Rob Ford, The Raptors, And Toronto

As Rob Ford's mayoral career crashed and burned, the Raptors rose. For Toronto natives, candidate and team served something like the same purpose.
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Over the last year and change, the Toronto Raptors have transformed into a successful basketball franchise after having spent the better part of a decade on the NBA's periphery. Their ascendancy has all the usual explanations: talent, good management, continuity, luck, not having Andrea Bargnani around. But the team’s cultural traction in Toronto owes much to the "We the North" campaign, which has simultaneously energized the fan-base and appealed to the city's underlying feelings of being continuously and unjustly sidelined. Despite sounding like a misappropriated Game of Thrones rallying cry haphazardly translated from the original Dothraki, the sentiment continues a Toronto tradition. In this sense, and perhaps only in this one, it’s a positive development that brings to mind the fresh and less-than-positive memory of former mayor Rob Ford.

During his career in municipal politics—which is, inexplicably, still ongoing—Ford effectively exploited Toronto's hunger for relevance and latent, seething inferiority complex. He won elections in the same way the Raptors have won back fans and forged their own brand of success.

For better and (mostly) worse, Ford’s four years as mayor of Toronto drew much attention to the city. Most were introduced to him in May of 2013 after allegations surfaced over video evidence in which the mayor appeared to be smoking crack cocaine. The subsequent media scrutiny would fuel many months of news stories, comedy sketches and late night interviews, in part because Ford defiantly refused to resign despite the mounting evidence.

As the news about Ford grew worse—more videos, more allegations, more outlandish and progressively less-amusing behavior—those outside Toronto grew increasingly perplexed as to how Ford had come to power in the first place. Really, this guy is the leader of the largest city in sane, sober-sided Canada and the fourth largest in North America? For a country known in the States for its staid steadiness and near-comic politeness, Ford was a bizarre curiosity. But for many Torontonians, his mayoral win came as a complete surprise, too.

***

Located in the northwest corner of the city, Toronto's Ward 2 is carved by the Humber River to the north and east and regional highways to the west and south. It's known almost exclusively for its relatively high levels of crime and political disengagement. If you've ever travelled through the area—presumably on your way someplace else—you would note that Etobicoke North is notable, if at all, as one of the least notable parts of Toronto. This unremarkable ward is the one that launched the career of one of the most infamous public figures in Canadian history.

Elected as its city councilor in November of 2000, Ford began crafting his reputation as a hands-on politician working for the little guy. Unlike seemingly unreachable "downtown" councilors, Ford was proud to answer each individual constituent call and happily knocked on doors. For a decade he stood largely alone in his little fiefdom, speaking out against council spending and waste and decrying the state of municipal affairs. Ford was mostly ignored by his colleagues, the kid in the playground that no one wanted to play with.

In truth, Ford came to politics with many advantages—his father founded DECO Labels and Tags, and was a member of Ontario's provincial parliament—but his unrefined presence branded him an outsider at City Hall. Rather than shirk the label, Ford understood how valuable the outsider identity could be in Toronto politics, and effectively used it to garner wider suburban support.

In 2010 Ford began what initially seemed a long-shot campaign for the mayor's chair, running as a sort of lone voice in the wilderness of Toronto's suburbs. Despite the various controversies that already dogged him at the time—his boneheaded racist comments; his publicly drunk and disorderly conduct; his publicly expressed confusion about how AIDS worked—Ford gained momentum, and he emerged as the loud, brazen champion of the neglected in Toronto. The outlying areas of the city were mobilized; once Ford became mayor, the downtown core was forced to listen. To look at an electoral map of Ford's win is to see the city divided evenly along these lines—downtown and suburb, have and have-not.

Torontonians shocked by Ford's mayoral victory really should have seen it coming; that so many were so confounded by it says a great deal about Ford’s appeal. In emerging as the mouthpiece for his coalition of the forgotten, Ford made himself the advocate and mascot for a group much larger and angrier than Toronto elites knew. “Ford Nation” was awake, pissed off, and demanding to be heard. Ford spoke to, and for, them.

Ford, clownish as he seems so much of the time, had clearly learned the lessons of a decade spent standing alone at City Hall. He understands what it feels like to be dismissed and ignored, and was able to rally people to his cause because he promised to deliver what these outlying districts, full of everyday "taxpayers," felt was their due.

Of course, it's ironic now to note that the widest recognition Ford was ever able to bring Toronto came only after his outlandish personal life butted into and finally subsumed the public discourse. His constituency did not necessarily mind this. As Ford's brother Doug would later claim, "[Ford's crack scandal] has put Toronto on the map."

