I have a t-shirt that reads “Toronto Basketball” that I still play pick-up in.
It’s from when I used to work for the Toronto Raptors basketball club in its first few years. In place of the tiny dribbling dinosaur beneath the print, there’s a sticker with a sharpie pen sketch of a Husky dog.
In the wake of that work experience, the game and the shirt got put on the shelf. I found it hard to stomach the ways in which basketball became style over substance, pro players as source code for those all-swagger and sweatband rec league guys that care more how they look than how they play.
Back in the day, sitting with my friends in class, I remember guarding the sports section from our teacher’s watch, and poring over the list of potential names for our newly minted NBA franchise. We excitedly whispered the names at each other. “Toronto Towers.” Shielding our mouths and folding up corners of paper to compare first pass sketches of our take on a team logo. “The Beavers. The Toronto Beavers.” My buddy John Coey spun his binder to share a shamefully earnest drawing of a beaver batting a ball with its tail.
Unabashed basketball freaks, we eschewed the typical pencil drawn porno we might’ve been gawking at and instead conjured page upon page of unofficial basketball branding.
Unbeknownst to us, the team would plow through its nationwide sham of a “Name Game” contest (purportedly tapping the populous for ideas on the team name, colors and logo) only to ultimately arrive at the monstrous moniker, the Toronto Raptors.*
(*This was apparently consummated when a senior member of ownership… cough, Bitove.. asked his young son to pick from the ten names on the table – including well-known native Canadian species Scorpions, Tarantulas and Dragons. Bing. Bang. Blap. The city’s henceforth saddled with the craptacular identifier, Raptors.)
The enduring image of Isiah Thomas tearing through that first red and purple paper Raptor logo is set, in my mind, to the slow leak sound effect of a knife puncturing a fully inflated ball; from day one, the air was let out of any grown-up Toronto basketball fan’s enthusiasm for what was pre-emptively submarined as a cartoon franchise.
This branding rationale traces back to a league policy that allows new franchises to recoup some of their whopping franchise fees in their first few years of existence. (In this case, a then record 125 million dollar franchise fee.) For that period, Toronto was able to keep all of their merchandising fees.*
And despite the certainty of sucking that all early franchises slog through, their bet payed out. More than 20 million dollars in Raptors merchandise was sold in the first month and, through 1994 the Raptors were running seventh in merchandise sales before they’d even played a single game.
(*Typical revenue sharing is meant to mitigate obvious disparities in sales of big market franchises vs. small; contrast the allure of a LeBron jersey with that of a Boris Diaw Bobcats road jersey.)
Okay so, what’s the long lens view fellas? Sell short on your first best shot at taking a place in the competitive landscape of the NBA just to put some cash back in your pockets?
After all, why is it said (so often that it’s now hardened like concrete in the collective consciousness) that players don’t want to play in Toronto?
I’d argue against that. NBA players indisputably love visiting Toronto.
The issues players have are instead with the big, red, dinosaur. Players don’t want to wear the Raptors jersey.
Players visualize themselves donning a jersey. It’s forever folded into basketball fantasies in lonely gyms, on blacktops and driveways; “Seconds on the clock. Down one. One possession. One shot.” Picture it, as they might be. Are they sporting Raptor red? Do you think any kid integrates the dino into their daydream?
I was working for the team during the first season of play for the Toronto Raptors Basketball Club. I’m sandwiched between behemoths Patrick Ewing and Charles Oakley, leaning heavily on my shirt, tie and hands-free headset to convey an authority I obviously lack. I crane my head skyward to cue Ewing into place and lose track of the 98 year-old Jewish man (not much more than 5 foot 7 from hunch-to-toe) struggling to shuffle along, stride-for-stride.
This was all part of a pre-game ceremony intended to commemorate the first ever NBA game, played in Toronto 50 years prior. Surviving members of the 1946 New York Knickerbockers and Toronto Huskies were paired with their current counterparts, much the same way Premier League soccer marches players onto the pitch hand-in-hand with children to symbolize playing a kid’s game, albeit on a grand stage.
I gesture to Charles Oakley that he’s free to move to center court. He tightens his giant fist and drags his frail franchise forefather in tow. All the while, Oakley can’t stop himself barking profanities at the Raptor players across the floor; “Those jerseys come with c*m stains on ‘em? Cause they’re the gayest f*ckin’ things I’ve ever seen.”*
Compare this with Anthony Mason’s muttering; “Dinosaurs, brotha? If I was you, I’d f*ckin’ kill myself.”
(* Particularly funny, given Oakley would come to be traded to Toronto to don the Raptors jersey, in what might prove the key deal in a fleeting, Vince Carter-era franchise turnaround.)
Can Toronto change its brand? It’s not without precedent. Not long ago the Washington Bullets became the Wizards in an effort to distance themselves from the gun violence that’s endemic in the D.C. area. (Now they’re slinking back to respectability with re-traditionalized retread jerseys.)
Why not change it to the Huskies?
“The Toronto Huskies.” I said it aloud to myself to test it on the tongue and visualized the persistent blue and white that might dominate the home they share with the beloved, unapologetically Toronto-specific Maple Leafs, who earned undying love by winning while wearing their city on their sleeve.
Besides, are the Raptors Toronto's team, or Canada's Team?
Andrea Bargnani told BALLnROLL that it's Canada's team. “It’s the only team in Canada,” he said, “so we definitely represent the NBA in Canada.”
That's a bit of a logical fallacy, though it’s hard to fault a former number one pick, who's already carrying the league banner for his native Italy , for adding another nation’s expectation. But that ‘Let’s be everything to everyone’ company line is also the reason we're watching him play to an empty home arena.
Born and bred in Toronto, Jamaal Magloire told us, “I consider [the Raptors] a Canadian team, the reason being because it is the only team in Canada now that the Vancouver grizzlies have moved to Memphis and we represent Canada. We need all the support we can get, because we are the only team in Canada, as opposed the 29 other teams in the U.S.”
But for Torontonians this was to be our team. The Boston Celtics, the Detroit Pistons, the Houston Rockets; these are city teams, not national teams. The red-and-white dilutes that civic pride. A team name should aspire to capture and convey that above all. An identity that cuts to the core of that community with laser beam specificity. The Boston Celtics, the Detroit Pistons, the Houston Rockets (Houston’s where NASA is based for those of you rocket scientists unfamiliar), etc… the best names are synonymous with the city.
The Toronto Huskies could do that for us. “I saw [the Huskies jerseys] for the first time in our practice facility,” Magloire told us. “It has a lot to do with our history and that will always be part of it."
Would he think about changing the jersey from the Raptors to the Huskies? “That's not my call,” he told us.
Well, maybe it's ours.
So, this is where we start. We start a petition. Write it on message boards. Build it to broadcast. Tweet it from the mountaintops. This is where we no longer cringe but crow on retro jersey night.
We grow this thing from the seed of an idea. Players and fans should care about what they wear, as it speaks to who they are. To the extent we can collectively ‘root for the right laundry’, we must change the name of our professional basketball franchise to the Toronto Huskies.
To take the liberty to speak for a city that has informed my sense of self, I will never identify as a Toronto Raptor. I was, and might be again, a Toronto basketball fan.
Go You Huskies!