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A Farewell to Terrence Ross: Hope is a funny, resilient thing

Being a sports fan is inherently irrational. At times with Terrence Ross it was downright sadistic. But hope is a funny thing.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Toronto Raptors Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports

Terrence Ross exudes apathy. It’s his most awe-inspiring strength and simultaneously his greatest downfall. When Good Terrence is engaged, his soaring dunks and silky jumpers are made more impressive by the simple fact that they’re coming from a guy with such an unassuming resting pose. Ross isn’t Russell Westbrook or DeAndre Jordan. He doesn’t radiate kinetic energy; he catches you off guard with micro-bursts of supreme athletic talent. On nights when the jack-in-the-box unfurls in rapid succession, there are few players capable of wrapping a crowd so tightly around their finger.

It’s on those nights where Ross electrifies that he also stupefies. Watching him break loose of his easy-going demeanor for one game leaves you salivating at the thought of him stringing performances like it together.

This was the perpetual tug-of-war game Ross played with Raptors fans during his four-plus years with the franchise. As much as we may have wanted it, Ross was never going to mirror the sociopathic dedication of DeMar DeRozan or Kyle Lowry. His aloofness bred inconsistency, and in turn, disappointed frustration.

Investing emotionally in stars is safe. The odds of gratification are high when you hang your hopes on a Lowry or DeRozan. A spell of poor play is rarely prolonged, and you’re never far off from the next dazzling performance. It’s comfortable. Hitching your wagon to someone with the propensity to dishearten — like Ross — is not.

For the last few years, as you might know if you follow me on Twitter, I opted to partake in the volatile exercise of tying my daily moods to Ross and his nightly performances. There’s little logic behind why I became so infatuated with the Terry Experience. His Raptors career featured far more nadirs than climaxes. In 363 games with the Raptors, the guy whose name I had never heard when he was drafted in 2012 surpassed the 20-point mark just 23 times.

For every adrenaline-pumping dunk came a handful of classic Ross miscues. Lapsed defensive rotations or lazy passes to opponents from his own back court were his greatest hits. Every error gave ammo to those who preferred to see Ross play elsewhere.

“You can’t rely on him.”

“I’m out on Terrence Ross.”

These were the common refrains. Even I had a hard time resisting the urge to give up at times.

The sheer lunacy of his 51-point outburst against the Clippers in late January 2014 justifiably earned Ross a lot of rope. Superstars score 51 points. Hall-of-Famers shoot 10-of-17 on threes. Vince Carter is supposed to hold franchise scoring records. That Ross could be so prolific seemingly because he felt like it that day surely meant that he was a cornerstone in the making, didn’t it? For some fans, the belief that night spawned dissipated as it grew clearer that it was likely an anomaly. For others, like yours truly, Ross’ career night laid down roots of fanaticism that weren’t going to be unearthed by a mere slump, no matter how prolonged.

Playoff scenarios were often a testing ground for one’s dedication to Ross, with the round one loss in 2014 probably standing as the low-point of his Toronto tenure. He had broken out that season after inheriting a starting gig from Rudy Gay. From December-on that season, Ross found something resembling consistency, frequently eclipsing double digits and shooting a career-high percentage (39.5) on a career-high volume of threes (5 attempts/game). In just his second season, Ross had taken his first opportunity and run with it. In some moments, stardom felt inevitable. Games 83 through 89 of the franchise’s turnaround season, however, coloured Ross’ reputation more heavily than any of the preceding 82 (save for that one in late January).

In his first taste of playoff ball, Ross was enveloped by the yips. Confidence turned to skittishness, swishes became bricks and effectiveness melted into liability. Only four of the 24 long-distance shots he fired found nylon. Not even DeRozan or Lowry have dropped to Ross’ 35.6 True Shooting levels during their numerous playoff struggles. He was unplayable.

