The Unmistakable Voice of the Toronto Raptors

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Nov 5, 2017; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Sportsnet broadcaster Matt Devlin speaks with Toronto Raptors mascot Raptor Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

You’ve heard the voice, Raptors fans, now meet the man.  For over a decade, Toronto Raptors history has been recorded in Matt Devlin’s voice.

Since 2008, there have been two constants in the Toronto Raptors organization.  Not Kyle Lowry, not DeMar DeRozan, not Dwyane Casey or Nick Nurse or winning, or positive culture. Even the building has changed. Since the end of the Chris Bosh era, very few people have been with us every step of the way, climbing from the bottom of the basketball barrel to the champions of the world.  One of those people is Matt Devlin.

If you haven’t heard the name, you’ve certainly heard the voice.  Often accompanied by the colour commentary of Jack Armstrong or Leo Rautins, Devlin has been the play-by-play announcer and voice of nearly every Raptors game for 13 years.

I sat down with Devlin (Matty-D if you’re a rapper or if you’re Jack Armstrong) to talk about his history with the Raptors, his own professional journey, and how the broadcast team has been adapting to this year’s special circumstances.

When I first saw him on our Zoom call it wasn’t so striking. He looked, more or less, like any other middle-aged man with some grey patches in addition to some books and Raptors memorabilia in the background.  As soon as he said hello, however, I was transported back to every Raptors game I’ve ever seen.  The same voice that had told our country we’d won the NBA Championship was now wishing me a good afternoon.

Like so many of us, Devlin’s career had humble beginnings

“I mean, I remember I started working in Abilene, Texas for five dollars and hour as a local sports anchor.  Then moving up through high school sports and college sports”

Devlin made both his Canadian and NBA debut in 1999 announcing games for the Grizzlies during their brief run in Vancouver.  While the team featured stars like Bryant “Big Country” Reeves and Shareef Abdur-Rahim, the club didn’t win many games.

After the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, Devlin moved on once again, getting some more practice calling games for a down-and-out team in the neophyte Charlotte Bobcats. Devlin found out how tough it is to call games when your team can’t make a shot.

It was 2008 when Devlin got the call from the organization with an offer to be the play-by-play announcer for the Toronto Raptors.  While the bigger city and stronger team looked enticing, Matt still needed reassurance that the move was the best option.  He found it in a former Charlotte Bobcats player.

“I actually talked to Jason Kapono.”  he told me  “He was playing here (Toronto) at the time and I talked to him about what it was like in the city.”

Kapono was never a big contributor to the Raptors’ team success, but we will always owe him one for that.

“Kyle Lowry from (insert Canadian town here)!”

Feb 7, 2020; Indianapolis, Indiana, USA; Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) takes a shot against Indiana Pacers guard Victor Oladipo (4) during the first quarter at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

Growing up as a fan of these Raptors, I had to ask how Devlin came up with some of his play-by-play signature moves.  The most famous of which is the much-imitated “Player-X from Town-Y!”  A rallying cry to the fans when one of our guys hits a big shot from deep downtown.

I asked Devlin about how he first thought of this.

“I think it was about seven years ago.  Kyle Lowry hit a deep three and it just came to mind.  It’s fun because I get to shout out the town and energize the people a little bit. too”

Devlin also confessed the inspiration behind his most recognizable call.

“It was inspired by listening to baseball announcers.  They used to say, you know; ‘that guy hit that ball into the next town.’  So I think that’s how it first came to mind.  But it’s built on itself since then.”

Indeed it has.

Devlin has a bit of a thing for bestowing nicknames on Raptors players over the years.  Whether it was Jonas “Lithuanian Lightning” Valanciunas, or Jakob “The Austrian Hammer” Poeltl, or Fred “Steady Freddy” VanVleet.

“Do you spend time and think of them ahead of games?” I asked

Devlin chuckled and leaned back in his chair.

“I mean, no.  I try to make the broadcast as natural as possible.  Those nicknames are mostly spur-of-the-moment type things.  I mean, with ‘Steady Freddy’, I got that because that’s what he is.  He’s steady on the floor.  But no, I’m not lying in bed at night thinking of nicknames for everybody.”

He chuckled again.

Over the course of the interview, Devlin said more than once how he tries to make his broadcasting as natural as possible.  He mentioned how inexperienced announcers try to narrate every little thing and how he strives to make his presentation more complementary; a harmony to the game rather than a melody.

“As the game goes on, it affects how you call it.  So if I walk into the booth with what I want to say preplanned, it’s going to sound preplanned.  I might have some stats written down in notes, but not much else-“

That off the cuff approach is only possible because of Devlin’s close relationship with his broadcasting partners.  He talked with glowing praise about Armstrong and Rautins, as well as the management and production team, mentioning how the three of them developed their chemistry over the years.

May 3, 2018; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is interviewed by Leo Rautins and Matt Devlin during the Cleveland Cavaliers game two of the second round of the 2018 NBA Playoffs against the Toronto Raptors at Air Canada Centre. The Cavaliers beat the Raptors 128-110. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

The Exception

Only once did Matt have a line prewritten.  Only once.  And only because of the scale of the moment it encapsulated.

I asked him to talk about the 2019 season and what it was like announcing the NBA Finals.  He smiled like he’d tasted something sweet.

“I was walking to the parking after Game 5.  We’d just lost at home so I was walking sorta, you know,”  he hunched over slightly.  “Then I saw Nick Nurse in the parking lot.  And I sort of went ‘aw, shucks’ over to him  Cause we’d just lost.  And what he said to me, he just said; ‘We got this’.  And I knew that we were going to win it then.”

Devlin and his broadcast team flew back to Oracle Arena with the rest of the Raptors.  As he was walking the streets of San Francisco he thought about how he wanted to announce the biggest moment of his, the team’s, and the country’s basketball life.

A few hours go by.

The final buzzer sounds.

Serge Ibaka jumps up and hangs from the rim.

Kyle is hugging Kawhi.

And we hear Matt Devlin’s unmistakable voice tell us; “Canada, the NBA Title is yours.”

When remembering the night your team won the title, the happiest moment of your sports life, you also remember the voice that proclaimed it.  About how he had crafted for us that sentence because he knew how much power it would have.

For basketball in Canada, Matt Devlin is, and always will be, the voice of a generation.