Intro (written Nov. 1, 2006): The scene is a snowy fall night (that's not just pretentious put-on, it really was snowing that night, an underpaid, overworked sportswriter in small-town Ontario who wearily drove home. Frustration had become like a bodily function for him. At least the Raptors were playing on the West Coast that night, so he could watch some of the game ... and about six hours later, the word-whine flowed like beer at a Pottahawk weekend.
THE TORONTO RAPTORS AND THE UNCANNY VALLEY
Or: how I learned to stop worrying, love the NBA’s most woebegone team, and take the first step toward inner peace.
It's hard to think of any game so far this season that better typified the season thus far for the Toronto Raptors.
Wednesday night in Los Angeles, the Raptors led the Clippers for 45½ minutes, yet in the end lost 103-100 and fell to 1-11 on the season.
You could it coming from the moment I flipped on the TV to find that the Raptors held a 10-point lead over the Clippers at halftime. At that point, the reaction of a couple of my friends on MSN was, "It won't last."
Remarkably, the Raptors were ahead even though Jalen Rose was well on his way to for a one-for-12 shooting, I'm-a-celebrity-get-me-out-of-here night and L.A. was hitting its shots at a 60 per cent, well, clip. The Clippers promptly cut the lead to one early in the third quarter. But with Chris Bosh scoring 10 of his 24 in the quarter and Rose hitting a timely three from the corner, the Raptors reopened the lead, even when foul trouble sent Bosh to the bench.
Fourth quarter. Joey Graham fouls out. Bosh returns. The lead shrinks to one again. José Calderon gets stuffed on the drive, but gamely drives inside on both of the next possessions, draws two fouls, and goes 4-for-4 at the line to widen the lead to five, 87-82.
The lead gets to eight points, then Sam Cassell cut it in half with two free throws and a running jumper.
On the Raptors’ next trip, with the score 96-92, it became obvious they had no idea of how to win this game. The blame for this goes to coach Sam Mitchell, but Scott Carefoot over at Raptorblog has already handled that.
You could see the Raptors were going to lose just in how they ran that play – poor spacing, hesitant passes, all the rhythm of your 50-year-old uncle at a wedding reception. Matt Bonner threw up a 26-foot prayer that missed the mark.
(Why Bonner was playing in favour of Charlie Villanueva, I still haven’t figured it out.)
The game wasn't just slipping away. It was lost. Even though the scoreboard said the Raptors were up 96-92. Elton Brand went 1-for-2 at the line, Cuttino Mobley clanked a hurried three-pointer and the Clippers had a backcourt violation, but no worries for the Clippers. Corey Maggette's three-pointer tied it.
Like any coach would, Mitchell called a timeout, but coming out of it, the Raptors committed a shot-clock violation. Brand hit a jumper to give the Clippers their first lead, 98-96.
The Raptors would take the lead one more time, but sure enough, Chris Kaman -- who's lucky Hulk Hogan doesn’t sue him for ripping off his haircut -- made a lefty hook in the lane to put L.A. ahead for good.
Last two Toronto chances, with the score 100-99, they ended up taking two shots, neither from closer than 23 feet. In the final seconds, there’s Bosh, cutting into the lane. What does the future all-star do?
(Now read this in the same tone of Charlie Murphy saying "Pancakes" in that Chappelle's Show sketch about playing hoops at Prince's house.)
He kicked the ball out ... kicked the ball out.
Morris Peterson gets a good look, but misses the 25-foot three-pointer. Moments later, it was over. On MSN, I got a "told ya" message.
Now, the strange part: Nights such as this are why I support this team, and maybe why you should think about it if you’re not already spoken for as a NBA fan.
Maybe it's the fact that I moved to southern Ontario last year, just in time for the NHL lockout to leave the Raptors as the only pro team in the local media market. Maybe I like being miserable. Maybe it's the contrarian in me -- if everyone else is ignoring or ridiculing this team, then I'll defend them. Maybe it’s that I enjoy finding fault with others (with the Raptors, you get plenty of chances to do that), or maybe it's the thought of bearing witness to what might be a historically awful season.
