“It’s a community.” Basketball is an expressive sport. On the court, players throw behind-the-back passes on fast breaks. For Raptors fans, expression has come in the form of one of the most talented fanbases of artists in North America.
In the hours leading up to a Toronto Raptors game, as players and coaches prepare for the opposition, and fans plan their day around arriving at the arena or settling in front of a screen for opening tip, Tristan Douglas is usually putting the finishing touches to another Raptors game-day poster.
This season, the Toronto-based illustrator has challenged himself to draw a game-day poster for all 82 regular-season dates. The inspirations have ranged from 1960s French Wave film posters to a photo of rookie Scottie Barnes dressed as the Joker for a Halloween party.
In a recent matchup against the New York Knicks, Douglas paid homage to the legendary Hollis, Queens rap group Run-DMC. When the Raptors played Orlando, he drew a dinosaur being cut in half as part of a magic act. When Douglas recently came across a Polish movie poster of the 1959 drama “The 400 Blows” he decided to recreate the poster for a Raptors-Blazers matchup.
Basketball is an expressive sport. On the court, players throw behind-the-back passes on fast breaks. They thrill the home crowd with gravity-defying dunks. Off the court, the expression comes in many forms, including NBA players recording their own music and starting their own fashion lines. For Raptors fans, expression has come in the form of one of the most talented fan bases of artists in North America.
Douglas still remembers the first time mom Anna took him to watch a Raptors game as an eight-year-old during the team’s inaugural season in 1995. “We went to Shoppers Drug Mart, bought two-dollar tickets and sat in the 500 level at SkyDome with binoculars,” he recalls.
A basketball fan growing up, Douglas moved from Niagara Falls to Toronto at the age of 18 to pursue a stand-up comedy career. The dream was short-lived. When his mom became sick, Douglas found a creative outlet in drawing, even though he never had an interest in visual arts growing up. “It lifted me up,” he says. “I drew things that made me feel good and made me laugh.”
When the Raptors spent last season in Tampa, Douglas started to challenge himself to draw black-and-white posters for every game. He started posting his art on social media, where Douglas goes by the name “half good.” It’s how he views his drawing skills.
“I’m self-taught, so my drawings aren’t the most realistic. They don’t have the best lighting, the shadows aren’t always correct,” Douglas says. “In my mind, I’m always like, ‘Yeah, these are OK.’ So I’m always pushing myself to be more than OK. So for now, they’re half good.”
As he’s integrated himself into the Raptors art community, Douglas has formed a circle of artist friends, including Dana Smart. Followers of the Raptors over the last few seasons have likely seen Smart’s fun and quirky illustrations of players.
When OG Anunoby hit a buzzer-beater three to defeat the Boston Celtics at the NBA bubble in 2020, Smart drew an image of Anunoby strutting off the court. It caught the attention of Raptors fans on social media and became a viral image.
Smart was born and raised in Guelph and lived in a basketball household where both of her parents were huge Raptors fans. Smart remembers doodling in class growing up and attending art camps in the summer. As an adult, she got an iPad and started designing logos for school events.
An optometrist during the day, Smart describes her style as part art deco, part cartoon. “One thing that is overarching that I can’t escape is that it is rooted in the geometry and angles and vector shapes,” she said. “It’s all rooted in the shapes.”
Smart finds her inspirations through watching the Raptors, but also from watching “Open Gym” episodes. She gets most of her drawings done either in the morning or on the weekend when she’s not working.
One of Smart’s favourite Raptors illustrators is Vancouver-based artist Jane Chiang, who goes by DrawTheNorth online. Chiang grew up in Taiwan and moved to Canada when she was in grade eight. She was inspired as a kid by the illustrations of artist Takehiko Inoue in the Japanese basketball manga “Slam Dunk,” which Raptors forward Yuta Watanabe has credited as an inspiration for getting him to play the sport.
After two years studying computer science at the University of Victoria, Chiang decided to join an art institute where she studied 3D modelling for games and movies, and learned about digital illustration. After graduating she got an entry-level job at a movie studio.
To make more money, she started to accept commissions to illustrate pets. Chiang became a diehard Raptors fan during the team’s 2019 championship run, and became inspired to draw realistic renderings of Raptors players. When she posted a portrait illustration of Jalen Harris last season, the Toronto rookie took the image and made it his Instagram profile photo.
Many players have started to take notice of the growing art community within the fan base. When the Raptors organized a pop-up art exhibit called “Art of the North” in 2018 spotlighting fan art from artists across the world, an illustration of Fred VanVleet by Casey Bannerman caught the Raptors guard’s eye.
Growing up in Peterborough, Bannerman remembers working as a high schooler at the local mall, where he spent many hours drawing in the stock room. “There were thousands of pages of order sheets and plenty of Bic Cristal pens,” Bannerman recalled. “So all I would do all day was draw.”
In 2017, after a lengthy battle with substance addiction, Bannerman was able to turn his life around with the help of friends and family, including his fiancée Kelsey. In the process of discovering what was truly important about his day-to-day life, Bannerman decided to pursue his passion for drawing.
His comic-book style illustrations have since landed him several high-profile collaborations, including a recent partnership with VanVleet on a backpack which was designed by Bannerman and distributed to kids in at-risk communities in Toronto. He’s also worked with Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam. Siakam was so moved by Bannerman’s illustration of him, in uniform with the image of his late-father smiling over him, that he commissioned a local jeweler to turn it into a memory pendant.
It does beg the question: What is it about the Raptors fan base that is producing so many talented artists?
Sarah Brown illustrates under the name DrakeCereal and has become the standard-bearer for other basketball artists to aspire to. She’s a Ryerson graduate who started drawing on a Wacom tablet and found a new way to express her fandom. Brown’s drawing style is inspired by Saturday morning cartoons and throwback Nike posters. She has a very simple theory as to why the Raptors fan base includes so many great illustrators.
“Toronto is full of raw talent. We’ve got so much grit and little patience to wait around for someone else to see us,” Brown explained. “The city forces you to bet on yourself, find your own style and make it work for you.”
She also points to the passion of Raptors fans. “It’s more than just a team,” Brown said. “It’s a community built on Twitter memes, heartbreak, overwhelming pride and Nick Nurse reactions.”
The community is also being driven by artists, who have received a tremendous level of support from the fans. Smart recently drew a series of illustrations for Yahoo Sports Canada. She also runs an Etsy store and sells T-shirts, prints and mugs featuring her drawings. Chiang has an online store where she sells prints and apparel.
The artists are all in agreement that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment and the Raptors, who have occasionally organized pop-ups and collaborated with individual artists, can do a lot more to highlight the art community.