Existing as an NBA fan in the UK has always been a little difficult. I’ve followed the Toronto Raptors for over fifteen years, the personal high point being half a season scraping in the meagre pay of an usher at the Air Canada Centre during a post-university stint in Canada. During the Raptors’ history, their pinnacle was a last second shot from flawed hero Vince Carter that rimmed out at the buzzer, halting their advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s been downhill ever since, with most of the proceeding years (a whole decade) spent bogged down in the lower ranks of the league. I’ve stuck with the team during all that time but recent events in the league have really focussed my attention on just what it means to be a fan of the consistently mediocre.
As the recent trade deadline came approached, news swirled about some huge trades in the works. Not for my team, but that was only because we’d already been stripped of top-tier talent by off season movement. Carmelo Anthony of the Nuggets was pouting about a move to the Knicks, a story that had run and run and was still dominating the headlines. He got his wish. Then, out of the blue, another small market team, the Utah Jazz (who UK fans of the game will probably always see as bigger than they are due to their success in the Western Conference during the time the sport had high numbers of viewers on Channel 4 back in the day) lost one of the top guards in the league to another team in the New York City area, the New Jersey Nets. Articles started appearing with worried tones, predicting a new style of league, where superstar players would pour through the cracks of struggling, small market franchises. Teaming up together in cities like Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, the NBA would further move down a path of haves and have nots, a scenario which would likely end with the closure of several already struggling franchises.
The Raptors weren’t players at the February trade deadline and the rest of the season will be spent losing three out of every four games at best. At the end of the season, the only reward will be a high lottery pick. In that lies the trouble.
The NBA lottery rewards the worst teams with a high slot from which to pick a new player up from the college ranks or from leagues outside of the NBA. These rookies are then obliged (pretty much) to play for the team which drafts them. The trend in recent years has been for those rookies to skip town for a big player as soon as their rookie contract is up. The salary rules by which the league must abide are set up to ensure that a player will make the most money possible by remaining in one place for a long time, but there is so much money available around the fringes of the league, in sponsorship and ad deals, that players have a lot more flexibility to pursue the right contract in the right place for them.
The Raptors recently lost their franchise player, Chris Bosh, to the Miami Heat, where he teamed up with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to become the smallest cog in a mighty trio of stars. Compared to the other two players starring for the Heat, Chris Bosh is not in the same league, but he complements them well and his exit from Toronto left the Raptors with little to work with. They were mediocre without him and remain so in his wake.
There are several main issues that a fan of a mediocre team in the NBA faces. The first is one of futile efforts. The NBA regular season stretches over a mammoth 82 games which is a fair old slog if your team disappoints week in week out. The futility comes from the lack of any tension with teams having nothing to play for or fans with anything to pray for. In a standard league (anywhere in the world except the US) systems of relegation, or entry into various side tournaments mean that a team seldom plays a meaningless match. Rivalries and derby games are real and the constant threat of relegation into the league below keeps the fans hoping for the best and desperate for success through every second of play. Wins mean the world and defeats hurt. In Toronto, too often have I heard the crowd booing the team’s victory due to them failing to reach 100 points and missing the chance to win a free slice of pizza. This is not the way to watch or enjoy a sport. These people miss the point, but it’s not their fault. This is just the way that NBA fans have been trained to be. Why should people dedicate themselves to a team that, in reality, means very little to them. Probably the only reason I’ve been able to enjoy the Raptors over the past couple of years has been through the writing on www.RaptorsRepublic.com. A collection of guys who have dedicated themselves to the team and write with genuine knowledge and, worryingly, an increasing level of discontent and depression.
I’ve been a fan of the Raptors for 15 years and will remain one. I nailed my colours to the mast when they set up and they will stay there until the franchise gives up and moves elsewhere. At some point in the future the team will luck out and pick up the rights to an exciting player (a Blake Griffin clone would be nice) and at that point, the fans will have a reason to enjoy a game, but there will always be something missing. In the NBA, teams will only ever battle to save the fans from boredom. Millions of people are missing out on what it means to suffer with a team and will never experience the glorious highs of the final game of a season where a historic team saves itself from relegation with the last throw of the dice. Instead, I, along with every Raptors fan, will continue to suffer through wasted years of mock enthusiasm waiting in the cellar for a shot at three years of hope and quality.
This isn’t how it was meant to be.