For years, so much of the Raptors’ team identity was shaped around the idea of being the underdog. Every era of the team gave its players — and especially its fans — a reason to believe they were coming up against some larger power. Sometimes that force was real (LeBron James), sometimes it was semi-imagined (a vast pro-American media conspiracy), but it was always there. As we approach the one-year anniversary of Toronto’s 2019 NBA championship victory, however, it’s fair to ask: are the Raptors still underdogs?
First, some history to illustrate the larger point here. When the Raptors were inaugurated as one of the league’s two newest teams in 1995, they were, naturally, lodged right at the bottom of the competitive pile. No one cared about the Raptors (or the Grizzlies) outside of Toronto (and Vancouver; and then only just) and it was on them to prove they deserved to stay in the league as an institution. We know what happened over the next few years — the Raptors made it, the Grizzlies didn’t. Nothing shapes an “us against the world” mentality quite like the constant threat of extinction.
But when the Raptors finally found success, emerging in the late 90s and early 00s as a dynamic team in the Eastern Conference — if not quite a title favourite — Toronto didn’t just give itself over to feelings of security. Instead, fans become both proud and protective of the team’s star, Vince Carter. After losing Tracy McGrady (also due for stardom) to the American market, Raptors fans were right to be concerned. Like T-Mac, Carter too could harbour a desire to play closer to home, or — worse still — outside forces could work on Carter to convince him to leave Canada. Yes, while the Raptors experienced their greatest on-court moments to that point, a slice of the Toronto fan identity was preparing for the great collapse, convinced outside agents in the league office or the media were already at work to bring it about.
If this sounds deranged, remember who, what, and where the Raptors were at the time. When Carter did eventually leave Toronto — not via some grand conspiracy but through classic inborn mismanagement — it gave us all a new villain. Yes, that’s it, it wasn’t the league trying to keep the Raptors down, it was the star players who wanted to spurn Toronto the first chance they could get. They didn’t want to sign here, they didn’t want to stay here, and they weren’t going to give it their all if or when they played here. This is where the Raptors and Torontonians were for the following decade, convinced of their own inferiority as both a team and city, nursing their various grudges against any and all targets. And, of course, hellbent on rising up to prove them wrong once and for all.
When the “We the North” era in Toronto began in earnest after the surprising success of the 2013-14 squad, that underdog spirit emerged once again in its most positive form. These were the years of “Fuck Brooklyn!”, of the team going to war against more marketable American teams (and stars), of the Raptors trying and failing in the face of superior talent — but giving it their all regardless. For the next five years, the Raptors never got over the ultimate hump and, in some cases, even underachieved. Nevertheless, we had something new to rally around using the same underdog storyline that had been around since the first days of the team. As before, few outside of Toronto believed the Raptors belonged, most media commentators left them out of the broader league conversation, the NBA world just didn’t want to care. The obvious solution: it would be up to us — through the collective emotive force of Toronto — to prove them all wrong.
Well that, and acquiring one of the very best players in the league. Bringing Kawhi Leonard to Toronto was a wondrous turn of events for the Raptors. The move galvanized the team and brought them a championship — it also created a new and exciting place in which Raptors’ fandom could exist. Toronto wasn’t really supposed to win the title in 2019. That right was reserved for the returning champion Warriors, or the ascendent Bucks, or some other favourite team. Even we couldn’t quite believe it as happened. And wouldn’t you know it, after claiming ultimate victory, many asserted Toronto’s win was a fluke, a series of lucky breaks, a one-off heist never to be repeated. In truth, they could be right; winning a championship is difficult and it was always going to be hard for the Raptors to win one, let alone repeat (even before Kawhi left town).
What’s fascinating though, if you really search your feelings as a Raptors fan, is how these antagonistic feelings directed at Toronto don’t really bother as they once did. Where once every slight against the team required some angry response, a verbal salvo about the reality of larger forces at work against Toronto, now we can all just shrug our shoulders in satisfaction and answer: so?
In this, the Raptors and their fans find themselves in a unique place. Unlike other recent NBA champions, teams from major U.S. centres or franchises with a rich golden history in basketball, the Raptors stand alone. We were once just fans of some forgotten team in Canada, the lead underdog of the pack, an organization that was working against on- and off-court pressures that others couldn’t quite relate to in their combination. Or at least that’s how it felt at the time and over the years. Now though, that’s all been erased.
Today, the Raptors are one of the best run franchises in sports. They’re a team of which to be envious, even if (or when) they lose. This 2019-20 season, still on hold, was supposed to prove that the Raptors were just one-hit wonders. But no matter what happens, it won’t work like that. By winning the 2019 NBA title, the pressure to prove themselves has been lifted for all time. Toronto has been validated from within and without in every way. The spirit of the underdog may still be there, buried deep inside our collective psyche, but it no longer need fuel us.
In short, Toronto and the Raptors will never be underdogs in the same way again.