In January I moved from midtown Toronto to one of the furthest points South in the UK, to Plymouth, with water everywhere, fishing rods passing me by as I walk to the city centre, and a series of Auto Repair Shops, with Brake Belts, Shock Marks, Engine Combustion, and Speed-Ometric repair signs everywhere. Ten years ago, the main strip I walk along to get to the city centre in Plymouth, basically the downtown core, used to be lined with prostitutes, who have moved on since the six storey condos started going up. Apparently the prostitutes didn’t like all the condo dwellers looking out their windows at them all the time and are now entrenched under a bridge that divides some of the repair shops and which the community refers to as The Tunnel of Love.
After seven pm, the city centre disburses, and by eleven thirty the only sound that disturbs the walk home are three mini-bike racers who ride single file back and forth, helmets leaned forward, and an intensity of purpose that seems absent of play. After midnight the loudest sounds I can hear are the seagulls fighting in the abandoned building across from mine, though by this time of night during the winter of 2013, I wasn’t paying attention to those sounds. Because after midnight is when tipoff happens for most Toronto Raptors game when you live in Plymouth.
I’m been very broke for the past eight months and unable to afford any of the NBA packages available online so in order to watch Raptors games I attached several USB computer cables to a discarded exercise bike I found on at the outskirts of the Tunnel of Love, whose seat ominously had been removed, then I attached the cables to my computer. On top of my head I wear a bike helmet with two six foot long tinfoil ears wrapped firmly to the top which I point out an open window. The tinfoil ears look much like the old rabbit ears that people had for their TV sets to make the U stations work, and which, as kids, we called cable TV. While this isn’t the most ideal way to watch a Raptors game, really, to watch or do anything, I can get snowy reception, which only occasionally slows down the plays when my legs get tired of peddling (usually during the third quarter). The whole getup was suggested to me by a diehard Leaf fan that I met on the train when I was headed to Plymouth for the first time. Shockingly, in the middle of an English afternoon, the Leaf fan was painted up blue, and in full Wendel Clark uniform, watching a download of a Leafs-Hartford Whaler game from 1987 with Allan Bester in goal and screaming painfully every time the Whalers scored. The Leaf fan suggested I use metal poles rather than tinfoil for the antennae but he also suggested that the metal poles might be why he was permanently wearing a neck brace.
For the last ten years, really since the 2003-2004 season when the Raptors had Kevin O’Neill as their coach, a man who treated offense like twenty-four seconds where the opposition didn’t have the ball rather than a chance to make baskets, being a Raptors fan has felt like a fever dream of high temperatures and shaky legs as superstars like Vince Carter were traded for players who refused to play for us and a couple of guys named Eric or like Chris Bosh who disappeared on the court in mid-February only to rematerialize in Miami in July, or coach after coach, promise after promise, that this time would be different. And those promises weren’t just made by the franchise and the players, those were the flu-like systems of all of us texting each other and sitting in our living rooms and picking up the paper in the preseason to see how the Raptors would be different, how they’d be better. And of course they never were. They barely made it to the playoffs. They never made bombshell trades that changed the franchise for the better. They just dribbled along, losing most games, sometimes winning just enough to give us hope.
People always talk about how there are two seasons in sports, the regular season and the playoffs. For Raptor fans our two seasons are the offseason and the regular season. Watching a playoff game since Vince Carter missed that game seven, game winning shot against the 76ers, has been a little like bowling. The Raptors get up to the line and barrel it down the gutter at high speeds, walking back to the orange bucket seat to check the score and tell everyone in between eating a mass of fries and gravy that in the next round they’ll hit a strike.
I’m one of the people still waiting, now peddling hard, for that strike to come.
The 2012-2013 Raptors season was going to be different. So much good had happened in the 2012 offseason. The Raptors hadn’t fired their coach. There weren’t any mindboggling Bryan Colangelo trades. We nearly got Steve Nash but lost out to, what seemed at the time, like the indestructible Lakers. Colangelo had actually gotten an inexpensive, young, point guard, named Kyle Lowry, who desperately wanted to lead a team. And there was rookie, Jonas Valanciunas, who was drafted the year before but couldn’t play until this season was being touted by many analysts as a natural first overall pick. This was the year the Raptors got back into the playoffs.
Then they went 4-19.
