope that they can one day play in the NBA, a goal that once was looked at as an impossible feat. To educate our own about the game that's played on hardwood can be just as beautiful as the one played on ice. To show you don't have to leave home and travel somewhere else to make something of yourself.

***

That summer, after the shocking Game 7 loss to Brooklyn, I found myself on a flight to Spain. Walking the streets of Barcelona and Madrid, I couldn't believe what I was seeing. Everywhere I went I kept bumping into people wearing Toronto Raptors gear. And not just Jose Calderon fans, I'm talking people wearing Vince Carter and T-Mac jerseys. Unfathomable. I mentioned this to Masai Ujiri and he spoke on building a global brand:

"We're trying to grow more. We don't want be one of those guys that cry about being outside the NBA, or its cold in Toronto. We don't care one bit about that. We want to be our own team. And we have a unique opportunity in Canada: One team. One country. We're the one team outside the United States, and that's internationally. Why can't we be the biggest team outside the United States? I think that responsibility is on me."

While in Spain I was covering the FIBA Basketball World Cup, which carried beautiful moments like when DeMar DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas faced off oceans away from the north side. DeRozan was the epitome of determination, the last player off the court after practice, in a Team USA jersey few thought he would ever obtain. DeMar explained to me what We The North meant to him:

"It means a lot to me personally. Because I've been there the longest, out of everybody outside of Amir (Johnson). Just to see how much the city, how much loyality the city has-or Raptor fans in general. It's definitely amazing. So just to grow with that and see how far it came, it definitely means a lot to me personally."

As the movement continued to grow, others began reacting to Sid Lee's brilliance. The Atlanta Hawks fought back with We The South. Map experts reminded us the Minnesota Timberwolves and Portland Trailblazers were both latitudinal north of Toronto. Even the Montreal Canadiens fan base came up with #OuiTheNorth to flame the rivalry between Canada's two solitudes.

The beautiful synchronicity of all this was that Canadian Basketball was also walking onto the world basketball stage. Steve Nash's illustrious career was coming to a bittersweet close and Andrew Wiggins was emerging from the shadow of LeBron James. By the middle of the wunderkind's first year, he was being anointed NBA crown prince en route to his first major award Rookie of the Year. Naismith's game was being placed in good hands.

But it wasn't just Wiggins, a golden generation was harvesting; offshoots began sprouting up everywhere. Sport Chek's My North commercials, the Bio Steel All-Canadian Game shouting Look Up To The North. Blogs and basketball radio shows were popping up around the country. Clothing lines. Mass fandom. Everyone was buying in.

Yet the Truth hurts.

Our old nemesis Paul Pierce knocked out our front teeth again, this time wearing red, white, and blue. His Washington Wizards swept the Raptors in 2015, a glorified beating on American soil. He told us we didn't have it, then hit the big shots we couldn't.

It felt like it was gone before it ever really happened. The millions of fans lining Jurassic Park on game day, the American media attention, the Great White North glued to our televisions.

I talked to Kyle Lowry-- the face of the franchise--on why he re-signed with the organization. I asked if the Raptors had family atmosphere like the mighty San Antonio Spurs:

"I mean we have great people from top to bottom, from the ownership group to the guy who sweep the floor. We're all treated equally, so when you have that from top to bottom, it makes life a lot easier."

And that's why the movement lives on. The Raptors adapted a Canadian way of life. A "we not me" mentality. They became citizens of the North. And then they passed the ball back to us.

Masai Ujiri woke a sleeping giant. He made a country dig deep and find pride it didn't know existed. He told a country to stop chasing its demons. We are not America. We are not John Wayne. We're a nation of outsiders, and its time for Canada to start living life on our own terms.