Few non-athletes have become as inextricably linked with a professional sports team as Drake has with the Toronto Raptors.
He’s a ubiquitous courtside presence — a bearded cheerleader and occasional masseuse who chirps the stars of rival teams and gives rousing impromptu speeches declaring his loyalty and love for the team and the city of Toronto.
Love him or hate him, Drake is synonymous with the Raptors. And much like the once-lowly team that’s soared from cartoon dinosaurs to serious contenders for the NBA championships, Drake has had a few ups and downs along the way.
Here’s a look at the rapper’s storied, and sometimes stormy, history with the franchise:
Drake is named Toronto Raptor’s Global Ambassador:
Monday, September 30, 2013, was an important date in Raptors history, and one that in many ways ushered in a new era for the franchise. In addition to announcing that Toronto would host the 2016 NBA All-Star game, the team made a bold PR move, naming Drake the team’s global ambassador. The former Degrassi Junior High actor and rapper had been a fan of the team since its early days and desperately wanted his popularity on the world stage to rub off on the team. “I want to bring the excitement into this building, I want a team that people are dying to come see, I want the tickets to be extremely hard to get, I want to bring that aggression, I want to bring that energy,” Drake said. “And obviously I want it to be a top team in the NBA, if not the top team.”
Not everyone was convinced. Here’s the results of a CityNews.ca poll conducted after learning of Drake’s appointment.
We The North campaign
The team’s rebranding efforts continued in April, 2014, when the Raptors, with help from Drake, launched the hugely successful We The North campaign. The team produced a stirring YouTube video (below) that melded images of the Raptors in action with scenes of Toronto street basketball. Then-MLSE president Tim Leiweke credited Drake with helping the team find its identity. “Now this is a cultural thing and Drake said, ‘Stick to it and just define your culture and make it you,’ ” Leiweke said.
And while the Raptors were upping their coolness factor, they were also making strides on the hardcourt, posting a club record 48 wins and earning their first playoff berth since 2008.
Drake uses lint roller
Before the Raptors were unceremoniously ousted by Brooklyn Nets in seven games in 2014, Drake provided a light-hearted, viral moment when he pulled out a lint roller while seated courtside for Game 2 of the series.
If anything, it was proof of Drake’s star power and reconfirmed that his every move was being heavily scrutinized.
Coun. Norm Kelly calls Drake out for fraternizing with the enemy
Long-time Toronto city councillor Norm Kelly and Drake struck up an odd friendship over the years. But it was tested when the Raptors faced Washington in the 2015 post-season. Kelly called out Drake after seeing a photo of the Raptor’s global ambassador shaking hands with a gleeful-looking Paul Pierce after the Wizards’ 117-106 victory in Game 2 of the playoffs.
— Norm Kelly (@norm) April 23, 2015
Washington went on to sweep the Raptors, and Kelly swept Drake’s indiscretion under the rug. The two remained friends, with Kelly becoming known as 6 Dad — a humorous take on Drake’s famous 6 God moniker.
Beyond skin deep
In case you questioned Drake’s love of Toronto, there’s always this:
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Courtside embrace with Gord Downie
Drake’s courtside antics are often a hot topic of conversation at Raptors games. But in May, 2017 he shared a heartfelt moment with Canadian music legend Gord Downie. A year earlier, Downie announced that he had a terminal brain tumour. The two crossed paths at a Raptors playoff game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, embracing in a deep hug before the more-than 20,000 in attendance. The moment was a top trending topic on Twitter. Downie passed away on October 17, 2017.
Drake, Raptors support Canadian basketball
Under a new program called ‘Welcome Toronto,’ Drake and the Toronto Raptors announced the donation of $2 million to Canada Basketball and $1 million to refurbish local basketball courts.
“The thing I’m most proud of in this partnership is the million dollars that we’re going to be giving to the city to re-do these courts,” Drake said at a news conference. “To create an amazing atmosphere for anyone in that community to come out and either play casual basketball or potentially breed the next generation of Canadian superstar basketball players.”
In the video below, Drake discusses the importance of the initiative, and team president, Masai Ujiri, talks about some of the amusing texts he receives from Drake.
Drake’s emotions got the best of him during, and after, a heartbreaking overtime playoff loss to Cleveland last year. Drake exchanged heated words with Cavs veteran Kendrick Perkins, who accused Drake of interjecting as he spoke to a fellow teammate. Perkins reportedly told Drake, in colourful language, to sit back down.
The jawing continued at the game’s conclusion. It wasn’t the first, and wouldn’t be the last time Drake’s antics would draw attention.
Drake and Kendrick Perkins exchanged more words postgame pic.twitter.com/Z0rdXDe1uL
— Dave McMenamin (@mcten) May 2, 2018
Drake fueled speculation that his ambitions with the Raptors could stretch far beyond his global ambassador role when he captioned this Instagram post: “future owner.”
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‘All we are is proud and passionate’
With all eyes on the Raptors as they pushed their historic playoff run all the way to the finals against Golden State, Drake’s courtside behaviour inevitably came under the spotlight again. The league even warned him to tone things down after he engaged in verbal confrontations with players and massaged the shoulders of Raptors Head Coach Nick Nurse. But in an impromptu interview after the Raptors won Game 5 against Milwaukee, Drake issued an unapologetic war cry on behalf of Raptors fans. “All we are is proud and passionate,” he declared. “I love Toronto. I love this team and we are going to the NBA Finals! Let’s Go!” he shouted before storming off.
— Lindsay Dunn (@LindsayDunnTV) May 24, 2019
His words would prove prophetic.
Raptors lead the best-of-seven NBA Finals 1-0. Game 2 is set for Sunday.
With files from The Canadian Press and Sportsnet