Earlier today over at SLAM Magazine, friend of the site (and former manager) Alex Wong put together an oral history of the making of the Toronto Raptors’ first ever jersey. In saying those words, I’m positive you can already picture the one I’m talking about — purple, spiky pinstripes, huge red cartoon dinosaur, just the whole dang deal.
In the telling of the tale though, we get a glimpse into some of the truly bat-shit ideas these insane people had for: a) branding, b) marketing basketball in Canada, and c) design. If the Raptors jersey has proven to stand the test of time as a one of a kind artifact of its era, it’s because the dudes at the wheel of the franchise were, quite frankly, crazy. It’s amazing we’ve lasted this long in Toronto.
Here are the top 10 insane quotes from the piece, with some commentary for each.
10. “Jurassic Park was very popular, and the Raptor just fit what we wanted to be. It had ferocity and intelligence, and the Raptor was known for its intellect and one of the smartest dinosaurs. It fit what we were trying to impart into our team.”
Here’s Isiah Thomas, the first face of the franchise as part owner and vice-president, summing up what he thought the Toronto Raptors would come to represent. On the face of it, this is not completely crazy — Raptors (as seen in Jurassic Park anyway) were thought to be intelligent and ferocious pack animals, so points on that one. Still, I would have loved to be in the room the first time someone leaned over to Thomas to say, The Graduate-like: “Raptors.”
9. “You could make jokes, but we would come at you like a pack of Raptors.”
You’re right, Tracy Murray (who played in every game of the inaugural 1995-96 season), you could indeed make jokes. Also, the team finished 21-61 — I wouldn’t call them a successful pack of Raptors just yet.
8. “On the one hand, it didn’t matter because I was such a huge basketball fan, so it was like, who cares, Toronto is getting a basketball team. And then it was like, what are they called? What was that thing? What does that have to do with Toronto and Canada?”
Much love to J.E. Skeets here for capturing so much of what it felt like to be a Raptors fan in the early days. I was about nine years old when I first heard the news, and while my reaction wasn’t quite like this (again, I was nine and a dinosaur nut), it checks out. Can you imagine being, say, a 20-something basketball fan and hearing your home town was about to get a pro team called the freakin’ Raptors? Sometimes I don’t know how this all worked.
7. “John was a younger guy, and while he didn’t frown on Canadian pride, he told me, “The last thing I want is a maple leaf with a basketball. I want this to be an international brand.””
That’s Tom O’Grady, NBA Creative Director, reminding us all that John Bitove Jr., the majority team owner of one of two Canadian professional basketball teams, really wanted to jettison the whole “Canada” thing. The league-wide conference call on this one must have taken all afternoon.
6. “John and I felt focusing on the youth and capturing the next generation was the most important thing. We spent a lot of time studying Disney and McDonald’s. When you look at someone like Mickey Mouse, we wanted something that would basically stand the test of time.”
This one is Thomas again, and I must say it’s a quote that really goes on a journey. He’s ruminating youth, he’s talking about the next generation, then he’s listing off powerful brand like Disney, McDonald’s, Mickey Mouse.
In one sense, you could really believe that Thomas was thinking big, big picture (that he’d be out of Toronto two years later didn’t seem to occur to him). But the part I keep coming back to is that last bit. Thomas really wanted this logo to “stand the test of time” — which rings as insanely comical when you consider they were basing the whole thing on a movie that happened to come out the year before.
5. “It was awesome. It hit everything that we wanted. It was global. It was different. It was animal-like.”
Bitove, meanwhile, is tripping absolute balls by this point. Where is my man John now? Good lord he was flying high in the 90s.
4. “We had a lime green version. We had gold as the color instead of silver. We had various different versions.”
This is something I needed to learn today. I needed to learn that the Toronto Raptors, my beloved hometown basketball team, once seriously considered making their logo lime green. I have no words for this. There were literally scores of marketing people on this file, the future of Canadian basketball, and the expansion plans of the NBA, were on the line. And they almost went with a lime green logo! I feel like David Stern would have rescinded this deal faster than the Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade.
3. “The lime green Raptor was a very close second. At the end of the day, we had to have some red because we’re in Canada, so I said fine, we’ll put the Canadian red in there so there’s some Canadian in it.”
As it turns out, thank goodness, the laws and edicts of Can-Con may have saved us. Or the league stepped in and said there is no way in hell you can launch this dang team with a lime green logo. Hard not to read the disappointment in Bitove’s voice though — my dude was all-in on the green.
2. “We have a lineup of people at the door at our store ready to buy whatever dinosaur piece we have. It doesn’t matter if it’s a hat, a jersey, a t-shirt, a jacket. I could drop a floor-length parka with a dinosaur logo in July and someone would buy it. It’s definitely the most sought-after sports logo in the store.”
A floor-length parka! In July 2019! Will wonders never cease.
1. “In 2017, the Vince Carter 1998-99 season jersey was our fifth best selling authentic jersey. The authentic Raptors shorts were fifth and the Swingman shorts were seventh. The Raptors warm-up jacket was our sixth best selling outerwear piece. The Raptors are definitely one of our top-selling teams.”
But of course, finally, we end on this: the above quote is from Lynn Bloom, a divisional director at Mitchell & Ness. She confirms something that I find, today, particularly insane. Through it out, through the ups and downs, through the facts of history (such as Vince Carter really only wearing that jersey for one year), through the cartoon purple and the undeniable ugliness of the time, through the cyclical vagaries of fashion and everything fickle about the public taste, we have arrived at this moment.
The first Toronto Raptors jersey was and is an undeniable success. That’s some truly inspiring — and insane — stuff.