Drake's Toronto superfandom: annoying, ludicrous and completely understandable

The rapper has spent the last six weeks making the Raptors’ playoff run about him rather than the team, but celebrity fans are part of the NBA’s heritage

To get the most obvious controversy out of the way first, the debate over whether Drake – Toronto’s resident superfan, troll, motivator and occasional masseur – is annoying or not is not really much of a debate at all. Of course Drake is annoying. Whether flailing his arms about in celebration of the most humdrum layup, counter-productively trash talking Players You Should Not Piss Off like Kevin Durant or Draymond Green, rubbing down Nick Nurse’s neck, deploying his burgeoning dadbod for yet another sideline staredown of an opponent – eyes ablaze, veins popping, hoodie rippling like a man ready to do everything in a bar fight except actually fight it – or just generally getting in the way and not shutting up, Drake has exploited every avenue possible to make the story of this exceptional Raptors postseason about him rather than the team.


— Faizal Khamisa (@SNFaizalKhamisa) May 26, 2019

We’ve come a long way since the days of Jack Nicholson in his shades at the Great Western Forum, grinning conspiratorially from the stands to the rhythms of Showtime with Magic and Kareem. Today’s celebrity fan is an authentic superdork, the type of person who does not simply want to appreciate great feats of athleticism from a respectful distance but be right there in the thick of things, firing the troops up, goading the enemy, living the highs, suffering together through the lows. It’s clear that Drake considers himself as much a part of the team as Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam or Kawhi Leonard. But which one of us, in his place, wouldn’t do the same? To be a fan is ridiculous; Drake’s crime is not really to be annoying at all, but to live the ridiculousness with more conviction than any of us.

It makes good sense for NBA franchises to give superfans like Drake a stage to perform on during home games: more than in other US sports, home-court advantage makes a significant difference to basketball teams’ fortunes, especially in the postseason. The Raptors’ superior regular-season record means they will host Game 7 in these finals, should the best-of-seven-games series make it that far, but the difference between the two teams was just one game: 58-24 for the Raptors v 57-25 for the Warriors. Who’s to say having Drake courtside for most of those games, pumping his arms like an inflatable tube man at a car wash while those nearby offered only tepid applause, was not the difference that allowed a promising but untested Raptors outfit to squeak the extra victory that gives them the edge in the championship round? Meanwhile the Warriors were able to call on the support of noted superfan Eddy Cue, Apple’s senior vice president of internet software and services. If the Raptors deserve to win this ring on no other basis, it’s for having a celebrity fan who at least meets the threshold of being a celebrity.

Drake urges on the Raptors during the Eastern Conference finals. Photograph: Nathan Denette/AP

Celebrity fans in the NBA have become more than mere annoyances or background furniture: however implausible it might sound, they’re now part of the league’s heritage, an important link to its past. For the first half-decade following its 1976 merger with the ABA, the NBA still had something like the look and feel of college basketball; a one-paced, try-your-best spirit pervaded most games, even in the playoffs. (If you don’t believe me, watch Game 7 of the 1978 finals.) It wasn’t until the 1980s that the NBA developed into the league we know today. As much as the three-point rule, slam dunk contests, Dr J’s finger rolls, Magic Johnson’s “junior, junior skyhook” or any of the other rule innovations and advances in individual on-court trickery that defined the 80s, it was the marriage between the entertainment industry and basketball that turned the NBA into the league we know today. Arguably it was just as much for the camera panning across Hollywood celebrities in the stands at The Forum – Nicholson, Arsenio Hall, Billy Crystal – as the on-court wizardry of Magic and co that the 80s Lakers earned the Showtime moniker. As long as they were rich and famous enough to warrant media attention, the fans became part of the folklore of every club. Not for nothing did ESPN’s 2017 documentary on the Celtics-Lakers rivalry of the decade employ celebrity supporters, rather than former players, as narrators: Ice Cube for the Lakers, Donnie Wahlberg for the Celtics.

Michael Jordan and Jack Nicholson sit courtside at the Lakers in 1999.
Michael Jordan and Jack Nicholson sit courtside at the Lakers in 1999. Photograph: Kevork Djansezian/AP

At this point we might lament the role of celebrities in feeding the NBA into the maw of Hollywood, turning it in the process into a pure entertainment product. But every pro sport in the US, of course, eventually went the same way, and the decades between the NBA’s Showtime revolution of the 80s and today have given us plenty of occasions to enjoy the spectacle of celebrities making asses of themselves on the basketball court. Kid Rock getting booed by the fans of his own Detroit Pistons, Knicks superfan Spike Lee talking smack at Reggie Miller during the 1994 Eastern Conference finals then watching the Pacers guard post 25 points in one quarter, Kevin Hart following suit with similar results against James Harden two decades later: bad celebrity fan interventions are as much a part of the NBA’s history now as freak shots drained in the clutch. So: some caution on Drake’s courtside lunacy is warranted. It could all backfire yet.

In Toronto’s case Drake’s fandom serves another purpose, however. Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s risky player dealings have, improbably, handed a new, aesthetic dimension to Drake’s fandom this season that makes it somehow more palatable than in seasons past. This Toronto team is led by perhaps the NBA’s most accidentally Canadian player ever, if Canadian is understood to mean agreeable, unflappable, down-to-earth. There’s something brilliantly undemonstrative about Kawhi Leonard, who barely raised a shout after his already legendary Game 7 buzzer-beater against Philadelphia in the Eastern Conference semi-finals and remained essentially unmoved in the moments after he secured the Raptors their first-ever finals appearance with victory in Game 6 against the Bucks. While Lowry and even seen-it-all-before veterans like Marc Gasol pogoed around the floor of Scotiabank Arena, Leonard moved through the throng with the expressionlessness of a conveyancing attorney who’d just completed an investigation of title.

The contrast between Leonard’s deadpan – all business and brutal decisiveness – and the hopping, chew-the-mouthguard hyperactivity of Steph Curry and Draymond Green will be one of the great spectacles of these finals. But the enduring image of this Raptors season, whatever its outcome, will be between the player who appears to feel nothing and the fan who feels it all. Drake’s front-row buffoonery seems way more understandable once you consider that he’s essentially emoting for two people – himself and Leonard – at the same time. Besides, true sporting genius is as much about gestures withdrawn as gestures made; it’s about efficiency, resisting maximalism, having the courage to do less when others are doing more. Between Kawhi’s utter lack of emotion at his own ability and the spectacle of a rich thirtysomething idiot convulsing in paroxysms of joy on the sideline at his every movement, even the neutral can begin to appreciate how truly exceptional this master of basketballing cool is.


Aaron Timms

The GuardianTramp

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