By: Omar Muniz
“Raptors fan are Fellini’s Cabiria”
A playful comparison of Nights of Cabiria, the plight of Raptors fans, and when life imitates art where you least expect it
Allow me to kindly stress the sub-title of this essay. The following is a playful, unserious comparison between Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (1957) and the experience of being a Raptors fan. The film deals with themes of poverty that were stark in post-WWII Italy. And to watch the film in that context is a most important and rewarding experience.
On the other hand, basketball is just a game. The gravity of post-WWII Italy cannot be compared with the game of basketball. This write-up attempts only to look at Cabiria’s experience on the surface, specifically in her relationship to men, as a loose but relevant metaphor for the experience of a Raptors fan.
To put it simply, when thinking about the journey of the Raptors fan, I was struck with a thought that went something like: “Oh yeah, it’s a lot like that movie!” And this essay is but an exploration of that thought.
The 2019 NBA offseason has been helter-skelter, to say the least. It has seen over 50 players change jerseys, including some of the league’s biggest stars. Amidst the excitement about one star player playing with another, or the Lakers bid to contend for a championship, or the Knicks striking out on free agent’s of any significant magnitude, it’s important that we don’t overlook one story that is textured, dramatic and comprised of an equally complicated mix of joy and sorrow:
The effect of Kawhi Leanord’s departure on Toronto Raptors’ fans.
If fact, when you consider Leonard’s departure along with the pile of other superstars who’ve left Toronto for greater pastures over the years, it truly is a tragic story in the vain of Greek mythology. Or better yet, in the vain of Italian neorealism. Let me explain.
In 1957, the famous Italian director auteur released a now-classic film called Nights of Cabiria, which follows the heartbreaking story of a prostitute in Rome (Cabiria) who time after time gets suckered into falling in love with men who only aim to steal from her.
I know it sounds crazy, but watching the film 62 years after release has me seeing Cabiria as a metaphor for the relationship Raptors fans might have with its star players. It’s an example of life loosely imitating art.
Now, I understand that writing about Raptors fans and a black & white Italian film from the 50s is the smallest of Venn diagrams you can expect from an audience. But rest assured, you need not have seen the movie in order to follow me on this (though I highly recommend a viewing, Raptors fan or not).
Here’s why Nights of Cabiria embodies the Raptors’ fan experience
Raptors fans as Cabiria herself
You see, Raptors fans are the titular character Cabiria herself. The film’s opening, which finds Cabiria in a happy-go-lucky demeanor frolicking through an open field on a perfect day in the countryside, is reminiscent of the spirit of Raptors fans when their franchise was first inaugurated in 1996. Like Raptors’ fans of the time, her mood is jubilant and ahead of her lies the potential of a merry future.
Physically speaking, Cabiria is a compatible metaphor for Raptors’ fans. She’s short, not entirely unattractive, but not beautiful in the traditional sense. You won’t see her on any magazine covers. Her eyebrows are thick and sharp as if pasted on in a hurry. In fact, she’s clownish. The kind of person you laugh at. And the actress who portrays her (the brilliant Giulietta Masina) is often characterized as the female Charlie Chaplin.
Now to be 100% clear, I’m not calling Raptors fans clownish or short or unattractive. However, one stigma that the Raptors have had since their inauguration in 1996 is that star players don’t want to voluntarily go there to play. The Raptors are in Canada, who for many players is still a far off land.
Similarly, as we shall see, men don’t actually want to date Cabiria. So what makes the funny, sweet-hearted yet loud-mouthed Cabiria a compatible metaphor for Raptors’ fans is that they both aren’t taken seriously by the people they admire.
Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh as Giorgio, the lover and swindler
In that same opening scene, Cabiria is accompanied by Giorgio, her lover. The two hug in the open field and then Giorgio orders Cabiria to head down by the river. Once there, Cabiria gleefully waves her purse while admiring the scenery. Her love for Giorgio is sincere and careless.
Giorgio then snatches Cabiria’s purse and pushes her into the river, taking off with her money and belongings.
