Well, Rudy, you got me. I thought you were the next (first?) great Raptor, with your clear potential and all. Turns out, I was wrong, but the jokes on you. I got to experience some of the greatest moments of my sports fandom because of you.
Yes, my journey from casual Raptors follower to absolute fanatic who tracks every movement of the team began with Toronto’s acquisition of Rudy Gay in 2013. In retrospect, Gay was far from the player we thought he would be and trading him away was really the move that kickstarted the Raptors journey to relevance and an eventual championship. Nonetheless, the excitement created from the tantalizing talent of Rudy Gay was what drew me to the Raptors. How foolish I was then — but oh, how thankful I am now.
Being born in 1995, I was just a little too young to fully experience all the highs and lows of Vince Carter. As a result, I never felt the intense emotions that a long-time day one fan experienced as a result of the Carter era. Following his departure, the Raptors entered roughly a decade of NBA purgatory, where any hope beyond making playoffs was foolish.
Yes, Chris Bosh was solid, but he was also not a franchise saviour. Andrea Bargnani hardly even tricked us into optimism. Though I always claimed to be a Raptors fan first, out of a somewhat misguided belief that there is honour in rooting for one’s hometown, there simply was not enough intrigue for me to follow the team without having a real emotional connection.
So, instead of following Canada’s team, I turned to Canada’s player. I spent the mid-to-late 2000s following Steve Nash and his Seven-Seconds-Or-Less Suns, and what a joy they were. The Suns, well ahead of their time, were the forerunners of the pace-and-space era. Revolutionary, and perhaps the most fun team in basketball during their peak, the Suns were more than enough for my attention.
In 2012, after the Nash-Suns teams came and went, unfortunately without a title for all their glory, Steve Nash joined the notoriously disastrous “Now this is going to be fun” Lakers with Dwight Howard and Kobe Bryant. It was not fun. Injuries to Nash marred his tenure with the team, while Bryant and Howard were too fundamentally different to function together on a basketball team. They never compared to the Phoenix teams, and I simply could not enjoy them.
So, there I was in 2013, a committed fan of the NBA, but with no organization to provide my loyalty. As I mentioned, my Raptors fandom lingered, but it was sleeping. It was as if I were a spy, waiting to be activated by a code word. As it turns out, the code word was Rudy Gay.
At that point in his career, Gay was a ball-dominant scorer who was struggling to gel with the core of the Grit ‘n’ Grind Grizzlies. He had clear talent but had yet to crack an All-Star team at the time he was traded to Toronto in 2013 in one of the last moves from the tenure of the now-infamous Bryan Colangelo. It was a good trade (find a new slant).
It was also a classic irrelevant and somewhat lateral team move. Grab a medium-to-big name who won’t necessarily help the team win in the long term (or short, really) but will at least create some intrigue around the team. Well, I’ll be damned, it worked on me.
I saw all of the talent but none of the red flags, and I was certainly not the only one. Raptors fans cried out:
“He wasn’t being used properly!”
“He will relish being the clear alpha in Toronto!”
“He’s already a top small forward in the Eastern Conference!”
“Are you serious Rudy Gay is right there under KD, LeBron, Kobe, and Melo. #badtrade”
Wow that was 1 crazy trade today. Are you serious Rudy Gay is right there under KD, Lebron, Kobe, and Melo. #badtrade
— Kendrick Perkins (@KendrickPerkins) January 30, 2013
At the time, having finally secured a small forward to replace a bigger names like Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, it was not inconceivable to think the Raptors finally had their “Guy.” If there’s one thing that basketball fans are painfully aware of, it’s that the quickest ticket to relevance, by far, is having “a Guy.” Of the four major professional sports in North America, one player can impact a team the most in basketball (except for maybe a generational quarterback in football.)
He looked every bit the part. He was big, athletic, could handle the ball, was able to shoot, and, at the very least, had the tools to defend. His playmaking was severely lacking, and his efficiency left much to be desired, but hey, this was 2013, when the perceived value of a pure scorer remained intact in the eyes of the general public.
His first game confirmed everything I had hoped to be true. The Raptors got the post-trade bump, and Gay looked like a star as the Raptors blew out a very good Lob City Clippers team. The highlights show a player who was ready to break out.
Gay made shots that stars make. He threw down an effortless alley-oop. He absolutely had the cool factor, and he looked like the other guys who were dominating the league. The big, scoring forward who could handle the ball has proven to be the most effective type of star this past decade.
From that moment on, I was hooked, and there was no going back.
Following the Clippers game, Gay went head-to-head with LeBron and the Heatles — and the Raps didn’t lose that badly! A five-game win streak followed soon after, and I was ready to buy a #22 Gay jersey. Well, thank God that I was in Grade 12 and broke, and my birthday wasn’t anywhere near, because that’s a jersey I’m now rather thrilled to not own.
It was never real. The honeymoon phase in Toronto ended after that win streak, and Gay continued to be what he was before and what he would be after his time with the Raptors. A decent, yet inefficient scorer who did little to tangibly impact winning. They went 18-18 in the remainder of the season with Rudy Gay.
Then, there was a seismic shift. Masai Ujiri replaced Colangelo as the general manager in May of 2013, and the Raptors would never be the same. Ujiri is a winner, and he does not take half measures, nor does he take pride in moral victories. He had no illusions about Gay and his impact on the team. While the scoring numbers disguised Gay’s lack of winning contributions to many, Ujiri was never fooled.
The Raptors started the season 6-13 with Gay, and Ujiri dumped him to the Kings for Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes, Greivis Vasquez, and John Salmons. Instead of bottoming out, the apparent intention of the trade, the Toronto Raptors became the Best Friend Toronto Raptors, and they started winning. Since then, they really haven’t stopped as the golden age We the North-era of the team was ushered in instead.
In a strange way, I’d like to thank Rudy Gay for just making me feel something about the Raptors. It was initially unbridled optimism as Gay’s tantalizing talent fooled me and many others into thinking he was “a Guy.” It soon turned to frustration and disappointment. But that’s OK. I’m used to those emotions with my favourite teams. I was all in and prepared to ride whatever came.
Thankfully, what came next was really quite special. I’ll never quite experience the catharsis of early era Raptors fans, but I’m thankful to have climbed aboard at all. So, once again, thank you, Rudy Gay, for kind of looking like a star in the NBA.