Toronto rapper Drake visited NBC’s “The Tonight Show” on May 11 to promote his new album “Views,” which had just set a record with 20 simultaneous hits on the Billboard hot 100. During his interview with host Jimmy Fallon, the pair played a lighthearted game of “Faceketball,” scoring points by shooting miniature basketballs into small hoops attached to each of their faces.
Fallon set out two buckets of balls, one filled with green and blue balls for Drake and one filled with red and purple balls for himself. Drake quickly corrected the comedian. “I’m getting the Raptors colors,” quipped Drake, snagging the bucket of red and purple. After all, Drake is always reppin’ the Raptors.
The superstar rapper’s public support of the Toronto Raptors NBA franchise, which beat the Miami Heat Sunday to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals of the NBA playoffs, has helped with something just as important as success on the court: making the Raptors cool. From sporting merchandise to lyric mentions to coaching the NBA all-star game, the Toronto native has endeared the team to his millions of fans. But more than that, since the days of Allen Iverson, hip-hop culture and basketball culture have been linked, and Drake's efforts to legitimize the Toronto rap scene also go a long way toward making the city a hot spot for basketball.
Drake’s association with the Raptors is more than that of a fan and his favorite basketball team. In 2013, the rap superstar was named the vaguely defined, unpaid role of “Global Ambassador” for the franchise, aiding in the team’s rebranding and public outreach. As part of that role, earlier this year the rapper served as a coach in the celebrity game at the NBA All Star Weekend, which was hosted by the Raptors in Toronto. The logo for Drake’s recording studio OVO appears on select Raptors merchandise, and the rapper is often seated courtside at Raptors home games.
Since the partnership began in 2013, the Raptors have become a title contender in the NBA. For the past three years, the team has finished the regular season in first place in the NBA’s Atlantic division. On Sunday, the Raptors advanced to their first conference finals in franchise history. The city is paying attention, too. In 2012, the year before the Drake partnership was launched, the Raptors finished 17th in NBA average attendance. This year, the Raptors rank fourth, averaging over 100 percent attendance.
No doubt the team’s on-the-court success is the primary factor driving the boom in attendance, but some credit must be given to Drake for energizing a fan base that, until this year, had not seen its team win a playoff series since 2001, despite all the regular-season success. Drake is, after all, one of the most recognizable names in music today — “Views” is currently outselling even Beyoncé’s buzz-magnet album “Lemonade” and Kanye West’s highly anticipated “The Life of Pablo.” The Raptors’ link to the rapper’s fame pays dividend for their brand value, even it comes just in the form of an appearance wearing the team’s merchandise or a mention in a song.
“There was no bigger star in the world to associate with the Raptors than Drake,” Canadian sportscaster Cabbie Richards told Complex in February. “He just made the Raptors cool. I don’t think you can put a dollar figure on that.”
Tony McIntyre, whose CIA Bounce Basketball program courts some of the best up-and-coming Canadian basketball players and has helped develop NBA stars Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett and Tyler Ennis, said that Drake captures the attention of young basketball fans in Toronto and across Canada.
“There is a sense of pride when they turn on the TV and see him sitting there [courtside],” McIntyre told International Business Times. “He’s someone they can look at and look up to. A lot of the [young players] who go off to prep school and college are repping Toronto. They are proud.”
Despite repeated pushback from the NBA, since Iverson arrived on the scene in Philadelphia in the late 1990s sporting cornrows, tattoos and recording a gangster rap album, hip-hop culture and basketball culture have been near inseparable. From Kurtis Blow to Jay Z, scores of rappers have shown their love for the NBA, spitting rhymes about their favorite b-ball players and wearing team merchandise while performing on stage.
Drake brings his own distinctive hip-hop swagger to the Raptors. In an August 2014 concert in Toronto, he urged the crowd to show some love to then-free agent star Kevin Durant to help sway him to sign with the Raptors. It didn't work. Durant eventually re-signed with the Oklahoma City Thunder, but since Drake was an official representative of the team, the gesture was found in violation of the NBA's anti-tampering rules to maintain fairness in free agency. The rapper was hit with a $25,000 fine. To fans, however, the move was a bold and public display of his passion for the team.
Then there is Drake's music. He often highlights other rappers from “The 6” as he calls it (a reference to Toronto’s area code,) and the cover of his latest album shows him looking out over the city from the top of the CN Tower. The rapper also makes occasional references to the Raptors, as well as specific NBA players, augmenting their athletic fame by making them larger-than-life characters in his songs. In 2015's "6 Man," Drake sings about shooting guard Lou Williams' new contract and alleged relationship with two women at the same time.
On other songs, Drake depicts Toronto as an underappreciated metropolis that he has helped bring to the world’s attention. “Stadium packed, just glad to see the city on the map,” he raps in 2013's “Wu-Tang Forever.”
As the Raptors look to establish themselves as a perennial NBA contender after a decade of mediocrity, the narrative Drake paints for the city is one the team and its fans can identify with: underrated and getting on the map with a little help from rap's favorite Canadian.
"Brooklyn had Jay Z," said McIntyre. Now Toronto has Drake.