As a diehard fan, I never stop believing the Raptors can make it to the playoffs until it’s mathematically impossible. I did this with the Leafs years ago when they were chasing the Minnesota North Stars year after year after year. Sticking with a losing team means that my victories weren’t always wins. Maybe seeing a young player like Ed Davis score 24 points, breaking free of the usual 10 point scoring night, that was the kind of win to take away from a loss.
There’s also the swing back. The Raptors may have been 4-19 but then in December they went 7-7 with most of their wins coming in the second half of the month. These are the kind of months when hope returns full force. During an Orlando Magic game, the first game I’d been to in years, I saw a mid-week packed house of fans about to erupt. Now, truthfully, no one would ever accuse Toronto fans of erupting in an arena (unless they go to Ottawa). There are too many suits, too many dads with young kids, who go to the Air Canada Centre. The only person who really exploded was my friend, Graeme, who was the lone, standup, cheer when Terrence Ross made a great slam on a breakaway. But that win against the Magic, man, did it feel like the Raptors were turning the season around. Talk of .500 was in full swing. I started following other teams wins and losses. Who do we need to catch? What weak teams were we playing next? I think we’re going to turn this around, I emailed a friend.
And then I moved to Plymouth and I wasn’t sure how I was going to follow the games. Forget my intense tinfoil and exercise bike contraption, most games started after midnight. West Coast games started at 2:30 am and could end around 5. Was I really going to continue watching all these games? Apparently yes. I even had a solid number of guilt-free reasons to keep going. My days were free because I had no job. I had no friends so no one was calling to hang out with me. My girlfriend was busy starting her new job. But really, these didn’t matter, I couldn’t stop. I had to see how this season played out.
But the 4-19 start was the story. Didn’t matter how close they got to .500 by the end of January we were headed for another white knuckle off season. When point guard Jose Calderon was traded I should have known it was over. Especially when I got an email from a friend who venomously hated Calderon but admitted he got choked up when Calderon said goodbye. That was our drama for the season. Let Miami win or lose in the last second of game six, us Raptor fans were going to live and die as Jose Calderon walked out the door. That was the real sign of another lost season. Loyal players were traded. Chance players are bet on (for the Raptors this was Rudy Gay, who we’d learn later needed eye surgery). Yet another season would be spent dissecting the husked out play of zombie, Andrea Bargnani. I’d been here before so many times but I still hugged my knees excitedly when rookie, Ross, hit a three in mid-March. There was still a chance. But really, at that point in the season, I’d been on that bike, wearing that tinfoil hat for over thirty hours, the wear on my knees was something awful, the exercise too much for my brain.
Note to self: never get advice from a Leaf fan, not about trades, not about the Leaf’s chances in the playoffs, or about how far they’d go to watch a game.
A few final thoughts on the Raptors season. One night, after a game had ended, and all the lights were off, and the bike peddles had stopped spinning on their own, I heard traffic outside, which was odd because there’s never been traffic outside my apartment at any time of day. Turns out what I was hearing was waves.
During the Raptors’ second season, this being the 2013 offseason, the Raptors amazed as usual. A new GM, a potentially great GM in Masai Urjiri. The ghost of Bargnani traded for a first round draft pick and a three point shooter that the Raptors desperately need. But more than that, new to a Raptors offseason, there was also long silence. There wasn’t the frenzy of the Colangelo offseasons past. No crazy trades. Just huge relief that Bargnani was finally gone.
I’ve begun oiling up the bike and started to save money for my tinfoil fund. 2013-2014 could be the Raptors’ year to turn it around. Especially with all those NBA teams tanking for the 2014 off season. And the New Jersey Nets trading for all those older players and letting a rookie coach drive them. And Miami getting tired. And the Lakers looking lost. And New York getting Bargnani. And the Raptors having….
One Saturday in April I was at Drake Shopping Centre, which is like a miniature version of the Eaton Centre but just as busy, and just as frenzied. I’ve seen families ride their baby carriages over people’s back to get to the HMV while it was in receivership. I’ve been elbowed by old ladies on their way to get sweets. People have been lined up to buy books.
And then, out of the push and pull of the crowd, like he was stepping out of smoke, a six foot five bearded man wearing a Raptors toque walked toward me. I had to have his hat wrong, right? But I didn’t. This bearded guy in far off Plymouth was wearing his team proudly on his head. And as he brushed past me, as my first chance at Sports connection final hit me, I froze.
It was three of four minutes before I could find my voice. And by then he’d disappeared into the smoke again.