Thursday, February 24, 2005

Toronto trilogy part 2 - Raptor rouse applause

Unlike us Brits, who have a predilection for specifics, it is not untypical for an American to be interested in the altogether more generic pastime of ‘sports’. When it comes to American sports, the Toronto Raptors command a similar level of importance in the sporting lexicon as the Springfield Isotopes. When we asked the hotel concierge to fix us up with some tickets, he said that he’d try but with the hockey season locked out “people do funny things, like see Raptors games”. And this guy is paid to sell us the city’s attractions.

The benefit this sort of anonymity enjoys is that, and all the guidebooks reinforce this, a Raptors game is a rare opportunity to see some of the world’s top ‘ballers e.g. those who play for other teams.

Last week the Chicago Bulls were in town, a shadow of the all conquering team of Michael Jordan, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippin et al, but one of the bigger boys none the less. According to the Toronto Sun they are a young and exciting team, now I don’t know much about basketball but they were certainly too good for the Raptors.

With Hockey’s political problems marginalising its interest (though not its space in US news bulletins – go on, test me, ask me anything about the strike), the triumvirate of Baseball, Basketball and American Football (what we call Rugby according to our Niagara Falls tour guide) dominate the national psyche. But, similarly to the baseball we went to see a couple of years ago it is not the game of basketball that dominates an American sporting event.

Both the start and finish of a basketball game are strangely muted affairs. It’s a mere sideline to buying merchandise, food and finding your seat. As the clock runs down two and a half hours later the crowd leave as though they’ve just watched a rather average film. At least a football game always ends with a jeer, cheer or muted applause.

Yep, two and a half hours to make it through a 48 minute game something has got to make up the time. NBA have picked up on the Hip Hop chic that surrounds b-ball, so each attack is soundtracked by an instrumental hip hop break. The next day I went out and bought Ludacris, Nas, Lil John and De La Soul albums... suckah.

Interspersed with the game itself is all sorts of tomfoolery; the Raptors Dance Pak do three stints, we play NBA Bingo, Ralph Raptor, the Toronto mascot, shows his nifty moves to a track which has a hook of “Don’t you play around with my click”. He follows this with a skit where he runs into a popcorn selling stooge (evidently Torontonians love that sort of stuff). Then there’s the bit where they run the camera around the arena picking out some lucky fella to sit in the expensive court-side seats. There’s the One Minute Madness, where t-shirts are thrown into the crowd. At half-time the world’s cleverest dog does some appallingly executed stunts which apparently got him and his owner onto the Jay Leno Show. The owner, pushing forty and dressed in a cheerleader’s outfit, urged us all to “Do more stuff with your dogs” as she exited. Then a short ugly redneck failed to basket any of his prize winning shots from the free throw line. In the second half a larger rubberised version of Ralph Raptor appeared to stalk the perimeter of the court. His actions range from hilarious – falling off a ‘trash receptacle’ to downright suspect – mounting a small child. He returned later in his smaller guise to give the dominant Bulls the ‘I’m watching you’ sign (pointing at his eyes then pointing at his prey).

The game itself is a side attraction, it was all but over when, after 2 and a half minutes of the first quarter, the Raptors called an emergency timeout to solve the mystery of how they’d managed to go 10-0 down before half the crowd had finished their first hotdog (my previous assertion that American sports are just a more interesting way of consuming junk food wholly reinforced).

American sports are a fully evolved genre of show business, in Curse of the Bambino Dan Shaughnessy admits that most fans of baseball don’t really care how their chosen teams get on. Plenty happens, there’s lots of opportunity for advertising and making money and you’re almost guaranteed to be entertained – regardless of how good or bad the actual game is. Even though it was a great night of safe light-hearted amusement the game itself ended a rather meaningless 115 to 121 and the Raptors continued their march to humble obscurity. I’m no expert, but they could do worse than draft in their new English phenom, the slightly camp looking ginger number 18.


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