Contextually, Giorgio robbing Cabiria has everything to do with an impoverished post-war society down on its luck. A set of circumstances so dire that it has morally corrupted its people, to the point where they steal from prostitutes. This, by far, is the richer lens with which to watch this film.
But if we playfully draw a line between the opening scene in Cabiria and the plight of the Raptors fan, where life is imitating art, then we see how Giorgio may represent any one of the following four players: Damon Stoudamire, Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter and Chris Bosh.
Now, while none of these players robbed the Raptors’ fans of anything, the Giorgio metaphor works because they represent one misleading tease after another for Raptors’ fans. No matter how many times the Raptors drafted star talent, that talent, for one reason or another, never stayed in Toronto.
Stoudamire, for example, won rookie of the year in the Raptors’ inaugural season, setting the new franchise up for a hopeful future. He delivered all-star quality numbers in year 2 as well. But in year 3 he was shipped to the Portland Trail Blazers to play a pivotal role on a series of high-caliber teams which contended for the championship.
McGrady, on the other hand, was only 18 years old when Toronto drafted him, which meant he needed time to develop. His minutes were limited in his first two years and saw marginal improvements in his third, so he never really blossomed in a Raptors uniform.
Afterward, he signed with the Orlando Magic, where he took off as one of the league’s prolific scorers. Later, Raptors fans watched McGrady flourish with the title-contending Houston Rockets, as he formed half of one of the all-time great duos with Yao Ming.
Unlike his cousin McGrady, Vince Carter was a star in Toronto, winning fame and adoration as a dunk contest champion, and as one of the game’s most promising talents, averaging over 20ppg in five of his first six seasons. But in his last season there, rumors swirled of Carter’s questionable work ethic and desire to compete for the franchise which failed to put a competitive team around him. He was traded mid-season to the New Jersey Nets, where he quickly made two consecutive finals appearances as the team’s lead scorer.
And finally, Bosh’s tenure mirrored Carter’s almost to a tee. He devoted seven high-performing seasons to Toronto but with little playoff success to show for it. He then left for the glitz and glamor of Miami to round out a newly formed big three with Dwayne Wade and LeBron James. Except watching Bosh win in Miami was tougher for Raptors fans, because unlike the other superstar departures, Bosh actually won the trophy.
What Stoudamire, McGrady, Carter, and Bosh have in common with the rascal Giorgio isn’t that they’re made up of the same poor character that Giorgio is. On the contrary, they have done nothing wrong. The were paid to play a game for the Raptors team and they played it well. That’s a fair deal.
Instead, what makes those players like Giorgio is that their presence on an undesirable team misled the hearts of fans, who desperately craved a superstar to lead them to success.
Giorgio’s presence in Cabiria’s life misled her and eventually deceived her, albeit more deliberately than these Raptors starts did. While Giorgio and these star Raptors players may not be the same in their intentions, Cabiria and Raptors’ fans are largely the same in their response to their departure.
Thus, Raptors fans were left devastated, daydreaming about a team which could’ve starred Stoudemire, McGrady, and Carter. A team with that core would have been setup to contend for a championship in the early 2000s.
Later, they were swooned by Bosh’s high-character and genuine devotion to the city. That they were never to make any real noise in the playoffs, let alone seldomly reached the playoffs, left Raptors fans with an empty feeling for the stars that deserted them.
And so was the case for Cabiria. After Giorgio’s departure, she curses men and returns to prostitution, where she’s learned to love not men but life again. She dances to mambo and takes joy rides with friends.
Steve Nash as Alberto Lazzari
Until one night, Cabiria catches a glimpse of dashing movie star Alberto Lazzari, who in our metaphor represents Steve Nash.
On this night Lazzari is broken up with by his beautiful girlfriend Jesse, just like Nash was broken up with by the Phoenix Suns, which were looking to retool and move on from the two-time MVP.
Unlike any of our previous star players, the Canadian-born Nash had already experienced success elsewhere and was long rumored to sign with the Raptors to be their star player and symbolically represent for the NBA Canada’s presence in the league.
Raptors fans longed for a dream Raptors team that featured Nash, just like Cabiria, though jaded by men like Giorgio, became dreamy-eyed at the possibility of being chosen by Lazzari.
