The Quest To Be Culturally Relevant

As all NBA basketball fans know, the rosters for both the Eastern and Western Conference teams has already been set for the 2016 NBA All-Star game in Toronto. Toronto will be hosting their first NBA All-Star game, but that will not be the only first for Toronto.

On the Eastern Conference squad, two Toronto Raptors will be making an appearance in that game. Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan will both be making their 2nd NBA All-Star appearance respectively as well as making history.

On the surface this is something small but this will mark the first time two Raptors will be playing in the NBA All-Star game simultaneously since Vince Carter and Antonio Davis were All-Star teammates in 2001.

However, this means something way more.

DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry in the 2016 All-Star game may be the culmination of the Toronto Raptors 15-year quest of being relevant in pop culture. Let me explain with a brief history lesson.

Ironically, 2001 was the same season that Vince Carter missed “the shot” against the Philadelphia 76ers in game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals, which marked two things. One, the beginning of the slow and painful end of the “Vincanity” Era in Toronto due to the fans displeasure of Vince going to his graduation before the game (still stings many fans to this day). Secondly and more importantly, this was the last time the Toronto Raptors were a hot pop culture topic... until now.

After the 2001 season, the Toronto Raptors franchise had their fair share of criticism from basketball fans down south, north, and arguably their own ownership group Maple Leafs Sports Entertainment (MLSE). This included players on the team using the Raptors as a chance to get a big contract elsewhere, TNT broadcasters who were not named Charles Barkley ridiculing Raptor fans, fans sitting through bad basketball and the Leafs being marketed more despite being equally as bad.

Not even Chris Bosh could save the raptors.

Side note: the Chris Bosh Era was not that bad in Toronto. He led the Raptors to a couple playoff berths, albeit lost in the first round both times but he enjoyed some measure of success.

All this contributed to a growing inferiority complex by Raptors fans and by extension a city losing its confidence. To give an indication about how bad of a state the Raptors were in, consider the following: 

At one very brief point in time, Andrea Bargnani was the Raptors “Star player”. Yes, the guy who is in a suit for the Brooklyn Nets most nights was once averaging 21.4 points as part of the Toronto Raptors, post-Chris Bosh era; there was hope. Former President and GM of the Raptors, Bryan Colangelo, picked DeMar DeRozan 9th overall in the 2009 draft and, DeRozan since his sophomore year in the NBA, has averaged double-figures in scoring.

The problem was the Raptors were still a losing team, and despite a small ember of hope that the raptors would be good, it was still a rough situation. Then suddenly an under-the-Radar acquisition was made. During the 2012 off-season, the Toronto Raptors traded Gary Forbes and a future first round pick for point guard Kyle Lowry which could be one of the potential best steals in Raptors history. The “Bulldog” Kyle Lowry did not come in with the same reputation as he has now. During that time there was a negative reputation surrounding Lowry. This included talk of him being a guy who clashes with coaches, out of shape, and a “Hero Baller”.  

What people forget is that Lowry was actually looking like a pretty good “catch” at first glance, however injuries derailed his first year in Toronto.

Suddenly the Toronto Raptors ownership group, MLSE, smartened up.

The MLSE hired Tim Leiweke to be the president and CEO. Leiweke’s reign as president and CEO of MLSE was relatively short, but made two critical decisions to put the Raptors where they are. The first was a pure basketball decision. Colangelo stepped down in 2013 and Masai Ujiri was hired by Leiweke to replace him. The second was a cultural decision, the Raptors hired hip-hop artist Drake to be raptors “Global Ambassador”. Let’s take a look at what both gentlemen did.

 Tim Leiweke (left) and Masai Ujiri (right)

Tim Leiweke (left) and Masai Ujiri (right)

Masai Ujiri

There is a lot of things that Ujiri is credited for that does not have to do with trades - lighting a fire in Kyle Lowry’s eyes with repeated meetings and his infamous “**** Brooklyn” speech being a marketing tool, but let's focus on his actual trades.

Masai Ujiri has done amazing job with making trades, however, it could be argued that the start was a complete accident. Ujiri traded Andrea Bargnani to the New York Knicks for Marcus Camby, Steve Novak, and Quentin Richardson. The Raptors also got a future first-round draft pick, and two future second-round picks; both Richardson and Camby were waived following the trade.

