I saw two live Raptors games this year, the first year of my life that I have ever cared about basketball. In the first one, they lost to the Washington Wizards. Tired from a few out-of-town games, they played through the first half of the game in a slow-motion slump until Kyle Lowry got ejected by a rookie referee for calling a foul a fucking foul. As he stormed toward the locker rooms, the air in the stadium suddenly felt charged, and the game sparked to life; the Raptors got good once they had something to prove. They didn’t end up winning but it didn’t seem to matter. It was fun to see them work together.
Later, on Twitter, I saw a video of something I’d missed in the stadium. After being ejected, as he stormed back towards the locker room, Lowry paused for a split second to kiss his young son. This clip is almost cartoonishly charming, a tiny flicker of private life in the middle of an extremely public moment, and looking back I think it’s what sealed my new love of the NBA. The whole game felt like an object lesson in how close individual players’ personalities seem to float up against the surface of each game, how easily the borders between individual and collective, public and private, can dissolve.
Can I talk about Drake for a second? There’s an amazing moment in the song “Nice for What”, which is currently at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for its third week in a row, where Aubrey Drake Graham pauses to remind you about the inevitability of death. When I listen to the song (which I do a lot), I imagine him sitting by himself in the club, staring at a beautiful woman who doesn’t even notice he’s there. She’s too busy dancing with her friends. She feels good, a little safe, a little lifted. She looks sexy, because sometimes being part of a crowd can increase you. You’re showing off, but it’s alright, Drake sings from the sidelines, to himself or to her, like she needs his approval. Then he throws in my favourite line, the one that in poetry we’d call the turn: You’re showing off, but it’s alright. It’s a short life.
It doesn’t get any more Drake than taking a second in the middle of your own exuberant, bouncing, top-40-ready Empowerment Jam to remind your listeners that death comes to claim us all in the end. A normal pop song says go out there and have a good time because having a good time feels good, but a Drake song says that paying your cable bill is sexy, and also there is no such thing as a pure “good time” unshaded by the spectre of loss. Its potential looms, even in the moments that feel most carefree. It’s a short life. Don’t forget!
Before I knew anything else about the Toronto Raptors, I knew that Drake was their unofficial mascot. I saw the GIFs of him lint rolling his pants courtside, and I understood without needing to be told that this match-up made perfect sense. Drake, after all, is an artist whose entire persona feels deeply about this city, powered by the same alternating current of success and failure that runs through this whole place like a third rail. His work synthesizes the extremely Torontonian desire to be internationally famous with the extremely Torontonian fear that you are never actually getting the recognition you deserve.
The second time I went to see a Raptors game Drake was there, because they were playing the Cleveland Cavaliers. If Lowry angrily kissing his baby was my introduction to the emotional texture of the NBA, this game was my introduction to the way it feels to watch the Raptors win: without realizing it, I spent the whole time tensely waiting for the other shoe to drop. I knew LeBron James was the International King of Basketball, and I knew the Raptors were a scrappy team of try-hard misfits. I didn’t understand how they could possibly beat him, even when they beat him by 34 points.
Without even trying, I had absorbed and assimilated the narrative that there can be no winning for the Raptors without the spectre of their inevitable loss on the horizon. There’s a joke from the show 30 Rock about Toronto: It’s like New York, but without all the stuff. That’s the version of this city I grew up in, or at least the story about it I grew up believing: that even the biggest things here have a kind of smallness at their core. It is the logic of a city where every lush, gorgeous summer is bordered by the inevitability of a punishing, relentless, dark winter; a city that is never quite American, no matter how hard it tries. It’s the logic of a panic attack.
It also doesn’t feel entirely correct anymore — or at least, it’s not entirely comfortable. The Raptors’ victories no longer feel quite so suffused with loss; the story of them against LeBron is no longer the story of a medium-quality team against the best guy in the world. Instead, the match-up has kind of a mythical quality: a team that draws power from their ability to work as a collective coming up against the best player in the world, exhausted and cramping from dragging an entire team behind him.
The shift in this story gives the experience of watching the Raptors a new dimension. In the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Wizards last week, I felt like I was watching a different team than the one I’d been following all season — not because they were playing particularly different, but because of how I changed when I was watching them. Once the paranoia burned off, I felt something lush and vibrant and wild underneath it; the feeling of possibility.
This feeling, too, is inherently Torontonian, though it gets less airtime. It’s the wild, hallucinogenic hope of early spring, the feeling you get the first time you can take off your jacket in the sunshine, feel your bare arms touching warm air and think you must be imagining your own happiness. It is the feeling of knowing you survived a season that should have crushed you. Once the gloom of another dark, anxious, fraught winter burns off, you get to access the vibrant expanse of possibility underneath it. The feeling of spring in Toronto is the feeling that you are continuous with the city, a part of some larger thing that moves, is moving forward.
Maybe this feeling and the feeling of inevitable loss are just two sides of the same coin. Pessimism and optimism are both powered, I guess, by the same truth: that in the end, nothing really lasts forever. Life gives way to more life, no one stays the best or the worst forever. In a few weeks, we’ll know how these playoffs turned out; in a few more, it’ll be summer, and we’ll already be turning our collective attention toward the next season. But before we do, maybe it’s worth it to pause in this moment and tune our attention toward that feeling of potential, the knife-edge on which everything seems currently balanced, between inevitable failure and something else.
Maybe there’s something to be gained from caring about a sports team, about this Raptors team specifically, which feels so linked to the story of this city, and therefore, in some way, the story of you. Maybe the lesson of caring about the Toronto Raptors in the spring of 2018 is that there is no single thing about your life that is beyond changing; that there is no story about you that can’t be rewritten. Maybe this won’t turn out to be true. But maybe it will. Why not believe in the possibility while you can? After all, it’s a short life.