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The Toronto Raptors: For Better or Worse

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The Toronto Raptors: For Better or Worse
(Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

The 2008/'09 season, has been a nightmare for the Toronto Raptors.  But a funny thing has happened throughout it all.  I realised I still give a damn about them. They say you can tell how much you care when your team’s losing. People ask how I can remain so positive and continue to support them. Here’s why:

When I first became interested in basketball, I attempted to pick a team to follow. I considered the Orlando Magic (Penny Hardaway), the New York Knicks (they play in New York), and the Utah Jazz (my uncle worked in Utah for three years).

These may sound like obscure reasons to pick a team, but that’s what happens when you follow sports from across the Atlantic Ocean. In any event, I couldn’t decide on anyone. However, I still followed the NBA as I enjoyed the game.

Fast forward to 2004, when I’d made the decision to save up and travel to Canada for a year. I wanted to watch live basketball and Toronto was the only place that could offer this.

I started buying Raptors games on DVD. This helped me get to know the team and see what they were like. It didn’t look good. I remember thinking, ‘I’ll be happy to watch a team playing .500 ball.’

I liked the feisty Sam Mitchell, saw the promise of Chris Bosh, discovered Morris Peterson was Mr. Raptor, and you had to love the ‘Red Rocket’ Matt Bonner.

Luckily, by the time I arrived in Toronto during 2006, Bryan Colangelo had entered the fold.  He went straight to work, getting rid of the likes of Rafael Araujo (I sympathised with him being the fans’ whipping boy, but to be fair, he was bad) and Charlie Villanueva (talented but missing something).

In came T.J. Ford, Anthony Parker, Rasho Nesterovic and the player who would become my favourite Raptor, Jorge Garbajosa. Together with an all-star in the making (Bosh) and the top draft pick, (Andrea Bargnani) I felt optimistic about the coming season.

I wasted no time buying game tickets for the home opener against the Milwaukee Bucks. Upon arriving, I felt the buzz of hope and anticipation in the air. I was hooked from the word go.

I remember the crowd was deafening.  It was a full house; I remember an unbelievable dunk by Fred Jones; most of all though, I remember the Raptors winning.

There were teething problems along the way (5-10 at the end of November, including a 0-5 showing in their first road trip of the season. Ford and Parker missing playing time), but it helped develop the team’s resolve.

Unexpectedly, it was an injury to Bosh, which proved to be the turning point.  It gave a team with surprising depth belief, as they went 6-6 without their superstar.

It was also evident that as well as gelling on the court the players genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, going out to dinner together on a regular basis. Apparently the general public viewed them as one of the most well liked teams in the history of Toronto team sports.

I ended up going to over half of the home games.  I hadn’t planned it, but when you invest time into something; you start to become emotionally attached.

Case in point, when I went to a game against Cleveland. There was a bunch of guys in front of me and some people came over to talk to them. They were all standing around blocking my view. 

Despite being on my own, I had no hesitation in angrily telling them all to sit down or at least move over. Stupid maybe, but I was into the game!

I enjoyed watching Bargnani’s development.  T.J. Ford was lightening fast, and seemed to be the one player who you could trust with the final shot, even more than Bosh.  (Like the game winning shot on the road to beat the Clippers.)

Mo Pete, he was the man. I still get chills when I remember that miracle shot to tie the game at the end of regulation in Washington, leading to a win in overtime. That was the point when I realised the season had developed into something special.

With the regular season nearing its end, they looked certain to get the third or fourth seed and go deep into the playoffs.

Then, disaster struck. Garbajosa suffered a sickening season-ending leg injury in a road loss to Boston. He was chasing a lost cause on a breakaway by the Celtics, typical of the man.

They had overcome so much during the season due in part to the strength in depth, everyone thought the Raps would be ok. Because of his lack of standout stats, no one realised how important Garbo was. Unfortunately it would become evident in the playoffs.

For now though, the Raptors went on to secure the number three seed, equalled they’re record for most wins in a regular season and clinched the first ever-divisional title.

It had seemed all but certain that Toronto would face Washington in the playoffs. With they’re numerous injuries, (including Aeneas Williams) it appeared inevitable we would beat them and advance to the second round.

Fate however, had other ideas. By seasons end, New Jersey had somehow landed in sixth place. It was meant to be. Vince Carter was returning to Toronto.

The Raptors lack of playoff experience showed up big time as they lost game one at home. Carter was feeding off the Toronto crowd and Jason Kidd was inspired. (I’ve never seen Kidd play so well, averaging a triple-double throughout the series.) I was concerned.

A good friend got tickets for Game Two. I WAS GOING TO A PLAYOFF GAME! As vocal as the crowds had been throughout the season, nothing had matched the home opener against the Bucks...until now.

I can’t even begin to describe the feeling and the atmosphere at that game. As we walked out to our seats, I felt the hairs on the back of my neck standing up. It was a cauldron of energy and noise.

My friend said he was taken aback as he’d never seen someone so pumped up for a game. It apparently had comedy value as well because I was screaming, swearing and shouting. Everyone kept looking around wondering who the hell this guy was with the English accent, obviously needing anger management counselling.

I didn’t notice and even if I had, I didn’t care. The Raptors won, sending me home a happy man.

Unfortunately, they just couldn’t win on the road.  Bosh seemed to miss Garbo more than anyone, as he struggled to deal with the pressure of his first ever playoff series.  Knowing he was the main man weighed heavily on him.

(I was impressed with how cool Bargnani was throughout the series. I know he took a step back last season, but he’s back on track. He has such a smooth shot. Next season, he’ll be a 20-8 guy, with a couple of assists thrown in for good measures.)

Ultimately, it came down to game six in New Jersey. I kept thinking ‘Just win ONE on the road and bring it back home for game seven.’  And they almost did, putting up their best road effort in the series.

I was on a work night out, but remained glued to the screen for the entire game at the bar we were in. We played our hearts out until Richard Jefferson made a lay-up right at the end and then stole a pass on the Raptors final possession.

Dejected, I slumped back in my chair and proceeded to get drunk. I maintain to this day we’d have won if Garbo had played, but I’ll never know. Overall though, it was an amazing season and I’m glad I was a part of it all.

Since returning to England, I’ve witnessed a 41-41 season, Garbo being released, T.J. Ford being traded and Sam Mitchell getting sacked.  It reminds me that nothing lasts forever.

However, I’ll never forget that magical season in 2006-'07. And that’s why I will always be a Raptors fan, through thick and thin.

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