Ujiri would do better though. 

Late in the Colangelo era, Rudy Gay was acquired from the Memphis Grizzlies mid-season. This acquisition received mixed reviews as some recognized the talent Gay possessed but the Raptors had to give up fan favourite and great passer, Jose Calderon. Rudy Gay unfortunately had a rough start to his 2013-2014 season and on December 9th 2013, Masai Ujiri made the decision to trade Rudy Gay, Aaron Gray, and Quincy Acy to the Sacramento Kings. In exchange the Raptors received John Salmons, Greivis Vásquez, Patrick Patterson, and Chuck Hayes. This was all done to tank for a high draft pick, and in fact, Kyle Lowry was reportedly being shopped around as well. This inadvertently turned the Raptors into a good team. What happened is that the ball did not stick to Rudy Gay, meaning Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan had the chance to shine, and shine they did.

DeMar DeRozan became an All-Star that year, Kyle Lowry became a fan favourite, and together they became one of the better backcourts in the league. Also the Raptors inadvertently had one of the best benches in the NBA. This is due to Greivis Vasquez having a career year, Patrick Patterson being given more minutes to display his talents, and John Salmons as well Chuck Hayes providing the mental toughness. As a result the Raptors during the 2013-2014 season went from being 6-12 to 48-34 and being one point away from stunning the Brooklyn Nets in the game 7 of the playoffs. Because of this Masai Ujiri has been nicknamed the “Masaiah” and even the popular talk show Tim and Sid sang “I believe in Masai” twice (Yes this happened).

Masai Ujiri since then has not really made a “Bad Move”. For example: Lou Williams worked out for him in 2015, Bismack Biyombo has been great, Cory Joseph is turning into a steal, Terrence Ross is finding his form, and Jonas Valanciunas has improved immensely on defensive. This has made the Raptors on the court great.

Side note #2: nothing to do with basketball but another great move by Masai Ujiri is his Giant of Africa event. Masai Ujiri’s ‘The Giant of Africa’ gala is a great event to remember the one and only Nelson Mandala.


A lot of fans and pundits debate how much effect Drake has actually had on the Raptors, but in my opinion it has been pretty impactful. Say what you will about his music and perceived attitude, but there is a correlation between him and how great Toronto has been marketed. For example, shortly after he was announced the “Global Ambassador” for the Toronto Raptors, the Raptors received the 2016 NBA All-Star game.

Side note #3: Remember when Rob Ford was at that All-Star press conference? I will leave it at that.

The thing that I want to focus on with Drake is the “We The North” movement. There is still much Debate to how much Drake has to do with marketing the concept, however he is credited for marketing the movement. As a result the first “We The North” commercial that went to air sent chills up every Raptor fans spine.

This commercial was perfect because there were some many things that it subtly did. It played on the inferiority complex of most Raptors fans by sectioning their fan base off as “The North”. “The North” were Fans who often felt disrespected, marginalized and ashamed. Now the North felt proud and empowered. It played on the concept of a multi-cultural Canada. Finally, the commercial made it seem as if the Raptors fans were an army with the Raptors and it was now time to come out and support the team.

Drake’s retweet gave the commercial fame and his constant marketing of the movement made Toronto look attractive to incoming free agents. This includes calling Toronto “The 6ix” (which plays on the area codes in Toronto), the Ovofest which was where the Toronto Raptors had Drake announce their “OVO” jersey, and the emergence of Toronto City Counsellor Norm Kelly. Mix that in with Drake’s ability to reel in celebrities, it contributed to Toronto Raptors fans - and the city of Toronto in general - a certain confidence that the city has not had since, you guessed it, 2001.

Now the argument could be made that his marketing means nothing if the Raptors are not good and that is true. However truth is, the Raptors have not won a 7 game series in their history. Thus, the Raptors would be a regular playoff team in fans eyes. Now the raptors are a good team however it helps the fact that now they are culturally relevant because they are linked to a globally recognized artist like Drake and that his event brings many celebrities and other basketball players.

So what does this all mean? Well the Toronto Raptors now have an All-Star game to play and will trot out two high end talents in the game. This game is a chance for Maple Leaf Sports Entertainment to look modernized and a part of pop culture relevance. If the 2016 All-Star game is successful than fans may be able to expect some high-end talent come make "The 6ix" home.

Michael AsiffoComment