In the film, Lazari, looking for a replacement for the now gone Jesse, asks Cabiria to spend the night with him. Too starstruck to see past Lazarri’s true motives, Cabiria agrees, setting into the night with Lazarri like in some surreal fantasy.
They go to a club together, where Cabiria isn’t allowed even to sit beside Lazarri. Finally, to get away from adorning fans, Lazzari asks Cabiria for a dance, where she lets loose, dancing foolishly, overtaken by the exuberance of the moment.
Later Lazzari takes Cabiria home, where they are finally able to talk deeply and make a connection. That is, until Jesse comes home and Cabiria is asked to hide.
Peeking quietly from behind a door, Cabiria is forced to watch Lazzari and the gorgeous Jesse patch things up. Hours later, once Jesse has fallen asleep, Lazzari tiptoes over to Cabiria to escort her out discreetly.
As Cabiria walks out, she takes a closer look at Jesse, who is made up of long, lean legs, soft, shiny hair, and a flawless figure. Cabiria never stood a chance against Jesse’s glamor, just like the Raptors never stood a chance against the glamor of the LA Lakers, the team which Nash chose instead.
Her brief encounter with Lazzari forces Cabiria to accept that she is but a second class replacement for a woman far more coveted than she, and that she plays a tiny part in the story of a celebrity who can get anything he wants.
For Nash, the caché of playing for a storied franchise in star-studded, sunny Los Angeles won out against the cold Canadian Raptors with their infamously cartoonish uniforms. Nash preferred to be the fourth fiddle on a team that already had Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Dwight Howard, than to be the only star on the Raptors.
Moreover, Nash would’ve been worshipped in Toronto, no matter what the on the court result was, just like Cabiria would have worshipped Lazzari unconditionally. But the purity of love mattered not. Toronto fans, like Cabiria, never stood a chance.
Masai Ujiri as the Magician
Later, Cabiria finds herself at a magic show (magic and carnivals are an undeniable theme in most of Fellini’s films). Here, the magic show is led by an expert magician who represents Masai Ujiri. Ujiri, a respected and accomplished general manager, was brought to Toronto from Denver to work a kind of magic on its underperforming roster which starred DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
In the scene, the magician hypnotizes Cabiria into thinking she’s found a man who loves her truly. He exposes to the audience Cabiria’s desire to be loved, like Ujiri exposed Toronto’s long-lasting desire to land star free agents.
Ujiri, like the magician, reveals a world of possibility to Raptors fans they’ve not yet known. “You’re in a beautiful garden filled with flowers,” says the magician.
Cabiria, captivated by the imaginary scene, responds candidly and deeply. “I’ve been hoping to meet you for a long time.” “Is it true, you’re not trying to fool me?” “Do you really love me?”
In a dazed hypnosis, Cabiria confesses her desire for true love to an audience filled with men, all of whom laugh at her gentle purity. The reaction was similar to the one Ujiri received from media and NBA fans when he promised to transform Toronto’s culture into a winning one where the league’s best talent would clamor to play.
Years later and Ujiri had in fact delivered on his promise to reform the Raptors into a team with a winning reputation, largely by keeping its core of Derozan and Lowry in tact, while adding strong role players around them through trades and the draft (Serge Ibaka, Jonas Valanciunus, etc.).
Through three years of winning, he had not, however, attracted his star player yet. And in fact, in each of these years, the Raptors fell prey to the Cavaliers, led by the league’s most legendary player since Michael Jordan, LeBron James.
It’s been long understood that the NBA is a league which requires superstar talents to win championships. And without that superstar, the odds of winning a championship were stacked so high that, for a team like Toronto, which lever landed starts, Ujiri really had to swing for the fences.
So he pulled off an unprecedented move by trading Toronto’s most popular player in Derozan for Kawhi Leonard, a transformational player coming off an injury plagued season marred by a strained relationship with his former team, the San Antonio Spurs.
Kawhi Leonard as Oscar, the fiancé
Enter Oscar, Cabiria’s newest love interest, who represents Leonard for Raptors fans. Oscar had been in the magic show audience and sympathized with Cabiria’s profound desire to be loved.
