Sometimes art really does imitate life.
In this admittedly odd analogy, “art” would be all Toronto Raptors fans/haters/media and their varying degrees of opinions mimic what we’re all seeing with the team.
Take Wednesday night’s heartbreaking loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, for example. A defeat that (quite unnecessarily) hung in the balance of Justin Champagnie’s fingertips was interpreted in three very different ways. Let’s take a look at how Nick Nurse (Worrywart), Fred VanVleet (Acceptor), and Champagnie (Optimist) viewed the game and how they inadvertently represented the three types of Raptors fan.
In the post-game presser, Nick Nurse walked into the room with the most dejected of dejected looks. He barely made eye contact with any of the media members asking questions and mostly stared down at the printed box score on the table — almost hoping the page would say Toronto totaled 111 points, not 109.
When asked his initial thoughts about the team’s performance, he summarized, “Poor energy. Poor effort. Not enough.”
“I didn’t like any of the other guys,” he said when asked about Champagnie’s extended run. “I thought the other guys were soft and unenergetic and not playing their role. They’re supposed to come off the bench and provide energy. They weren’t getting any stops. They weren’t getting any rebounds.”
Isn’t that a microcosm of how many Raptors “fans” feel after a loss? A “woe is me” attitude where each loss is a larger indictment on the state of the Raptors. A one-point loss to a team that, just last week lost by an NBA-record 73 points? You tell ‘em, coach. This team is lottery-bound anyway!
Another common scapegoat for the Raptors fan whose glass is always half-empty: the referees.
Nurse had this to say about the performance by Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, “He was really good. He was carving us to pieces... I mean, they were giving him a million calls, right? He was falling down every time someone came near him.”
Again, spot-on, Nick! The team just isn’t playing well enough AND the referees aren’t calling the game equally!
Nurse left the room so quickly you’d think the chair he sat on was literally on fire.
Next up, Fred VanVleet. He strolled into the room with a similarly noticeable frown. It almost appeared like he was dragging his feet — an understandable feeling considering the circumstances. While less obvious than his coach, Fred also went the route of giving minimal eye contact.
Fred’s built a reputation as a great quote who puts a lot of thought into his answers. The first question he was asked centered around the idea that the team was stuck in second gear for most of the night. Fred’s response? “Yes.”
Okay. Could you elaborate?
“It seems to be our pattern. Play well. Play really bad. Get yelled at. Play hard. And do it all over again. It’s disappointing, for sure, but it is what it is.”
VanVleet exhibited a familiar trait that another type of Raptors fan also portrays: acceptance. These fans accept the team for what they currently are. They don’t get as low as the previously discussed fans but also don’t get too excited over the smaller victories.
VanVleet said he didn’t have a solution but also alluded to one. The Raptors are capable of playing well and playing hard — they’re still figuring out how to play that way consistently without needing a kick in the butt from Nurse.
While I can happily state that I’ve stayed away from the glass-half-empty state of Raptor fandom, I’ll admit that I’ve dabbled in this particular tier. In an 82-game season, you’re bound to have a bad performance. But “bad” is in the eye of the beholder. Had VanVleet kicked out to a wide-open Gary Trent Jr., maybe we’re celebrating his second game-winning buzzer-beater. And if we were, does that change how you’d define this performance?
Win or lose, sometimes you just have to accept the cards you’re dealt.
Fred hammered that point home when asked if the absence of Precious Achiuwa and Khem Birch made the effort required that much more: “Yes.”
Last, but certainly not least, the man of the moment, Justin Champagnie.
Before stepping into the room, he peeked in with the excitement of a child on Christmas morning. His smile and enthusiasm was a breath of fresh air, despite recounting the feeling of almost winning the game on two occasions, “It kinda hurt. It really did hurt. Especially that last one, I thought I had it but, you know, you live and you learn. On to the next one. We just gotta be better at playing hard from the jump.”
Gut-wrenching loss aside, it was obvious that Champagnie found great joy in showing the Thunder why the Raptors quickly signed him minutes after the NBA Draft concluded. He was biding his time, practicing with the 905, waiting for the time when Nurse would call on him to do something — anything — to help a Toronto team that was running out of time and options. “Whatever they need me to do, just go do. It’s all about a mindset. I’m not the fastest guy. I’m not the most athletic guy but I have the best mindset, in my opinion. Just go out there and do what coach says.”
The third tier of Raptors fan always seems to find the silver lining. Sure, this was a memorable loss. But this season has never (really) been about wins and losses, but about developing team chemistry and watching various players grow. We’re already seeing that with Pascal Siakam’s ever-growing mid-range game, VanVleet’s improved shooting at the rim, Trent Jr.’s emergence as a defensive pest, and, just maybe, another undrafted free agent gem.
“I’ve been waiting for this moment for a while now. I always have the most confidence in myself to go in there and make an impact on the game.”
Just as Raptors fans waited 24 seasons for the first championship, there are signs that they won’t have to wait as long for another. It may not happen this season, but some foundational pieces are starting to fall into place.
“I’m ready. I’m always ready. That’s one thing I always tell myself: Be mentally ready.”
Over the entirety of his presser, which lasted 2 minutes and 24 seconds, Champagnie said the word “ready” 10 times. If Raptors fans care to join me in this final tier, we’ll all be ready for what promises to be an exciting chapter where life will imitate art.