In the solitude of the underused Raptors mascot
It was the third quarter of Game 2 for the Raptors in a virtually empty building, an odd experience for anyone accustomed to the thudding that 20,000 Scotiabank Arena fans can make, and there it is.
Heading up the stairs, flanked by empty seats where there would normally be children and adults clamoring for his attention – a handshake, a hug – the Raptor came seeking companionship and solace.
He was heading in our direction, towards the socially aloof media group at the top of Section 117. He saw an old friend and confidant, someone who knows antics, with how the Raptor connects with young people and the not so young.
He received a hug and a hello.
He was sad.
You could tell.
To imagine. Your job is to energize tens of thousands of people and now there are only tens of thousands of empty seats. You can’t make children smile and make men or women blush. You can’t urge fans to applaud because there are no fans.
It’s the loneliness of the underused mascot. For six games now, the Raptors and The Raptor have played in a sea of empty seats, with fans denied entry due to strict local health rules. There were a handful of family members for a game or two, but they’re gone and the vast expanse of void has taken its toll with one of the best mascots in all of professional sports.
It’s strange to watch. The Raptor is a close friend who can’t do what he does.
The Raptor and I have a long-standing relationship, one born the day he hatched in 1995. He can’t talk but we talk, if you know what I mean. There is an unspoken connection, expressions that tell the story. I know what he is thinking and what he is feeling.
He is lost but he continues as the show apparently has to go on.
The Raptor visits the writers, visits the broadcast crews, has mugs with the players before the game. On Sunday night, he gave a standing solo ovation to his old friend Jonas Valanciunas, now a member of the New Orleans Pelicans.
He frolics around the court during games, trying to figure out precisely what he should be doing. His pre-game ritual is almost the same; he takes part in the pre-match presentation of the players, walks on the sidelines while greeting the players and officials because that is what he has always done.
On Tuesday, he turned his attention to Devin Booker, waving and jumping in the closing moments of the game as the Phoenix Suns star missed a free throw and then yelled at the exuberant mascot. Booker complained and the Raptor was sent around the corner by the refs.
He avoided playing with Masai Team President Ujiri and Ujiri’s trusted advisers, who have made a habit of sitting in empty stands rather than watching from a private perspective where fans cannot annoy them.
I’m sure the Raptor would love nothing more than messing around with bosses just to give him people to interact with, but they’re off limits.
So he manages. He does his best to frolic in case the TV cameras catch him. That’s what he does.
That he can do so is a testament to his commitment, to the tradition of the men and women who wear the costumes. But the spectacle is not the same, not by far. The Raptors organization might try to do something similar with it, but it’s part comedy, part performative, part absurd.
It doesn’t make sense to have someone yelling player introductions since no one can react to them. Watching game operations staff run along the sidelines waving gigantic flags in celebration of the three-point baskets is pointless, although that doesn’t obstruct the sight of fans in the top two rows and that’s Good.
The low hum of constant noise from the crowd is much more intrusive to a few of us in the arena than it is to the benefit of the players. The songs “dee-fence, dee-fence, dee-fence” and “Let’s go, Raptors” do nothing for the atmosphere, have no impact on the piece.
The few seconds of silence in every game, when someone must have forgotten to press the play button on the audio system, reduces the game to its most enjoyable sound, the squeaking of shoes, the squealing of players and coaches, real sounds of the game.
It would be nice to see what that looks like for an entire game, it would be a much more realistic portrayal of sports without fans. It would be welcome.
But that’s not the NBA way, which is sensory overload and noise and antics and anything but silence.
And that’s not the way of the Raptor.
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