The neediest part of Toronto's identity, this hunger for relevance, has long been couched in the desire to be recognized as an elite city internationally. The city wants to be worthy of the acclaim bestowed upon cities like New York, Paris or Tokyo; it deserves this status, mostly, but Toronto’s thirst for it quick to trumpet successes and downplay embarrassments. Naturally, professional sports get tied up in this.

Torontonians want winning teams and organizations both because they’re more fun than the alternative, and because such success looks good. By that metric, as hard as it's been to be a Torontonian as of late, it's been equally hard to be a Toronto sports fan. In baseball, the Blue Jays are in the midst of the longest playoff drought in pro sports. Mention "1967" to a Maple Leafs fan and be ready for a wistful shake of the head. The Raptors, for their part, have existed for 20 years, and have spent nearly all of it as an NBA afterthought. Pile all this ambient despair atop the technicolor disaster of the Rob Ford Experience and it feels fair to ask: when will anyone ever take Toronto seriously?

***

Toronto didn't always identify itself as an underdog. The same year Ford began his outsider political career, the Raptors were coincidentally at their competitive peak. That squad’s second-round playoff run in the 2000-01 season offered the city its most memorable taste of what a successful franchise looks and feels like. Led by the most popular (and visible) superstar in the league, Vince Carter, what looked like the start of something great wound up being the franchise’s low zenith: the best time in history to be a fan of the Toronto Raptors, to be sure, but nothing like a golden era.

After that brief flirtation with success, Carter forced his way out of town, alternatively sulking and quietly asking for a trade. The Raptors went into a tailspin, and the cultural relevancy and American TV appearances disappeared. The team gradually made it back to the playoffs with the emergence of Chris Bosh, but few outside Toronto noticed then, or remember now; they were a forgotten franchise. By November 2010, when Ford was elected mayor, the Raptors hit bottom: then-cornerstone Bosh had taken his talents to South Beach and the Raptors embarked on a 22-60 campaign, their worst since 1997-98. Fan resentment was left to fester.

Over the past year, Toronto’s figurehead and its team passed each other, at a high rate of speed, in opposite directions. As Ford's administration descended into an abject circus, a tough, star-free Raptors squad made a surprising surge toward respectability. After the trade of ball-stopping notional star Rudy Gay, Torontonians braced for the expected tank job. Instead, with a largely unsung roster, the Raptors rose to third in the Eastern Conference, looking every bit like a team that could stay there for years to come.

By last spring, the Raptors were battling a veteran Brooklyn Nets squad across a seven game series. Fans packed Maple Leaf Square, the public space adjacent to the Air Canada Centre, to watch each playoff game. The team's GM, Masai Ujiri, publically urged fans to "Fuck Brooklyn." Given a banner to rally behind—and moneyed New Yorkers as a foil—Toronto’s inherent "us against the world" mentality burst into loud, lurid bloom. The seventh game of that series, played in Toronto, was broadcast nationally in the States; the commentators were amazed at the passion, volume and size of the crowds.

Last season’s hope has catalyzed, in this year’s team, into a unifying belief. With much of the roster still intact, the team seems a lock for an upper tier seed in the playoffs. The Raptors are becoming one of the NBA’s haves again, a franchise of note. As of this writing they sit atop the Eastern Conference and are basking in an abundance of broader media attention. Torontonians are proud to call themselves Raptors fans again. They expect this team to win, and they’re not wrong to expect it.

***

On the day before the 2014-15 NBA season started, Ford, who was forced to withdraw from his mayoral re-election campaign due to a cancer diagnosis, won his bid to become Ward 2’s city councilor. His marginally less-cartoonish brother Doug ran for mayor in his stead and lost.

Could Ford have won again if not for his health? The hope is that most Torontonians now understand the potential damage four more years of angry, divisive politics—not to mention another four years at the center of the Rob Ford Show—could bring to the city’s psyche. The intersecting paths of Ford and the Raptors seem set to veer apart once again.

If Ford really is done, the thing that made him is clearly still going strong. While the Raptors have taken Ford’s mantle, the appeal of their mutual outsider message lives on. Ford, characteristically, understands this. As the election results played out on TV, there was Ford rearing his beet-red head onto the screen with words—a warning?—for Toronto.

"I will be running for mayor in four years... I will be the first person to sign up in 2018."

He may as well have bellowed, "We the North."


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