How does one fall in love with a team?
For many fans, the connection is almost decided for them. Where they grew up, who their relatives or schoolyard friends support and the convenience of catching a game on television can all factor in to who to cheer for. More often than not, these factors swirl and leave one option: the team closest to home.
That’s where the love blossoms. Triumph and heartbreak help it grow, creating an unbreakable bond between a fan and their team.
As the only Canadian club in the NBA, the Toronto Raptors famously have an entire country of fans. From Newfoundland to British Columbia, Raptors supporters have been out in full force during the historic playoff run that will reach yet another climactic moment in Toronto on Saturday.
After stealing a win in Milwaukee, the Raptors are one win away from their first NBA Finals in the team’s 24-year history. Heroics from Kawhi Leonard and company have captivated Canadians near and far. But they aren’t the only ones who have been invested in this team since the beginning of the season and beyond.
Ardit Vidishiqi started watching basketball five years ago in high school. He was drawn to the Raptors because they were the only Canadian team and he loved Drake, the team’s global ambassador.
Toronto’s return to the NBA playoffs coincided with his interest in the team. The Raptors played 51 playoff games over the past five seasons and despite the 2 a.m. start time in Germany, Vidishiq didn’t miss one.
This time around, things are different. After graduating high school last year, Vidishiqi decided to take a year off before heading to university close to home. Spending some time in Toronto was an obvious choice, and he has taken full advantage of being in the city for this magical run.
“I watch every game at Jurassic Park and it has been an absolutely insane experience for me,” he said. “The atmosphere and energy of the crowd is nothing short of amazing.”
He’s supposed to head home in two weeks — but he might need to stick around a while longer.
Matthew Cascio loves dinosaurs. So when the Raptors joined the NBA in 1995, following their journey was a “no-brainer.” Most of his friends from the coastal city south of Sydney were fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, one of the most historic franchises in sports.
On game days, Cascio will wear one of his five Raptors hats to work and often pretend he has a meeting, so he can sneak off and catch the action. He couldn’t handle being at the office for Game 7 against the 76ers, so he called in sick.
“It was one of the best decisions I ever made,” he says. After the game, he went to the local basketball court with his friends and tried to mimic Leonard’s miraculous game-winning shot.
“I got it on my second attempt,” Cascio says. “No bounces though. It was definitely a good day.”
Adelaide, South Australia
When Jordan Harding’s parents gave him a Vince Carter jersey during the height of the Vinsanity era, he was hooked. It started a connection to the Toronto franchise that is stronger than ever today.
“When the game is on, everything else ceases to exist for a few hours. It’s an important life event,” he says.
He’s watched the low of Carter’s unforgettable Game 7 miss against the 76ers in 2001 from afar. He felt the emotion from across the world after Kawhi’s Game 7 buzzer-beater in round two, 18 years later.
The “We the North” and “us against them” mentality that Raptors fans have embraced over the years is something that Aussies can relate to, he says.
Being a Raptors fan in a foreign land can get lonely once in a while, but Harding has found some comfort in the online basketball community. Sometimes he even sees a familiar name around town.
“The only other Raptors fans I know in Australia … appear on the Reddit boards from time to time,” he says. “But I do see the occasional DeMar DeRozan jersey.”
Inside a small Croatian town, halfway between Varazdin and Koprivnica, lived Nino, a young man with a penchant for video games.
Seven years ago, he came across a well known Canadian YouTuber called VintageBeef, who has more than 1.3 million subscribers today. VintageBeef makes a living off playing video games and sharing them online. In 2012, Nino watched a series where he took control of the Toronto Raptors franchise in NBA 2K12.
“One thing lead to another, and I became a Raps fan.”
These days, Nino has to wake up at 2 a.m. to catch a game, which he has done for about three quarters of the playoff games so far. He has many friends who follow the NBA, but is the only Raptors fan among them. Being a Toronto sports fan from Croatia is paying off these days.
Sometimes a single player is enough for a basketball fan to commit to loving a new team. For Jose Miguel Moreno Ferrer, a die-hard hoops fan from Spain, wherever Marc Gasol goes, he will follow.
“He is my idol,” Ferrer says. “I became a fan due to him and I will always support him wherever he plays.”
