by Michael Romandel
On October 29, 2014, Sportchek in a partnership with Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (the Raptors owners) launched an advertising and publicity campaign called #MyNorth asking Torontonians to share stories about local basketball culture in the various Toronto ‘hoods. The campaign builds off of Drake’s re-branding of the Toronto Raptors earlier this year, with his #WeTheNorth campaign, which included an intelligent and extremely well-produced television advertisement featuring basketball courts largely located in social housing projects throughout Toronto.
The #MyNorth campaign seeks to implement the ideas developed in the initial Raptors re-brand marketing that centered around attempting to get people who identify with the local basketball culture to begin to associate this culture with the Raptors themselves. Torontonians have never really identified the Raptors as somehow defining or even influencing the local basketball culture, unlike some basketball meccas like New York with the Knicks and Chicago with the Bulls where local basketball cultures are strongly influenced by their NBA teams. In New York, the Knicks are almost considered to be part of the city’s identity and history, much like the Yankees.
While the new #WeTheNorth campaign is attempting to develop a similar identification with the Raptors in Toronto basketball culture, the campaign has made some surprising mistakes in understanding the very nature of basketball culture and how this culture is viewed by those who participate in it.
These mistakes are surprising only because of how savvy the initial Raptors rebrand of #WeTheNorth was, with it being obvious to many that Drake’s knowledge of Toronto’s culture and geography, having grown up in Toronto’s west end in Vaughan and Oakwood and Forest Hill, was the factor that led to the success of the initial campaign and its relatability to Torontonians. Some of the mistakes of the #MyNorth campaign would suggest a lesser degree of creative control from Drake or really anyone who understands basketball culture or geography in Toronto.
Thus far, the new campaign features billboards, several television advertisements as well as the Twitter hashtag itself, which has apparently received little use by actual Torontonians. Mostly it’s been used to post scores of Raptors wins by Sportchek employees as well as several video ads telling local basketball stories. For example, a video was posted that told the story of a former Toronto high school player named Denham Brown who scored 111 points in his last high-school game in 2001 before going on to play for the University of Connecticut. Another ad tells the story of Phil Dixon, a former Bathurst Heights basketball star in the late 1980s, who was pegged to be a star in the NBA but never played a game at that level due to an injury early in his college career.
There is another video advertisement being used by #MyNorth that talks about the campaign in general and attempts to get the general concept across, and has a very similar message to the videos focused on Dixon and Brown, focusing on individual stars on high-school teams and Toronto’s ‘hoods as producers of potential basketball stars who may be one of the few to make it from rags-to-riches and become superstars or ‘heroes’, as the video openly states.
The problem with all of these videos is that they fail to actually talk about the basketball culture of any of the ‘hoods they are supposedly focused on. They instead tell stories about individual stars in the context of their school-based careers and their school-based teams and not their ‘hoods recreational basketball history and the broader basketball culture in which they honed their skills and style growing up.
The video about Phil Dixon, the former Bathurst Heights star, produced for #MyNorth doesn’t even mention the existence of Lawrence Heights once, though the public basketball courts at Bathurst Heights (now John Polanyi Collegiate Institute) are generally recognized as some of the most interesting in Toronto in terms of the diversity of ages, abilities and ethnicities of players to play there over the years, as well as the sometimes surprisingly high quality of games to be played on these fairly dusty and poorly maintained recreational courts that were actually rebuilt nearly a decade ago with money from the Raptors and Nike in honour of Dixon himself. A lot of the culture around these courts comes out of Lawrence Heights, with youth who use the courts generally feeling that they belong to those who live in Lawrence Heights and the surrounding areas.
There has often been a degree of hostility among area youth to anyone from Keele and Eglinton, the centre of another distinct urban youth culture that is also connected to particular basketball courts located at a nearby recreation center. While both of these somewhat distinct recreational basketball cultures are located partially around a high school, this does not mean that these teams are central to these cultures. Rather, there is an overall recreational basketball culture around the student populations of these high schools that goes way beyond the actual team and is sometimes almost unrelated. While some people do occasionally play basketball in both areas, this is quite rare, partially for the reasons mentioned above.
In the above analysis of these localized basketball cultures I did not once mention North York or York, the respective old Metro Toronto municipalities in which the two areas are located. However, the #MyNorth campaign bases itself off of these old municipal-legal divisions of Metro Toronto rather than actual neighbourhoods. They effectively call all of North York, Scarborough and old Toronto ‘neighbourhoods’ despite the fact that they all contain many distinct neighbourhoods with very different basketball cultures that have little in common with each other and basically no relations or overlap. It is unknown why they did this, though it seems that this was done solely because the campaign was designed by people who know very little about Toronto basketball culture or Toronto in general, and just looked at a map of the old Metro Toronto municipal divisions. It is this particular flaw of the campaign that would suggest that Drake has had very little creative control or even oversight in it.
Another reason for their choice of the old metro divisions may be their privileging of school basketball teams, with these divisions making somewhat more sense when it comes to high-school basketball competition between schools than actual basketball culture as a whole. There are, of course, larger problems with their centering of basketball culture in school basketball teams, which in my own experience, at Northern Secondary School involved major contradictions between the players and an old, white, racist and classist coach whom the players suspected of playing games with the line-up based on racial competition between the black and white players. The are are also many good players who never even try out for their high school teams, don’t have good enough grades to play or drop out of high school altogether.
Despite the failings of #MyNorth, they are doing some interesting things that warrant our attention. They claim to be making basketball culture documentaries on each of the ‘neighbourhoods’ of Toronto and doing area-specific clothing launches, with all of this supposedly being based on input from local residents who actually know basketball culture. While we can already see that they probably won’t do this very effectively and we know that they are only doing it to make a buck at the end of the day, there is something interesting about their ‘engagement’ with the community that warrants further investigation.
Their campaign involves a strategy that is called community engagement or public participation in the corporate and government world, which resembles a kind of caricature of some of the strategies organizers have developed to organize communities. These strategies generally involve going to people where they are, understanding their issues, consciousness and stories, and then coming back to them with some kind of plan, political program or project based on this and continuing the process.
Of course, #MyNorth will only end up selling people branded merchandise with a slightly more local flavour, not giving people a plan to improve local conditions or get them involved in changing the hoods and larger society that they live in. That corporate institutions have developed such strategies and are trying to implement them is part of the ongoing battle for Toronto and its neighbourhoods.
Michael grew up playing on several courts in the area before the Bathurst Heights courts were built, though many of them have been rebuilt and relocated or closed to the public, specifically one at a private hebrew school that is now secured by high fences and a complex alarm system. He is one of a small number of people to still play basketball on outdoor public courts in his 20’s, and has put in a lot of hours playing at the Bathurst Heights courts since 2004. He has probably seen three ‘generations’ of court regulars come and go in this time.