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Culture Watch: Prepare for the Northern Invasion

The Raptors hit New York this past week, and they brought the whole city with them.

Chicago Bulls v Toronto Raptors Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

This past week I had the opportunity to follow the Raptors on the road and watch them obliterate both the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets. While the scores were not surprising, the number of Raptors fans traveling far and wide, was.

When I left Toronto for New York on Friday, I was a little bit anxious about missing the Raptors vs. Rockets game. It was a big one, after all, with the Rockets on a hot 17 game win streak. It is also always a treat to watch P.J. Tucker play. I cleared customs, and headed to the waiting area, determined to find a television showing the game. I didn’t have to look very far though, as nearly every screen in Pearson International Airport was tuned in, along with more Raptors fans than I could count on both hands.

A flight from Toronto to New York City is only about an hour long, but when a statement game is on the line, that feels like a lifetime. As the Captain turned off the seatbelt sign, and the city lights illuminated the runway, I, like the majority of my generation, rushed to check my phone. Not for texts though (who are we kidding, I have like three friends and one is my mom), but to see if the Raptors could really pull it off. And they did. “The Raptors won!” I said to my fiancée, loud enough for a stranger a few seats away to reply “Did they?!” Within a few seconds, there was a small group of people who had never met before sharing a moment of happiness. A short cheer in a cramped airplane, and it was all because of the Raptors.

Before even arriving at Madison Square Garden I met my first Raptors fan of the day, in a restaurant. His name was Jack, and he was five years old. Jack and his father were from New Jersey, and had purchased tickets to this game for Jack’s grandfather, Lance, for Christmas. Lance, a travel blogger, is originally from Hunstville, Ontario, but his love for the Raptors has followed him across the globe, and down through three generations. Jack also drew a picture of the Raptor for Raptors HQ, and guys I think we should hold onto this one. Something tells me it’s going to be worth a pretty penny one day!

A drawing of a Raptor by 5 year old Jack

I met Steve and his daughter, Sidney after taking about five steps towards the Garden. Steve, a Raptors fan since the inaugural season, and Sidney had travelled all the way from North Bay, Ontario to watch the game. I asked Steve who his favourite Raptor is, and he told me that recently it was none other than Fred VanVleet. So it came as no surprise that when asked what he thinks separates the Raptors from the rest of the league, he believes it is their bench.

Dvai and his young daughter, Krishni, from Toronto made the March Break trip to NYC, and I had the pleasure of sitting beside Krishni for the entire game. She may have been young, but this girl knows her hoops, telling me immediately that the Raptors need to work on their defense. The sparkle in her eye when she told me that she would also be attending the Raptors game against the Clippers on Kyle Lowry’s birthday, and the way she called out rebounds, and cheered the whole game through bites of cotton candy, made it clear that Toronto needs a WNBA team to continue to inspire girls like Krishni.

Dvai and Krishni

Sitting just a few seats from Krishni and Dvai was Michael, who was celebrating his 31st birthday that day! What a way to spend a birthday, Michael.

Trent and Trenton, who are not twins, but are just nine year old best friends with very similar names (seriously, how cool is that?), also came from Toronto to see their favourite player, DeMar DeRozan, and to get a handshake from him in the tunnel as he finished warmups.

The final family I met on the day of the Raptors and Knicks game was a family from New Jersey, divided on their favourite players, with Dad and son choosing DeRozan, daughter choosing Lowry, and Mom choosing Jonas Valanciunas. Though they may not agree on the best player, they all agree that the Raptors bench is what makes them a force to be reckoned with.

A family of Raptors fans from New Jersey

Before even approaching the Barclays Center on Tuesday, the scene looked like it could have been the Air Canada Centre. Two entire coach buses filled to the brim with Raptors fans had made their way to Brooklyn. It was a sea of red, and an atmosphere buzzing with pride. Danny, Chris, “Big Col”, Ryan, Mike, Chuck, and Stas all travelled on the Raptors fans buses. The boys didn’t have the same taste in players, but all agreed that the Raptors chemistry on and off the court is what makes them special. Perhaps the most colourful analogy, they described watching the Raptors to watching figure skating in a way that “pleases their eyes.” Thanks guys.

These guys described watching the Raptors like “watching ice skaters”

Gorgeous Rebecca and her husband, Aloy, are lifelong Raptors fans and soulmates. Both agree that DeRozan is their favourite player, and that the bench is what separates the Raptors from the rest of the league (could this be the key to a happy marriage?). Rebecca’s Instagram is full of snippets of Raptors games and Raptors inspired fashion choices.