Oscar, like Kawhi, does all the right things. He’s intelligent, sympathetic, and genuine. Kawhi played hard, was a true team player, and never made his impeding free agency the center of attention.
Oscar claims that he never intended to enter the music hall where the magic show was held, just like Kawhi never intended to join the Raptors. Instead, his being there was a matter of fate.
Cabiria, like Raptors fans, went along for the ride, but approached it with mistrust. The situation was almost too good to be true. This top 5 two-way player who was devoting himself to this very team which star players shucked in years past, was he actually expected to resign as a free agent?
After seeing Oscar a number of times, Cabiria lashes out. What’s the point, she cries. We’re just wasting each other’s time.
That’s when Oscar offers to marry Cabiria. Cabiria can hardly believe the proposal. “Don’t tell me if it isn’t true,” she says.
Oscar’s marriage proposal can be seen as the Raptors’ playoff push. More specifically, it can be seen as Kawhi’s 4 bounce buzzer-beater to send the Raptors past the Sixers towards the Eastern Conference Finals. And that magical shot, arguably the more important buzzer-beater in NBA history, sent Raptors fans into pure, unadulterated sports bliss.
With that shot, things got serious between Raptors fans and their beloved team, but more specifically their love affair with Kawhi. It signified the moment that this Raptors team was not like those of the past. This team was a team of winners. Kawhi was a player unlike any they’d ever rooted for. Unlike the Derozan teams, Kawhi’s team wouldn’t mislead fans with just enough success to tease championship potential, just to fail in devastating fashion.
Likewise, Oscar’s marriage proposal is when Cabiria knew that Oscar was not like men before him. Things were totally different with him.
Once the engagement becomes official, Cabiria cannot contain her excitement, just like Raptors fans, after winning the championship, could not contain theirs. They packed the Jurassic Park outdoor sports arena to the brim, a show of authentic devotion to their team. During their championship run, NBA experts were commonly heard touting the heart of Raptors fans. That there was no fan base quite like that in Toronto.
Not only were Raptors fans elated at their first-ever championship, but they were also in a position to resign Kawhi. In other words, they were in the best possible position to have a top 5 player in the NBA voluntarily choose Toronto.
With their core of Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Kyle Lowry, the Raptors could realistically compete for a championship for two years to come. And besides, what were the chances that Kawhi would actually leave a team with which he just won the championship? Could he actually turn down a fan base that loved him profoundly so?
Back to Cabiria, who is so confident in her decision to marry Oscar, that she sells the house and takes her money out of the bank. This can be seen as a parallel for the investment the Raptors made to get Kawhi in the first place. The sale of the house is the DeMar DeRozan trade.
Cabiria leaves her hometown, which is filled with people on hard times. Her best friend Wanda accompanies her to the bus, who cries at Cabiria’s departure. Cabiria, in complete confidence and in some arrogance, tells Wanda “You’ll get married, like me,” “you’ll get a miracle, like me.” It something Raptors fans could tell fans of other mid-market teams (Hornets, Magic, Kings, Grizzlies, etc). “You’ll get your Kawhi someday, too!” “You’ll get a miracle, like me!”
Once the couple is reunited for their marriage, Oscar appears despondent. He wears sunglasses. He doesn’t say very much. He’s less charming and emotionally removed. This can be seen as Kawhi’s ominous silence during the free agency period; After the celebration of one of the most memorable NBA championships ever, Kawhi appears unaffected and unmoved even, by the emotion of what they’d just accomplished.
Cabiria, still high from the marriage proposal, is ignorant of Oscar’s demeanor. In fact, she bears her soul. “If you knew what I went through to end up with this money,” she exclaims. Later she says “You suffer, go through hell, but then happiness comes along for everyone.”
Now, in an effort to be crystal clear, Cabiria is referring to real hardships in those quotes. She’s a prostitute in post-WWII Italy. She had to sacrifice so much and work so hard to stay afloat while watching her countrymen wither away into serious poverty in a society recovering slowly. In no way does Cabiria’s plight compare to that of the Raptors fan in any real way.
