The Raptors Shaped My Identity — Now They're Re-Shaping All Of Canada's

My brother and I were basketball kids in a hockey country. Until the Raptors came along.

Squiggly Line
“Wait — they got Black people in Canada?”
This bewildered question has been put to me so many times when I’m in the United States I’ve lost count. I spent six months living in New York in 2009 during my undergrad, and every time I proudly told someone I was from Toronto, I was met with skepticism. The disbelief that the second-largest country in the world could contain one single Black person was always ignorant, a complete disregard of Black history, and annoying, sure, but it was a common misconception. To the rest of the world, Canada’s brand, as they say, was STRONG. It had a clear persona as a freezing land full of white people playing hockey and listening to Celine Dion (Which, fair.) A lot has changed in 10years. Anecdotal evidence: Last week when I travelled to the U.S., not one person I met was surprised to learn that I was a Black woman from Canada. The country’s snow-white image is going through an international rebrand, thanks to the Toronto Raptors (up 2–1 in the NBA finals!!!!!) and Drake (the biggest-selling rapper in the world).
Advertisement
As a Black girl growing up in a predominately white suburb in the GTA, the struggle to define my identity as a Black Canadian was real. When the Raptors came to Toronto 24 years ago, the team embedded itself into the fabric of my family and helped shape my identity in this country. Basketball was a big part of finding myself and a sense of belonging, since so many of the only people I saw consistently on TV who looked like me were basketball players (and rappers, and Oprah).

We were basketball kids in a hockey country, Black kids in a white neighbourhood, hip-hop heads in the home of Celine and the Barenaked Ladies. The Raptors made us feel seen.

My big brother Sam and I would spend our Saturday mornings obsessing over the weekly highlights and commentary on NBA Inside Stuff or shooting around in our backyard, which my parents paved over to make our very own mini basketball court to practice for our Very Important school team games. (We never took for granted how freaking cool this was, how privileged we were to have it, and how much of a SAINT my mother was for putting up with our incessant dribbling.) The Toronto Raptors joined the NBA in 1995, and since the early days of Damon Stoudamire and Doug Christie, we were hooked. We bled purple. Some of my favourite childhood memories are going to the SkyDome (RIP) with my brother, my mom, and my dad and cheering for our Raptors — a basketball team full of Black men with a Toronto logo on their chests. We knew they weren’t Canadians, but it felt like they represented us. We were basketball kids in a hockey country, Black kids in a white neighbourhood, hip-hop heads in the home of Celine and the Barenaked Ladies. The Raptors made us feel seen.
Advertisement
The NBA and hip-hop have been intertwined since the day the Sugarhill Gang rapped I got a colour TV so I can see the Knicks play basketballin 1979 or when Kurtis Blow shouted out Dr. J and Moses Malone on his 1984 hit “Basketball.” By the ’90s, the Michael Jordan references in rap were as common as MJ draining a killer fadeaway. In the early ’00 sera of the Allen Iverson–dominated NBA, the worlds of rap and basketball were so woven together, the league tried to make rules to strip away the genre’s influence on the sport. But by then, it was too late. The two worlds were indistinguishable from one another. The Space Jam soundtrack was already catalogued in hip-hop history. I was already wearing out my VHS copy of Love and Basketball and its accompanying CD featuring MC Lyte and a pre-Fergie Black Eyed Peas. As much as hip-hop and basketball became synonymous with Black culture, neither were associated with Canada in mainstream media — until now.

As much as hip-hop and basketball became synonymous with Black culture, neither were associated with Canada in mainstream media — until now.

Love him or hate him, Drake’s influence on the popularity of the Toronto Raptors is undeniable. He’s got people around the world rhyming along to “Weston Road Flows” and he's repping his city courtside like a true Toronto mans would: obnoxiously, loudly, with a side of endearing charm and corny entertainment. Cheering for the Toronto Raptors right now, with Drake as the team’s official global ambassador and unofficial sideline stan, feels like my entire childhood has been leading up to this moment. My lifelong long of basketball, pop culture, and hip-hop have culminated to watching Drake troll Kevin Durant in a Home Alone t-shirt. What a time.
Advertisement
Canada’s image may be changing, but it’s still not a perfect depiction. If you were to base your opinion of Canada on the heartwarming Twitter thread about Raptor’s superfan Nav Bhatia that went viral when the team made the finals, you might be tempted to think of the city as a “racial utopia,” as Morgan Campbell put it for the Toronto Star. The basketball-loving, various-races-living-in-harmony Toronto is the bubble I live in — I watched Game 3 at a bar full of kids of immigrants, from Ghana, Jamaica, Korea, and India, and that was just our table. "My Toronto" is my cousins, my godmother's kids and the thousands of Black Canadians who populate the heart of the city, who grew up playing basketball just like me. “My Toronto,” even though it’s diverse and loves hip-hop and basketball, isn’t a complete representation of this city, or this country. In his piece, Campbell outlined all the ways in which Canada is not an oasis: recent incidents of racism in Toronto, the racial and gender pay gap in Canada, the rise of white nationalism. Campbell left us with this incredible kicker: “Less racist is still racist. And if you’re satisfied that Toronto is less racist than some other NBA city, you should set bigger goals.”
It was never a goal of mine to see the rest of Canada, or the world, acknowledge that Toronto is a basketball city. I never dreamed that Vince Carter’s legendary dunk-contest appearance in 2000 would lead to a generation of “Vince Carter’s Kids,” who have made Canadians the highest number of international players in the NBA or that most of America would be cheering for the Toronto Raptors in the NBA finals. It would have been too far-fetched to imagine a time when my Raptors would be the most valuable sports franchise in the country, over all of Canada’s NHL teams — or that people in Montreal would give a shit. Canadians may even get our own WNBA team soon.
And people are playing more too: Basketball is the second-most popular sport in the country, and number one among young girls, with immigrants opting to put their kids in basketball over hockey. Right now, a generation of “Kawhi’s Kids” are being born. Canadian kids are glued to their TVs screaming after every shot and dreaming a dream they now believe is possible.
This is Canada. There are Black people here. That may seem like a silly, obvious statement but now, hopefully, the rest of the world knows it, too. All it took was one impossible post-season run, and a kid named Aubrey to start to reinvent the cultural image of an entire country. I hope the only question I get when I travel now is, “Wait — you’re from the home of the NBA Champions!?” Fingers crossed. LET’S GO RAPTORS.
Advertisement

More from Global News