At their mutual cores, the city of Toronto and its hometown basketball team, the Raptors, are more than just geographically linked. There's a spiritual connection here, a shared identity taken on by both the franchise's players and the fans who watch them play. As the NBA's All-Star weekend kicks off today, it was impossible to ignore the feeling that this inextricable bond between Toronto and the Raptors is what makes everything happening right now feel so special. It wasn't always this way.
"Toronto was kind of one of those teams that you go 'Oh they're good, but they're Toronto," said two-time NBA All-Star starter Kyle Lowry. As a prevailing sentiment for both the team and the city, that line from Lowry hurts in its absolute truth. Always with the Raptors there was a qualifier. When they made the playoffs in 2014, they were a surprise. When they made it in 2015, they didn't have, as Paul Pierce said, "it." But as Lowry looked out over the surrounding media today, and felt the buzz growing in the city, it was easy for him to admit something else: "But now we've really become a force."
Few players in Raptors history have embodied that Toronto spirit more than Lowry. He's the young guy who had to work his way up through multiple teams, always playing behind one or two other point guards, always seemingly on the outs. He was good, but he was Lowry. To watch him explode over the past three years into the player he's become now is matched only by the growth in the profile of Toronto and the Raptors themselves. As the city has embraced him, Lowry understands now what it means to play for Canada's lone team. "I think the first time [in the All-Star game] is always special, but now it's home," acknowledged Lowry. "My hometown and where I play every night and what I represent about the team. It's great. There's an excitement and a buzz around the city and there's a buzz around me and my family and my friends, and especially a buzz for me and DeMar. It's a special time."
On the other side of the room sat Lowry's best pal DeMar DeRozan, named to the All-Star team for the second time in his career. It's the first time two Raptors have ever made the team at the same time. "It's big. It's something you can never take away from us," said DeRozan when asked about how it felt to join the team along with Lowry. "This organization has been through it all, and you see our progression with the players, the team, the organization, the coaching staff and you gotta contribute all of that to this, how far it came. You got two guys in the All-Star Game representing our organization."
DeRozan, at 26, is the longest serving Raptor on the current team. He was drafted at the end of the Chris Bosh era and got to ride with the team as it drove off a cliff. As he has steadily improved from a high-volume shooter to a more productive and efficient player, its been the Raptors who've gained along with him. When asked though, DeRozan was hard-pressed to come up with a specific moment when he knew things were turning around. "I'm not sure," said DeRozan. "It happened so fast, when you look back on it. You're not sure where it really started."
But like Lowry, DeRozan understands the connection he has now with the city and its latent "little brother" quality. "I think we always just looked for support from within our city, we always got that and when everything else came, we never expected it," said DeRozan. "So we still fight for this city, fight for this country, and have an underdog mentality."
The city of Toronto, to lean on an old cliche, is like the big fish in a small pond. Canada of course is massive, but Toronto stands far bigger and brighter than the rest of the country. (OK, maybe my opinion is a bit biased.) But outside of Canada, Toronto yearns to be acknowledged on the world stage. Multiple times this morning, NBA players compared the city to Chicago or New York, as if to suggest Toronto was still a degree below. In other words, good, but Toronto.
With NBA All-Star Weekend in Toronto, two Raptors involved in the festivities, and the team firmly entrenched as one of the top squads in the league, it feels like everything in the city is aligning on the big stage. The old underdog mentality may be there, but the qualifiers are coming off.