But if we continue to playfully draw lines of comparison between Cabiria and Raptors fans, then Raptors fans can say that they, too, suffered and went through “hell,” as far as being a sports fan goes. They watched star players leave, or never arrive. They witnessed a franchise lose a lot, even with star players coming through their doors. And when they were finally built the right way, they still lost three years in a row to the league’s most dominant superstar himself, LeBron James.
But like Cabiria, they finally, reveled in happiness. You can argue that the elation they felt, from the championship Kawhi helped deliver them, was worth year after year of toil and sports sorrow.
Finally, Oscar and Cabiria walk to a beautiful seaside cliff. The water is glimmering in the sun. The landscape is picturesque. In fact, the scene is reminiscent of the opening scene, when Cabiria was taken by Giorgio. Cabiria even recalls how the last time she was by a body of water like this, she was pushed in.
Then it dawns on her. Oscar doesn’t intend to marry her at all. And Kawhi never intended on signing with Toronto at all. Sure, his camp told the Raptors that he’d resign if they acquired Paul George, but it was a demand that the Raptors were not prepared to agree on.
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Clippers had been strategically clearing cap space for two years, setting themselves up for the summer of 2019, so that they could sign two max free agents. The demand for Paul George favored the Clippers all along and the Raptors never stood a chance.
And so Kawhi Leonard, Toronto’s supposed savior and short-time starlet, leaves for sunny California. The “Jesse” of free-agent destinations. Yes, he had his reasons. Sure, it was his home. And as a high-revenue generating free agent in a billion-dollar league that profits from his services, he certainly has the right to play for whichever team he wishes.
Still, this logic doesn’t alter the feeling of abandonment for Raptors’ fans. Kawhi was there. They went through so much together in just one season. The Toronto franchise did absolutely everything right to keep him. And still, they came up short.
Once Cabiria realizes she had been deceived yet again, she offers up her money to Oscar without a fight, demanding that he take it and just kill her. She screams for it in fact. All the joy Cabiria felt from the impending marriage had be stolen from her, along with the money in her purse. Betrayed once more, she drops to the ground with the weight of an anvil, wailing, emptied, and anguished.
Oscar’s deception is proof that Cabiria can’t win. She distrusted men. She learned from her unsuspecting devotion to them in the past, like a child learns that fire is hot by being haunted by the memory of touching it. Yet, once Oscar proved himself an honorable and true fellow, she gave herself to him completely. Her only folly was that, despite everything that had come her way, her love remained uncorrupted.
And so her story remained the same. Cabiria is betrayed both by men and by her gullible heart.
It’s true, banners last forever. Of course, the whole ordeal is worth it. You take an NBA trophy every time when given the chance, no matter the trade-off. Better than to have loved and lost than to have never loved at all, right?
But geez, this is one tough horse pill for Raptors’ fans to swallow. The triumphant glory of Raptors fans was followed by the agonizing loss of Kawhi leaving. Fans cannot separate the two feelings of joy and sorrow. Instead of celebrating the title this summer, they’ll be lamenting Kawhi’s loss and their hastened retreat to mediocrity. In the future, whenever they think of the year they won the trophy, they’ll be reminded of the heartbreak of Kawhi’s departure.
Raptors’ fans are Fellini’s prostitute. Betrayed always by superstars, players with their sights set on something bigger than they are, sexier than they could ever be. Raptors fans continue to be betrayed that and their own gullible heart.
But not all is lost for Cabiria. She picks herself up from the ground, covered in dirt and leaves, and walks down a long road at night. A celebration surrounds her. Young boys and girls sing and dance. Some boys are making music with a harmonica, guitar, and accordion.
They joke with her. They’re full of life. And perhaps the country’s youth is a symbol of hope for reconstruction in years to come after the war.
Despite her initial resistance, a smile escapes Cabiria. She’s found joy, after yet another tragic betrayal. She smiles if only because she remains alive and because it is better to live than not. And despite it all, she survives to see another day.
Equivocally, Raptors’ fans are left with some promise. Players like Pascal Siakam, OG Anonouby, and Fred Van Vleet are their musicians, providing the city’s fans with life after loss.