THERE’S NO HARD FEELINGS BUT, AFTER A DIFFERENCE OF OPINION ON USE OF PROFANITY AND ON ‘OUTING’ NBA PLAYERS AS KIND OF DIM AND DICKISH, I’VE POSTED IT AS I ACTUALLY WROTE IT BELOW.
(FOR THE RECORD: UP TOP THERE WAS S’POSED TO BE A ‘ONE-CLICK’ PETITION FOR CHANGING THE NAME RAPTORS TO HUSKIES)
Go You Huskies!
By Tynan Grierson
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 and, 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 myriad 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.
At the intersection of basketball and fashion (the USP for this sports & lifestyle URL, ballnroll.com) are issues like these. Ponderous, crawl inside your own asshole-type queries about whether athletes, or more specifically basketball players, truly care about what they’re wearing. Whether – if you can remove any hackneyed Hackman in Hoosiers sentiment as I Grampontificate – the name on the front supersedes the name on the back of the jersey.
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 dicks and ballpoint porno we might’ve been gawking at and instead conjured pages upon pages 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 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.
The brain trust’s branding rationale traces to a league policy allowing 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 Raptor merchandise was sold in the first month and, through 1994 the Raptors were running seventh in merchandise sales before they’d played a single game.
(*Typical revenue sharing is meant to mitigate obvious disparities in sales of big market franchises vs. small; the allure of a LeBron jersey contrasted with that of a Boris Diaw Bobcats road jersey.)
Ok so, what’s the long lens view fellas? Sell short on your first best shot at affixing a place in the competitive landscape of the NBA to put some cash back in your pockets? 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 to turn that notion on its head. NBA players indisputably love visiting Toronto. The issues players have are with the product on the court.. that big, red, dinosaur decaled court. To wit, I’d reframe the debate and say instead, players don’t want to wear the Raptors jersey.
“Canada team.”, is how franchise figurehead Andrea Bargnani puts it in adorably broken english; “It’s the only team in Canada, so we definitely represent the NBA in Canada.” Just the kind of circular simplicity that comes of media training in a language you don’t naturally speak. While it’s hard to fault a former number one pick already carrying the league banner for his native Italy asking to add another nation’s expectation, that ‘let’s be everything to everyone’ company line is also the reason I’m typing while half-watching him play to an empty home arena.
“That shovel doesn’t belong to you, it’s for all the boys and girls who come to the park.”, I once overheard a parent reason with their six year-old. “That means it doesn’t belong to anyone.”; was the elementary logic that this sandcastle artist applied as he turned back to crafting his pee-soaked palace. Not to equate NBA players with stroppy six year-olds – insert cheap joke about NBA stars not being willing to get dirty or mix it up – but, if we let these seven-foot children design their league, they’d be playing for the “Toronto Bong” right now.*
*(Best idea yet! Jersey’s just a giant baby taking a hit off the CN Tower. Headlines after losses, ‘Bong Take Hit.’ Mock it up photoshoppers.)
Born, bred and now playing out the twilight of his pro career in Toronto, Jamaal Magloire feels; “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 fans of Toronto basketball this was to be our team; ours and no one else’s. 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 city.
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?
Though there are twists before Toronto’s franchise could make a turn, it’s not without precedent to change a pro sports brand. 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.)
Every pro sports GM is savvy enough to note that, short of a championship, there are no lasting legacies. Not when the next guy can shake your roster up to unrecognizability in a few swift moves, like an epileptic with an etch-a-sketch.
Flash forward to the first season of play for the Toronto Raptors Basketball Club (wince) and I’m now working for the team. 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 alongside stride-for-stride.
All part of a pre-game ceremony 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 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 and he restrains himself from driving me into the floor like a railroad spike, tightening his giant fist and dragging his own 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 cum stains on ‘em? Cause they’re the gayest fuckin’ things I’ve ever seen.”* This in contrast to Anthony Mason’s muttering; “Dinosaurs, brotha? If I was you, I’d fuckin’ 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.)
“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 whilst wearing their city on their sleeve.
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. We bear witness to the change in name, viability and fortunes of our NBA franchise. Notwithstanding the fists of cash you’d rake in re-launching your brand, there’s a responsibility to fans equivalent to that of shareholders in a corporation, and such organizations are only as strong as their core ideology.
Players and fans should care 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.