TORONTO - You can count on one hand, maybe just a few fingers, the number of Toronto athletes who have ever brought a stadium to its feet, with Raptors fans chanting their name in unison, the way Reggie Evans managed on Wednesday night.
Maybe it’s easier because he has a two syllable name and one with historical precedence of some kind. “Reg-gie Reg-gie.” The chant has been heard before, just not here. But the feeling at the Air Canada Centre, after Evans pulled down rebound after rebound, was genuine. It was one of excitement, energy and appreciation.
There is nothing elegant about Reggie Evans. He bangs. He crashes. He looks awkward and almost uncomfortable the minute the basketball is in his hands. And he is just latest of a list of beloved and admired Toronto athletes, a highly unlikely list, that seems in talent almost the polar opposite of this city.
This is not a blue collar town but a town of blue and white and double blue. And yet for reasons that have never been completely explained or hypothesized, we adopt the blue collars athletes as if they are our own. For whatever reason, Andrea Bargnani can dominate, as he did at times against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday, but the ovations for him are few and far between. This is really nothing new for the Raptors or Toronto.
When Vince Carter played here, the town belonged to the Junk Yard Dog, Jerome Williams. Whatever it was about him got to people. Fans loved him. Fans cheered for him. The way they have now taken to Reggie Evans, who has replaced Chris Bosh’s rebounds — and a few other people’s — in the early season with the Raps.
It isn’t just basketball that Toronto becomes all blue collar crazy: The backup shortstop, John McDonald, for the past two seasons, has been the most popular Blue Jays’ player. On Opening Day, when the players are introduced one by one, he gets the loudest ovation every year. Even he seems a little embarrassed by the attention, knowing who he is and what he is.
Does this happen anywhere else?
Jose Bautista has one of the great offensive seasons in baseball history but it’s McDonald that seems to capture the imagination of local fans. For whatever reason, we like our athletes human and humble and honest. We love our try guys. We want them to be real and flawed, and full of fight. Toronto likes to fancy itself as a city of importance with taste and charm and a Film Festival and boutique hotels and let’s be honest, a little too much on the upper crust side. Just not with our athletes. We want something different from them. We want them to be like us.
Reggie Evans can’t shoot.
John McDonald can’t hit.
Tie Domi couldn’t score goals.
Who has been more popular than them?
Matt Bonner became a fan favourite because he ate submarine sandwiches, rode the TTC, walked to the Air Canada Centre and talked to people on the streets. He could shoot the basketball. The rest of his game was wanting.
Darcy Tucker became a folk hero of sorts in Toronto because he crashed in to people, weighed about 160 and believed he was 200, and forever looked ferocious.
Maybe this is what you come to appreciate when you don’t compete for championships, when your teams are not necessarily contenders. Reggie Evans understands, and when asked about the feeling from the standing ovation, he said: “It just makes me work harder.
“You have so many people in the city, they go out and work 9-and-5 to make an honesty living and they go out and buy a Raptors ticket. At the end of the day, they appreciate you going out and busting your butt.”
The only one who truly broke the mould in recent times was Michael (Pinball) Clemons. He was pure talent and personality. He remains that Toronto treasure today, years after playing his final game. Maybe because he never stopped being Pinball.
“It felt good,” Reggie Evans said about the standing ovation, the chanting of his name, and the new found attention. “It just shows me, if I continue to work hard, things like this can happen. It shows me anything is possible.”