Maybe there’s something more to my growing Raptor interest. As we speak, Patrick Hruby has an interesting piece up at Page 2 called "Reality Bytes."
Borrowing a term used by computer animators, Hruby talks about the Uncanny Valley phenomenon that can afflict sports fans, whether it comes from -- these are his examples -- Michael Vick's likeness in Madden 06 for the XBox 360 console or in cheering for a college basketball powerhouse that’s competing for the Final Four ever year.
Put simply, the theory states that as a nonhuman entity becomes more like us in its appearance and motion, our reactions become increasingly positive and empathetic -- until it becomes "almost human," at which point our feelings give way to revulsion.There’s none of that these days with the Raptors, who fit Hruby’s phrase of charmingly unsophisticated to a T. While elite athletes keep becoming more robotic and less in touch with the rest of us, the Raptors are in-your-face with their humanity, from Rafael Araujo's ability to pick up two quick fouls during the pre-game introduction that includes a video of players busting dance moves. (I've cited it here before, but the initial reaction Carefoot had to that video bears repeating: "Matt Bonner is Napoleon Dynamite.")
Why do we get creeped out? Easy. So long as an entity is sufficiently nonhuman -- think C-3P0, or the crude players in earlier Madden games -- we tend to notice its human qualities. An effeminate English accent stands out; a blurry touchdown dance delights us. But when that same entity gets close to seeming human, the opposite effect takes place. Every flaw becomes huge, every nonhuman quality impossible to ignore. The old Madden players were charmingly unsophisticated. The newest digital Vick brings to mind one of George Romero's zombies, only without the blood and bad teeth.
In other words, expectations influence reactions, and often in a negative, counterintuitive way. The more you have, the more you notice what you lack; the closer you are to perfect, the less you overlook minor imperfections. Easy enjoyment gives way to perpetual dissatisfaction.
Anyone in sports knows this feeling well. Too well, in fact.
When expectations are so low, then the only possible reactions are positive. When the Raptors manage to win in spite of Mitchell's coaching or have one of those inevitably short-lived second-half surges where they tease fans into believing they are going to overcome a 20-point deficit and win -- you can’t help but feeling satisfaction. It’s only human.
Deep-down I know the Raptors, a decade into their existence, are a laughingstock coached and managed by borderline incompetents. I know that it would be far better if Canada's only NBA team was at least a middle-of-the-pack club in the Eastern Conference. I've seen enough hoops to know this is not good basketball.
Yet I enjoy watching, following (and poking fun at) this team. As Hruby says, "Logically, this fails to compute." But the Raptors are entertaining as long as you enjoy them for what they are, learning to like them, mistakes and shortcomings and all.
After reading Hruby's piece, I’m remembering all the tension I carried around when the Blue Jays were in the post-season or the Leafs were still playing late in the spring. The only way I could be happy was if my team won. Even if that meant during 1992 and '93 I often found myself watching the Jays only when they were batting. When they were in the field, they could only lose the lead or fall farther behind, and who wanted to watch that?
They won, but I wasn't enjoying the game for what it is. What's the line said by a paralyzed priest in that dubious Rachael Leigh Cook movie, Stateside? It's not how much it takes to keep you happy, it's how little. The Raptors are definitely interesting, have a distinctive personality and aren't quitters. That’s good enough.
Who knows? Maybe being a Raptors fan -- where the team's big flaws distract you from all the small flaws that drive a person around the bend -- can help you start down the path toward inner peace. Or maybe not.
What I do know is that when you cheer for the Raptors, at this time there's no chance of entering the Uncanny Valley, where the team wins and the fans are forever fed-up.
Certainly not as long as Sam Mitchell and Rob Babcock are part of this organization.
Nov. 24, 2005
Simcoe, Ont. (the second-storey ghetto)
(This article was featured in Deadspin's Blogdome, Nov. 1, 2006)
That's all for now. Send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.