Basketball is one of the most popular sports in the USA, but when the National Basketball Association (NBA) expanded into Canada in 1995, there were only two teams on the scene: The Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies.
Given the size and population of the country, it’s surprising that this was the case – but even more surprisingly, the Grizzlies moved to Memphis in 2001, leaving just one basketball team in Canada. Betfair have the Raptors as fourth favorites to win the NBA Championship later this year – they currently sit second in the Eastern Conference (behind the Milwaukee Bucks), but top the Atlantic Division and therefore have clinched a playoff spot.
Although they may not have any Championships or Conference titles to their name, they’ve won the Division five times over the last 11 years – although it hasn’t always been easy for them.
A brief history
Like most expansion teams, life in the NBA didn’t begin well for the Raptors and they finished bottom of the table in their first three seasons. Although they won their first ever game in a 94-79 victory over the New Jersey Jets, their inaugural season ended with a win-loss ratio of 21-61. The following season saw the Raptors increase on their win record by nine games and actually beat eventual champions, the Chicago Bulls.
Their record seemed to be a lot better against the top-caliber teams, losing out to the Boston Celtics on three occasions. The 1997-98 season saw drama on and off the court, with numerous injuries causing the Raptors to lose 17 consecutive games; while one of their shareholders resigned, giving 90 percent of the ownership to John Allan Slaight. The Raptors struggled with an inexperienced side, ending the season with 16 wins and 66 defeats.
The following year saw the Raptors steadily improve, as the owners of ice hockey team, the Toronto Maple Leafs bought out the club and the stadium they were in the process of building. Trading during the season was a lot more beneficial and although the Raptors didn’t make the playoffs, fans were more optimistic going in to the following season.
The 1998-99 season proved a successful one, with the building of the new stadium and current home, The Air Canada Centre. On the court, the team improvements were evident and this saw the Raptors attract new fans, many of whom weren’t into basketball before. The following year, the Raptors made history when they reached their first ever play-off berth, a feat they managed for the following two seasons.
The team has been in the Atlantic Division since the 2004-05 season and they won their first division title in 2006-07, but lost out in the first round of the playoffs. The mid-2010s are undoubtedly where most of the success has been, as the Raptors finished top of the division for three successive campaigns: losing the first round play-off to the Brooklyn Nets 4-3 in 2013-14 and the Washington Wizards 4-0 the following year; while losing the Conference final to the Cleveland Cavaliers 4-2 in 2015-16. More recently, the Raptors have made the playoffs, but both times, have lost out in the Conference semifinals (both times in 4-0 defeats to the Cavaliers).
We the North campaign
Although the Raptors inaugural game back on November 3, 1995 saw them draw in over 33,000 fans, there needed to be something to fill out the arena, but also resonate to the rest of the country. The ‘We the North’ campaign was set-up in 2011, but identified the team since 2014 – it essentially showed off Canada’s status as an outsider and in a league of their own.
However, the campaign was a success and 12,500 season tickets were sold for the 2014/15 season – along with streams of merchandise being sold and worn throughout Toronto and further afield. Rapper Drake even endorsed the team in the past, driving the We the North movement forward.
However, since 2017, the slogan has extended to ‘North over Everything’ and a spokesperson for Maple Leafs Sports & Entertainment said: “Inspiration from [North Over Everyone] is based on the attitude of the Raptors heading into the season. Other messages woven into the campaign include ‘Hustle Over Hype’, ‘Grit Over Given’ and ‘Built Over Bought’, all of which embody the Raptors’ foundation”.
Undoubtedly, the Toronto Raptors are one of the franchise’s biggest success stories, having elevated themselves into the elite of the NBA. It looks as though this season will continue their successes and it will be interesting to see how far they make it in the play-offs. If they are able to hold onto the likes of Kawhi Leonard, who will be a free-agent come the end of the season, then who knows what next year will bring.