By Steve Keating
TORONTO (Reuters) – Toronto has long considered itself the centre of the hockey universe but the Raptors, for the moment at least, are the shiniest object in city’s sporting cosmos grabbing the imagination of an entire country.
Certainly the stars aligned for the Raptors as they reached the NBA Finals for the first time and starting on Thursday, they will take on a basketball powerhouse in the Golden State Warriors.
The Warriors are back in the championship for the fifth straight year chasing a third consecutive title.
Normally hockey mad Canada would be consumed with the Stanley Cup finals right about now. But in a country of 37 million often divided by language and politics, basketball, invented by Canadian James Naismith, is now a unifying force.
Much of Canada would rather chew on broken glass than support any Toronto team but the heavily marketed Raptors have found a national following.
The NBA’s most northern outpost has often been portrayed as a cold and uninviting place, but instead of trying to convince people otherwise marketing officials embraced that perception and the ‘We The North’ campaign was born.
The slogan has become a rallying cry not just for a team but a country, spawning a sort of national tribalism.
“There is no question Toronto has always had aspirations to be the nation’s basketball team. ‘We The North’ was directed at that,” Ken Wong, a Queen’s University marketing professor told Reuters. “‘We The North’ was a stroke of genius.
“‘We The North’ tapped into that street attitude from the U.S. that is so popular.
“I don’t know if they have promoted the multi-culturalism explicitly but there is no question there is that element to the theme.”
While the Maple Leaf is omnipresent, there is very little Canadiana about the Raptors aside from their location.
Team president Masai Ujiri is from Nigeria while their most influential player Kawhi Leonard and coach Nick Nurse both hail from the United States.
The roster includes players from Spain, Cameroon, Congo, Saint Lucia and Britain but not a single Canadian.
However, that is just the reason thousands of fans lined up for hours in the rain last Saturday outside the arena, in an area which has become known as Jurassic Park, for a viewing party.
One of the world’s most diverse cities none of the other local teams reflect Toronto’s multi-cultural makeup the way the Raptors can.
That diversity is echoed in the supporter base, particularly in Sikh super fan Nav Bhatia, a courtside fixture in his turban who has not missed a home game in 24 years. Further down sits multi-Grammy award winning rapper and team ambassador Drake.
“We heard all of it,” said Ujiri on Wednesday as the team prepared to host Game One of the best-of-seven series. “It’s a great sports city and there’s room for everybody.
“But it’s incredible how diverse it is and we’re going to continue to grow this and live this in this city.
“I said it when I came here, I know this city will win.”
If Toronto is to beat the Warriors it will largely depend on whether Leonard can continue what was so far been a Michael Jordan-esque post-season performance.
Little is known about Leonard other than he is driven and relentless and very good at what he does. There is no warmth but also no pretension.
He comes to work, does his job, goes home and comes back to work the next day.
This blue collar work ethic has also allowed the Raptors to deepen their connection with the fans tapping into Canadian values more often associated with hockey.
“The thing people are getting excited about with this team is not just how they play, which by itself is important, but it is the whole nature of team and it starts with Leonard,” said Wong.
“He is the personification of what Canadians want their heroes to be; a stoic, understated, works hard and just goes out and gets the job done.”
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)