But because he’s Terrence Ross, he managed to salvage his darkest moment with one of those signature Ross plays — equal parts exhilarating and infuriating — at a time when the Raptors needed it most. Down one in the closing seconds of Game 7, Ross did this:

The one time Paul Pierce has ever looked flappable in the Air Canada Centre was initiated by Terrence freaking Ross. This is what he was capable of in his peak form. That it took 335 minutes and 51 seconds for him to muster any sort of energy in that first round series speaks to the maddening enigma Ross was as a Raptor. Plays like that one were enough to keep the foundation of my Ross support sturdy, regardless of how many hiccups occurred in between.

It was the 2014-15 season that drew the lines between Ross’ believers and detractors, with far more fans winding up on the side of the latter. Skinny and easy-to-move wings don’t cut it against the NBA’s best teams. Ross became a symbol of what that Raptors team lacked: experience, physicality and a prayer of hanging with the East’s elite. Career-worst three-point shooting and energy levels extinguished any embers of hope left burning after his first playoff no-show. Ross hadn’t just plateaued, he’d regressed. Future All-Star nods were sufficiently wiped off the table. DeMarre Carroll was brought in as an exact counter to the lackadaisical nature Ross had come to embody.

His fourth season brought a much-debated (and ultimately vital) contract extension, as well as a renaissance of sorts. Ross’ tool kit had always been conducive to the reserve-gunner lifestyle. Many a Sixth Man has succeeded with lesser quick-fire scoring and shooting skills. It made sense for the Raptors to test his viability as a starter. But like a hard-throwing starting pitcher without an elaborate repertoire, maybe he was always destined for bullpen duty; come off the bench, embrace a focused role, and if you fuck up, there’s always tomorrow.

It took time for Ross to acclimate to chucker status. Early returns in 2015-16 were added fodder for those lobbying to cut bait with him once and for all. As the calendar turned from November to December, though, Ross began to pepper box scores with encouraging results. Double digit scoring outputs became the norm, and the discourse surrounding him swung back towards the positive end of the spectrum. No longer was he a salary-dump in waiting. Maybe he was a real asset for the Raptors to one day — maybe at the deadline, or perhaps in the summer — turn into a tangible upgrade to the roster. More than a season and a half of mostly reliable bench production later, it was time.

Tuesday’s trade marked a mutually beneficial end to Ross’ relationship with the franchise. In Serge Ibaka, Toronto found the power forward it had coveted since Chris Bosh’s departure seven years ago. In the process, it balanced its roster and opened up minutes for yet another potential-oozing wing prospect. Ross gets a fresh start, removed from any residual expectations lingering from his top-10 draft status. In Orlando, Ross won’t be blocked by an All-Star or high-priced free agent signing. On a talent and shooting-starved team with nothing to play for, Ross’ light should be an even deeper hue of green than it was in his sixth-man role with the Raptors.

Everyone wins in the deal — even a Ross super fan can realize that. But it’s still okay to feel a little blue in the aftermath.

I’m going to miss Ross’ aerial ambitiousness that (most of the time) left everyone watching in stunned amazement. I’m going to miss the waves of vindication that washed over me whenever Gunner Terry’s stove was still hot when he checked it. I’ll miss the fleeting moments where Paul George 2.0 seemed like the likely endpoint of his developmental curve.

Anyone who has lived and died with the Raptors for a decade or longer should be able to relate to the magnetism of Ross, regardless of if you fell for his scarce and hypnotic flashes of stardom.

Rooting for Ross’ was complex; a mix of blood-boiling and satisfying that felt much like being a fan of the Raptors organization itself. History suggests that with Ross, or the Raptors, any glimmer of success comes with the specter of imminent failure lurking around the corner. Because of your investment, the weight of what has come before doesn’t dampen your enthusiasm. Instead, it forces you to appreciate the moments when the going is good, and romanticize when you reflect upon them. Ross dropping 51 felt equivalent to a run-of-the-mill star netting 80, in the same way that last year’s Eastern Conference Finals run truly felt like a championship win for the Raptors franchise.

As we’ve seen in the time since those touchstones, it’s rare and difficult to reach that kind of pinnacle. Sustainability is elusive, and emotional gratitude is fickle. With some good fortune, the timing of Toronto’s break-up with Ross might just create the conditions for both sides to achieve a steadier state of existence.