On October 29th, 2010, I hit a crossroads with my Raptors fandom.
Home for my birthday during my first year of university, the main event was a trip to see the Raptors take on the Cleveland Cavaliers in the second game of the post-Chris Bosh era. As you might expect, given the even bigger personnel loss the Cavs were dealing with at the time, the game was a two-and-a-half hour haze of sadness.
Despite the Raptors winning 101-81 that night, I couldn't help but walk away feeling somber about the team I'd lived and died with since Vince Carter's peak years roped me in. Andrea Bargnani led Toronto with 20 points (he also had just one measly rebound, because of course) with Linas Kleiza's 19 a close second; hardly a foundation a fan could feel good about in the wake of losing the then second-best player the franchise had ever seen. The mum feeling in the crowd that night, even as the Raptors cruised to a victory, mirrored my psyche as I exited the Air Canada Centre.
That win, over an Anthony Parker and Ramon Sessions-led Cleveland team, was one of just 22 the team would collect that year. In addition to losing the third most games in team history in 2010-11, the Raptors also lost my attention. Away from the city for school, it seemed prudent to direct my focus away from a team that seemed destined to disappoint for years to come. Call me fair-weather, call me thin-skinned, call me a bad fan, but it didn't seem worth the investment of time to stay dedicated to a team that had let me down with unending mediocrity for a decade.
It took Bryan Colangelo's last-resort trade for Rudy Gay during the 2012-13 season to reawaken my Raptors soft spot, with the subsequent deal that sent Gay to Sacramento and kick-started the We The North era serving as final blow to my apathy. I was back in, with a lot of the same intense fandom I allowed to consume me from ages 7 to 17.
For the last year or so, I've tried to temper the voracious fan in me as I've started covering games and making a more concerted effort to be forever-rational. But I'd be lying if I said it didn't tingle my spine a bit to be in attendance for the Raptors first 50th win ever against the Hawks on Wednesday.
Is the 50-win mark an arbitrary benchmark forged mostly out of our desire for sexy, round numbers? Absolutely. Was tonight's particular game, with the Raptors comfortably in the two-seed in the East, ultimately meaningless? Of course it was. But for fans who have endured so much during the 21 seasons of the Raptors' existence, 50 wins is an accomplishment that validates the years of putting up with unmatched expectations. The Carter-era highs and lows, the ill-fated playoff runs of the Bosh years, the O'Neill(Neal)s, Kevin and Jermaine, Ben Uzoh's lottery-sabotaging triple-double and the three year span of complete disillusionment all seem worth it now, to me at least.
There are certainly reasons to feel trepidatious about where this season might ultimately wind up. Kyle Lowry is the motor of this team - and he had fluid drained from his elbow with nine games remaining on the schedule and has shot a miserable percentage over the last five games (he posted an ugly 4-of-19 mark against the Hawks Wednesday night).
Then there's DeMarre Carroll, whose signing was supposed to provide the Raptors with the kind of defensive pillar that would help Toronto exorcise it's past playoff shortcomings. With just 23 games this season, Carroll has yet to live up to his mandate. And while he appeared confident about his odds of returning before the playoffs tip off when addressing the media Wednesday, you can hardly fault fans for being skeptical until they see him physically enter a game given the history of failed big-ticket acquisitions they've been exposed to.
But even if the Raptors fizzle out again in the playoffs, it shouldn't take away from the immensely fun six month experience this year's team has supplied its fans. No disappointing playoff loss can take away Kyle Lowry's game-winner against Cleveland, or the wildly entertaining spurts of energy Lucas Nogueira has randomly popped in for. Vines of DeMar DeRozan crowning Rudy Gobert and Norman Powell's gorgeous dunk against Atlanta are going to loop in perpetuity. Toronto will always have two All-Stars in the 2015-16 season. Terrence Ross became pop culture-relevant while simultaneously making his new contract look like a bargain. Bismack Biyombo, a $2 million player from the junk pile, became an instant fan favourite. Do I need to go on? There have been endless positives to be derived from what's happened leading up to tonight's milestone victory that will still be entrenched in Raptors history even if a repeat of last year's playoff letdown takes place in mid-April.
Dwane Casey was predictably modest about the accomplishment in his post game press conference.
"I think it's a good step for us. Again like I told the team, we're not done yet, it's an accomplishment that they can't take away from you and that we have to continue to get better in bigger areas to fry the bigger fish," the Raptors coach said.
That's a fair organizational philosophy to live by. So much of this franchise's future rides on what happens when the playoffs start up on April 16th. Casey's job security, Lowry and DeRozan's long-term fit with the club and much more could be determined by what happens when the games really start to matter.
But for fans who have seen so much ugliness from the Raptors franchise, with very little gratification to show for it, it can't hurt to take a minute on a night like this to ogle at the fish the best regular season team in franchise history has already mounted on the wall.