It was a good year for Ferrer and Gasol to hop on the Raptors bandwagon. The 34-year-old centre reached the conference finals with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2013, but never got as close as the Raptors are now, having been swept in four games. And his No. 1 fan is enjoying every moment.
“This year, I feel so lucky that we are in the conference finals,” said Ferrer. The time difference and his work schedule force him to watch the games a day later. “Who knows, maybe next will be the NBA finals.”
It was about 5 a.m. in Estonia when Marc Gasol inbounded the ball. Sten Veemees hadn’t slept yet. He was determined to see if the Raptors’ season would end that night.
He watched intently as Kawhi Leonard caught the ball, dribbled four times on his way to the corner and threw up a prayer. Then he waited. Time froze along with the rest of the world.
Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.
“That winning shot was the highlight of my Raps fandom,” Veemees says. “I’m so glad I stayed up to witness Raptors history.”
Veemees had always liked basketball, but didn’t follow a specific team until six years ago. He wanted it to be different than his friends’ clubs, like the Chicago Bulls and Boston Celtics.
“Looking at the list of teams, I saw the Raptors and noticed that they’re an outsider team, compared to all of the others,” he says. “So as an outsider myself, I chose the Raps.”
That wasn’t the only draw.
“Also their logo had a dinosaur on it. And well, who doesn’t like Dinosaurs?”
Lloyd Chua moved from Manila to Scarborough with his family when he was nine years old. He remembers buying his first Raptors ticket for $17.50.
“I remember watching from the nosebleed seats at Skydome, seeing some young rookie destroy the rim with his dunks, we were so far away,” he says. “Turns out it was a young Vince Carter.”
Chua moved back to Manila five years ago and brought his fandom with him. On Raptors game days, he has to be creative, often telling his staff he will be late for work if the game is on in the morning.
During Game 1 in the series against the 76ers, Chua and a friend visiting from Hong Kong scrambled to find a bar playing the game on Saturday morning.
“I found one in Makati: a hotel sports bar that’s open 24/7,” Chua said. “We had breakfast while watching the Raps rip apart Philly.”
Born in Curacao to Brazilian parents, soccer was really all Thiago Cardoso had enjoyed. In high school he disliked basketball, a sport that he was forced to play in gym class despite not being taught anything about it. Until one moment changed that perception.
While attending college in the U.S., he came across a video clip of a DeMar DeRozan tomahawk dunk.
“It was one of the greatest things I had ever seen. I just remember being so impressed by how far he cocked it back and by the force of the dunk.”
Being a foreign student in America, Cardoso felt a connection to the Raptors because they were the only team from outside the country.
“I just fell in love with the team, the bromance between Kyle and DeMar, and just the way everyone seemed to have so much fun together,” he says.
Now doing his Masters in Italy, Cardoso has fought the time difference and watched every Raptors game this season. To him, the 6 a.m. bedtimes are worth it.
“With all the Kawhi hype and our chances of making history, I just couldn’t afford to miss anything.”
It was love at first sight for Martin Haahr.
The Dane moved to Toronto for a year in 2011 and it was all he needed to realize that the Raptors were the one. He saw about 15 Raptors and Blue Jays games during his time here and watched dozens more on television.
“I have followed Raptors very closely ever since, and I always will,” Haahr said, admitting that it has been tough to watch the Jays the last couple of years.
His demanding work schedule won’t allow him to watch the playoff games live, but that doesn’t stop Haahr from experiencing the game as any other fan would.
“I usually have to watch them the next day,” he says. “I don’t use social media that day and I’ve turned off notifications from all my sports apps during the playoffs.”
Haahr only agreed to be interviewed on the condition that there would be no spoilers.
Dhruv Medepalli doesn’t sleep in much anymore. That’s just the way it goes for a Raptors fan in South East Asia.
“Raptors game days for me start at 3, 5 or 7 a.m., depending on the schedule,” Medepalli says. “However, there’s nothing better than starting my day with a Raptors W.”
He’s seen lots of W’s since the Rudy Gay trade left him “demoralized” in 2013, witnessed many wins from many countries.
Currently settled in Singapore, Medepalli has lived in Hong Kong, Malaysia and India. He also lived and studied in British Columbia for five years — his first stop as a travelling Raptors supporter.