Very Quick Review: WE THE NORTH by Doug Smith (Viking)

SmithD-WeTheNorthA reporter reflects on 25 years of the Toronto Raptors

When the Toronto Raptors first took the court back in 1995, the world was a very different place. Michael Jordan was tearing up the NBA. No one had email. And a lot of people wondered whether basketball could survive in Toronto, the holy city of hockey.

Twenty-five years later, the Raptors are the heroes not only of the 416, but of the entire country. That is the incredible story of We the North, told by Doug Smith, the Toronto Star reporter who has been covering the team since the press conference announcing Canada’s new franchise and the team’s beat reporter from that day on.

Comprising twenty-five chapters to mark the team’s twenty-five years, We the North celebrates the biggest moments of the quarter-century–from Vince Carter’s amazing display at the dunk competition to the play-off runs, the major trades, the Raptors’ incredible fans, including Nav Bhatia and Drake, and, of course, the challenges that marked the route to the championship-clinching Game 6 that brought the whole country to a standstill.

We the North: 25 Years of the Toronto Raptors tells the story of Canada’s most exciting team, charting their rise from a sporting oddity in a hockey-mad country to the status they hold today as the reigning NBA champions and national heroes.

I’ve written about how I quickly became a Raptors fan after moving to Toronto in 2014, and how the greater access to NBA games (on TV and also, occasionally in-person) made me somewhat addicted to the sport. Like many (most?) people in the city, I was swept up by the excitement of the 2019 championship run and victory. I have also been enjoying the many stories from my in-laws, who have been avid Raptor fans since the franchise was launched, who have provided some interesting and useful lessons in the franchise’s history. Doug Smith has been there from the start: the first reporter on the Raptors beat. We the North is a collection of short essays, covering various aspects of the team and its history. It’s an engaging read.

We the North is packed with details — big and small — that explain the history of the Raptors. From their start as an expansion team, and the dismal years that followed, to the triumphant 2018-19 season, Smith provides his interpretation and analysis of what the team and organization has gone through. Sprinkled throughout is plenty of behind-the-scenes content — much of which, for me, was new.

He provides brief portraits of some of the best and notable players who have worn the uniform: Damon Stoudamire, Vince Carter (who the author still has a close relationship with, and provided the foreword for this book), DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, and of course Kawhi Leonard. The blockbuster, franchise-shaking trade in 2018 is covered in some detail: when DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl were sent to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, stunning the teams fans. Smith writes about Kyle Lowry’s enduring reaction (he and DeMar are best friends), and his slow return to form and focus. I liked the fact that he provided a close picture of the trade, rather than a purely analytical, dry one — he seems to have spoken to many of those involved.

As a relatively new fan, I enjoyed reading about the team’s tumultuous coaching history, some of the more colourful team members they’ve had, and the ways in which the franchise has developed and evolved to stand out from the rest of the NBA teams — for example, player development, the diversity of its staff, and so forth. Every chapter is infused with Smith’s love for the team — but always retaining a journalist’s ability to analyze and examine clearly and fairly. (He does not shy away from criticism.)

The book is comprised of 25 chapters, plus Carter’s foreword and an epilogue. Each chapter could easily be a stand-alone article. It makes the book very easy to pick up and read between other tasks, and there are some call-backs and so forth. It does, however, mean the the book never really develops much of a narrative momentum. There were a few moments that I thought could have been expanded upon — for example, Carter’s, DeRozan’s and Lowry’s tenures with the team; but I also liked that Smith didn’t spend too much time on other topics, for example, Nick Nurse’s history (around the same time this book was published, Nurse released his own memoir, Rapture).

So, it’s not the substantial history of the franchise I’d been hoping for, but it was nevertheless an enjoyable and engaging read. It added pieces of the team’s puzzle, and I welcomed the extra details and insights. A must for every fan of the team, though.

*

Doug Smith’s We the North is out now, published by Viking in Canada, the US, and in the UK.

Follow the Author: Website, Goodreads, Twitter

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