The North

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Patrick Patterson, Forward / Toronto Raptors - The Players' Tribune

I’ll never forget the first time I got lost in the cold-ass weather up here.

It was a few weeks after I was traded from Sacramento, and the Google Maps app on my phone was messing up. I didn’t know that phones freeze in cold weather. My bad. I was in downtown Toronto, going in circles. I’d walk two minutes up the block one way, look around and then the map would flip and send me two minutes the other way. Mind you, my wardrobe was still not fully winter-proofed at this point, so I was freezing my ass off out there.

I was about ready to pack it in, when this guy walks up to me and sort of shyly asks,“Hey, are you Patrick Patterson? The guy on the Raptors?”

I nodded.

He didn’t ask for a picture or an autograph. The first thing he did was thank me. He thanked me for what the team was doing for the city. He told me how much he appreciated us for representing Toronto so well and playing so hard. And the thing was, I could tell how genuine it was. He really meant it.

Then he paused, and asked what I was doing out here in the cold.

I told him I was trying to go some place that I thought was just down the street, but I was lost. So he asked me where I was headed, I told him, and then he goes, “Oh, yeah, that’s this way.” And then this total stranger proceeded to walk me all the way to my destination, 20 minutes away, in subzero weather.

I think that’s probably the moment when I was fully sold. I knew that we had a good team, but that’s when it became clear that this was a place I wanted to win for. This was a place worth winning for.

This was The North.

***

Y’all remember all those TANK FOR WIGGINS signs?

I definitely do.

I still remember playing my first game here, looking out into the half empty stands, and spotting those signs littered all over the arena.

When I was on other teams, and we saw a trip to Toronto on the schedule, we just figured we needed to remember our passports and we’d be able to get an easy W. Toronto was a rest-up-your-starters game. It wasn’t that the Raptors were even really disrespected. They weren’t even considered — which, in a way, is worse. Almost like, “Oh, yeah, Toronto still has a team, doesn’t it?”

So when I was first traded here in 2013, nobody was talking about making the playoffs, much less about conference titles. This was a franchise ready to rebuild. From an outsider’s perspective, I understood why. Nobody would have said the Raptors were trending in the right direction, but then they traded away Rudy Gay, who most people figured was their best player. I was part of what they got back.

We were a team that completely lacked an identity.

We were 7–12 at the time, not looking great (unless you were one of the people holding up the tanking signs). The fans were clearly frustrated. The franchise as a whole seemed frustrated. And the guys in the locker room were probably the most frustrated of all.

Basically, we were a team that completely lacked an identity.

So it wasn’t shocking early on when people thought success for us meant trying to lose.

But here’s the thing, if you looked closely at the roster, you could see that there was some talent there. We had a mixture of vets and young guys, but what we all had in common was that we were hungry. For many of us, this was our second or third chance at sticking with a team. You don’t get many more after that. So we saw the writing on the wall. We knew that none of us were probably going to be safe if they tried to overhaul the roster during the off-season. So instead of just accepting our fate, we decided to try to make this work. We started playing for each other.

TORONTO, ON - APRIL 22: DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors celebrates a win with teammates Patrick Patterson #54 and Landry Fields #2 against the Brooklyn Nets in Game Two of the NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinals at the Air Canada Centre on April 22, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. The Raptors defeated the Nets 100-95 to even the series 1-1. NOTE TO USER: user expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

The first turning point came a couple of weeks after I got here, when we played in Dallas. That’s always a tough place to win, but we managed to upset the Mavs in OT. That sort of opened our eyes a little bit. Then, two nights later, we went to Oklahoma City and beat the Thunder in regulation.

I think that was when the guys really started to realize that we might be on to something. These weren’t games that bad teams win. Our success might have upset the small contingent of the fan base hoping for the top overall pick, but it energized us. We saw that if we all hustled every play, we could compete.

When you look at that Raptors team from 2013 —  and even this year’s team for the most part — one of the common threads is that just about all of us have experienced playing for a losing team, whether it was in Toronto or someplace else. So we all respected how hard it is to win in this league, and how bad it felt to lose. And because of that, we truly appreciated the fact that we were better together. If we played as individuals trying to pad our stats, we’d eventually be eliminated from the roster as individuals. But together? We started beating some pretty damn good basketball teams.

It started with Kyle and DeMar taking the reins. It was kind of strange at first, because it was very different for all of us. The rest of the team had to figure out roles to fit around them. So guys who were used to getting more touches on other teams had to alter their games. It sounds like a simple thing, but the truth is that it’s not easy to get players to take a step back and keep their egos in check at this level.  But we bought into this idea that we could have a winning basketball team … and not long after, the entire city did as well.

That first year, you could sense a buzz in the building. There were more billboards around the city. I’d flip on Sportsnet and see them talking about something other than the Leafs. The fans started acting crazy at home, rocking our jerseys. And then we started noticing more and more red in the stands at away games. Hell, the Canadians were the loudest people in the arena. Yo, you don’t want to get a Canadian hyped. They reach a volume that I think might be illegal in the States. It’s unreal.

