Book Review: We the North: 25 Years of the Toronto Raptors

“Dinosaurs ruled the world.”

For a very long time now, I, along with many others, have been waiting for Toronto Star reporter Doug Smith to write a book about the history of the Toronto Raptors. I can recall many a mailbag where fans were asking when the book is coming, and it seemed like it was always a dream that may or may not happen. Thankfully it has because it is a great look back on the progression of basketball in Toronto, and Canada, and it was great trip back in time.

I need to preface this before I go any further. I have been a Toronto Raptors fans from Day One. I watched the first game, went to a game the very first season and many after that. I had my confirmation on the day the Raptors beat the 72-10 Chicago Bulls, and I thought my entire extended family was pulling a fast one on me when they told me the Raptors won…until they turned on the TV to show me and I was stunned but so happy to see that.

With more recent success you sometimes forget how bleak and dark those first few seasons were. Those first few seasons were an experiment and it is amazing how much of today’s success comes from the sacrifices of the past teams and management.

The book goes into the some of the initial hurdles, playing out of SkyDome, playing in Canada, drafting well and talent development versus winning, Isiah Thomas, and much more. What is key to note is how Doug Smith relays the early years through his experience on the road and with the team. It was tough in the beginning, no doubt, and there were some legitimate hurdles to overcome, but if it was not for people like Isiah Thomas and Glen Grunwald, early stars like Damon Stoudamire, and the patience of ownership, who knows how successful this franchise would be.

The book takes the opportunity to also go through what I will call the “second act” and the Vinsanity years with Vince Carter, and the ascension of basketball in Canada. When you read the book, you are reading it from Doug Smith’s experience behind-the-scenes and covering the team. From a fan’s perspective, the Vince Carter years are now mostly warm and looked back on fondly and with a bit of “what-if” and regret…until he left town. I remember vividly being at the first game back in town for Carter and the New Jersey Nets. I was at the game with a friend and we splurged a bit for lower bowl tickets in the ACC. To say it was a rocky reception from us fans was an understatement. I lost my voice for an entire week booing so loudly and jeering Carter. My ears were ringing after the game.

Side note, because this game was on Valentine’s Day, I had never seen a proposal go badly like I did at centre court during halftime. The woman being proposed to ran off the court like she was on fire. It was horrible. I always wonder what happened to those two people. I will remember that game for that reason too.

That was the visceral reaction. However, when you read the book, you come to appreciate the behind-the-scenes experience more. I got the sense that Carter did not want to leave and management decided it was his time to go. He did not help much with some of his antics but the pressure on him to be the face of the franchise for an entire country was massive. His impact on the game of basketball in Canada can be measured, and that is crazy to think about. You see Canadian basketball players in the NBA now because of him. There are more basketball nets and courts than there ever were before. The team was gaining popularity and had the chance to overtake the Maple Leafs. Had he not come along, and this moment in time had not happened, who knows what state the team would be in today – the Raptors went from being a team in Canada to a global brand.

Before getting into the main pieces of this past decade, the book takes great effort to talk about the different things that make this team what it is now – the female leaders behind the scene, the development of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, building world-class facilities – some of the things fans would never experience but are important to note because there is so much happening in the background. The team is built by people who are almost unknown.

We then get into what I would call the “third act” and the past decade. This includes learning and understanding the (eventual) championship program that was built, starting with Dwane Casey and Brian Colangelo. Masai Ujiri coming on board to lead the team. DeMar DeRozan, some guy named Kyle Lowry, and the craziest season in franchise history with Kawhi Leonard.

At the start of the third act, the Toronto Raptors were in familiar territory – a star player leaving (Chris Bosh) and they were focused on talent development when they struck gold with DeMar DeRozan. The relationship between Doug Smith and DeMar DeRozan is quite unique and it was cool to get a peek into their close relationship as it has developed over the years. There is clearly a ton of respect from the author for the player and vice versa. The Raptors picked up Kyle Lowry in a forgettable trade that paid off handsomely later on and he may just be the best player to have ever played for the team. The team brought back a leader who departed to run his own show in Denver to run the team in Toronto in Ujiri.

You read about the success and the failure to reach the ultimate goal. As a fan it was fun these years to see your team have a string of success, but it was also tough to see them not be able to develop that killer instinct and close a playoff series out.

As a fan you hear about and understand that all sports are business. It is a cliche at this point to say it but the book points out the tough decisions that were made to get to the end goal of winning a championship. Dwane Casey was fired and replaced by one his assistants in Nick Nurse. Casey definitely deserves credit for transforming the Raptors into what they are now, and Doug Smith goes into that in the book. The most painful and impactful move; however, was trading DeRozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard. To make these two moves, you need to be absolutely sure of yourself and what you are doing. You also need to think rationally and not let loyalty blind you. The author goes into this in some detail and talks about the enigma that is Kawhi Leonard. Ujiri made these decisions and the craziest season ever was his reward. They won, and in their 24th year….the dinosaurs ruled the world.

Review: 5/5

I had so much fun reading this book. If I could find one fault it would be that there were probably more stories to tell but then the book would be 600 pages. It would have been great but the way it is setup is a great way to walk down memory lane.

Have you read the book? What did you think of it? Let me know in the comments section below.

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