Rebecca and Aloy

Riley, Billy, and Owen are DeMar DeRozan fans who also bussed down to New York from Toronto. I asked them what separates the Raptors from the rest of the league, and they told me, “They’re from Canada.” They aren’t wrong. Billy also gave me his phone number. Thanks Billy! I am way too old for you, but thanks for thinking I’ve still got it!

After some convincing by the group of girls he was with, Shelique from Toronto answered a few of my questions. His favourite Raptor is DeMar DeRozan, he is intrigued by the Raptors brotherhood, and their position as the underdogs of the NBA. He is also very tall and I could listen to him speak all day. His friends said to “make him famous” so you can find him here on Twitter and here on Instagram.

Shelique and his friends

Kendall and Gary were the next Raptors fans I had the privilege of meeting. They traveled all the way from Newfoundland, and have been following the Raptors since Gary was seven years old.

Kendall and Gary

I spotted Avery and Marc when they were taking a picture with Kat Stefankiewicz. This and their Raptors jerseys made it pretty clear which team they came to support. Marc and Avery were from Alliston, Ontario, and while both are fans of DeRozan, they agree that the speed and youth of the Raptors bench is what makes them a frontrunner in the league this year.

Avery and Marc

Dale appeared to be standing alone, and his Raptors gear made me feel comfortable enough to run up on him and bombard him with questions. Dale had also made the trip from Toronto, and describes the Raptors versatility as what he thinks makes them so unique.

Adam, Conrad, and Zak were a group of three well spoken and extremely polite young men I met right as the gates were opening. Adam, a Raptors fan since 2007, actually lives in Brooklyn for school. Zak, originally from Toronto, now lays his head in Long Island, and has been following the Raptors since 2010. While Conrad, a Long Island Native with no Canadian influence, has been following the Raptors for six years. They were not shy when asked who their favourite Raptor is. “Past or present?” Adam asked, before delving into a list of players than included Jose Calderon, DeMar DeRozan, Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani, Jamario Moon, and Joey Graham. Adam also believes that what separates the Raps from the rest of the league is that they are in Canada. Adam, I love you, and I love that despite a lack of national coverage, you and your friends still live for the Raptors — and still get salty when you can’t watch them on television.

Conrad, Zak, and Adam

I met another Adam on the way into the arena, but he and the other Adam could not have been more different. Adam and his family came all the way from Nova Scotia to watch his current favourite Raptor, Serge Ibaka. Adam has been following the Raptors for about six years, and like many Raptors fans, he misses his former favourite player, P.J. Tucker, like crazy.

The final couple I met were standing off to the side, with only each other. When I approached them to ask them some questions, they both insisted that the other one was the talker. Al and Talaya had come from Ohio to watch the Raptors play. I asked them who their favourite player was, and they were both quick to respond with “Number 2.” “Number 2?” I repeated, puzzled. They both nodded.

I felt like a complete idiot. Maybe it was the new faces on the roster that had not yet registered with numbers in my memory, or maybe it was being in Brooklyn all day and almost shitting my pants in a Whole Foods, but for the life of me I couldn’t think of who number 2 was. Talaya must have sensed the confusion on my face. “Nigel Hayes” she said. Perplexed yet again, as to why someone would travel all this way to watch a game where their favourite player was on a ten day contract, I asked her “Why Nigel Hayes?” to which she responded, shyly, “He’s my son.”

There is no cookie cutter for Raptors fans. They come in all shapes and sizes, all genders and ethnicities, all ages and from all over the world. But they do have one thing in common, and that is their North Side Pride. Throughout this whole excursion I did not meet one casual Raptors fan. I did not encounter anyone who wasn’t beaming with pride at what the Raptors have been able to accomplish as of late. And for what it’s worth, I have yet to see another team who can have their fans travel across the globe and completely take over the home team’s arena. The lack of media coverage can no longer be attributed to a small market of fans, because we have seen firsthand that this simply isn’t true. It wasn’t Knicks fans that were the first at the gate at Madison Square Garden, it was Raptors fans. It wasn’t Nets fans that had the Barclays Center booming, it was Raptors fans. (So for the love of God, ESPN, put some respect on our name.)

Thank you to everyone who took the time to answer questions for Raptors HQ. We hope you enjoyed the game as much as we enjoyed talking to you.