And that’s when our identity really started to come out. We came to understand that we play in one of the coolest cities in the world. But we don’t only rep Toronto — this is Canada’s team. And we don’t care if you overlook us. Canadians are used to being overlooked by Americans. But that doesn’t mean we won’t beat you. When we play our game, we’re a force to be reckoned with. Up here, we aren’t about talk. We’re about grinding.

No, we aren’t your usual basketball team.

We the North.

TORONTO, ON - OCTOBER 28: Patrick Patterson #54 of the Toronto Raptors grabs the mesh on the net prior to facing the Indiana Pacers on October 28, 2015 at Air Canada Centre in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by Dave Sandford/NBAE via Getty Images)

When Lou Williams signed last year, our offense took on a whole new dimension. He had a great year, won the award for being the best sixth man in the league, but let’s be real, that wasn’t his biggest accomplishment …

You better believe we were bumping that in the locker room, at practice, on the bus — even if we were all listening to our own music on headphones, most of us probably had “6 Man” on. Now we had some swagger. We were winning games, we were moving up in the standings, we were young but making millions to work the night shift.

When we made it to the playoffs last year, we expected to make some noise. It felt like we’d been taking a step forward all season long.

But then all at once, it was over.

After Game 4, after we got swept, Kyle and DeMar spoke to the team. They said that we would never let this happen again. That we’d have to accept this feeling, remember it and build off of it for next year. The only way to take a positive from that situation was if it made us better.

We weren’t sad. We weren’t disappointed. We were angry. We knew we were better than what we showed. That wasn’t the basketball we had played all season. That wasn’t the performance our fans deserved.

We were winning games, we were moving up in the standings, we were young but making millions to work the night shift.

When the summer came, nobody was sure what moves would be made, but when the draft rolled around, the chips started falling. My boy Greivis Vasquez got traded. Then Lou left in free agency. Amir signed somewhere else as well. And suddenly, a lot of the guys I had come here with weren’t on the team anymore.

The message from the front office was clear. Just making the playoffs wasn’t good enough. We needed to win.

That’s exactly the mentality we brought into this season. We weren’t going to be sneaking up on anybody anymore. People knew we could ball. But even though teams started taking their best shots at us, we still beat them. This was a different team, and it was a special year.

We had the All-Star Game here, where DeMar and Kyle did their thing. We won more than 50 games for first time. And the team’s connection with the city really elevated to another level.

TORONTO, CA - APRIL 18: An overall view of the Air Canada Centre while the fans pass around the "WE ARE THE NORTH" flag during Game One of the Eastern Conference Playoffs Washington Wizards against the Toronto Raptors on April 18, 2015 in Toronto, Canada. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2015 NBAE (Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

You want to know my favorite thing about Toronto?

It’s when I walk around the city, and see so many different faces. Different cultures. People who have never been here before have no idea how diverse this city really is.

When I played at Kentucky, I would look out into the stands, and it would be about 70% white. They were all great fans — it’s the best home court in college basketball — but still, that’s what I was accustomed to.

When I walk out of the tunnel at a Raptors game, of course I see white people, but they’re right next to Asians and Africans and Pacific Islanders and many other people from all around the world. And all of them are wearing the same jersey, cheering for the same team.

It’s a beautiful thing to see, man.

As a city and as a team, our diversity is one of our greatest strengths.

That’s even reflected on our roster. I mean, I’m from West Virginia. We have Kyle, who is our hard-nosed Philly kid. There’s Luis, an Argentinean legend. If there’s a loose ball, there’s a good chance that Bismack, from Congo, is going to get two hands on it first. Jonas is our rock in the middle, and he’s from Lithuania.

And then there’s Cory, a Toronto kid who came back home to help take this team to new heights.

We don’t care if you give us the recognition we deserve, we’re going to earn your respect.

When we say “We the North,” people from the States might not understand what we’re talking about, but we know.

It means that it’s us against everyone else. It means we don’t care if you give us the recognition we deserve, we’re going to earn your respect.

Heading into Game 1 of this series, I want fans to know that the energy and mindset of this team is completely different than it was last year. We aren’t scared of losing. We’re excited about winning.

Come playoff time, we’re going to leave it all out on the floor. I guarantee you that.

To our fans, I’m thankful for what you’ve done for us this year so far, and for what you’re going to do for us during this series. We want to hear you all the way from Jurassic Park. We want to hear you all the way from York to Thunder Bay to Oakville. We want to hear you all the way from Montreal to Vancouver. We want to hear all 35 million Canadians cheering on their team.

We’re going to show the world that Toronto isn’t just a great basketball city — it’s the best basketball city.

Because We the North.

What does that mean?

We’re going to show you.

patt

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