How the Toronto Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies Revived the NBA

Carlo Allegri / AFP / Getty

“There’s no character to the Toronto Raptors’s uniform anymore,” Tom O’Grady says. “It’s clean, yes, but not eye-catching. The logo doesn’t jump off the shelf.” He adds, “The uniform today might as well belong to a intramural basketball team.”

O’Grady is perhaps the most influential — and unknown — individual in NBA history, or at least in the league’s aesthetic history. Twenty-five years ago, the NBA added the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies to the league, the first ever international expansion for a sport whose popularity at the time was waning. Michael Jordan had abruptly retired prior to the 1993-94 season, TV ratings were flat for a two-year period, and NBA’s most popular teams lacked any panache or star power. As NBA vice president Brian McIntyre told Sports Illustrated, “The [New York] Knicks’ [which won the Eastern conference finals in 1994] style of play is like Ohio State football. Three yards and a cloud of dust. It doesn’t do much for the average fan.”

But the addition of the Raptors and the Grizzlies — the first time the NBA had expanded since the late 1980s — was intended to help boost the NBA’s image (not to mention inject a healthy financial infusion of $125 million per franchise). O’Grady, who joined the NBA as its first creative director in 1990, had been tasked with orchestrating the logos and artworks for the two new teams. The league had already undergone a stylistic shift: The logos of teams like the Milwaukee Bucks, the Phoenix Suns, and the Atlanta Hawks all were conceptually redesigns, an artistic makeover led by O’Grady. But each of those franchises had long established identities, whereas the Raptors and Grizzlies provided O’Grady and his team at NBA Properties in Secaucus, New Jersey with a blank template.

And for the first time in the franchise’s history, the Raptors — the first team whose identity O’Grady’s built from scratch — are in the NBA Finals; the team leads the Golden State Warriors 2-1 after Wednesday night’s 123-109 win. When the franchise officially chose its logo, says O’Grady, the name was supposed to be temporary: with the team’s unique color palette (red, purple, black, and ‘Naismith Silver,’ to honor James Naismith, a Canadian and basketball’s creator) and “wacky, funky lettering,” the logo was designed to spur interest in the new team. And then, “those elements would be shifted to a new direction,” explains O’Grady. “The owners knew these uniforms wouldn’t be worn forever, just until the team got better.” Now that Toronto is in its first finals, it’s interesting to look back at the franchise’s introduction, and how the birth of the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies — and two logos that are diametrically opposed — breathed first air into the league. “That uniform couldn’t be introduced today,” says O’Grady. “It’s too over the top. It’s too 90s.”

When O’Grady first began working on the Toronto account in late 1993, he knew everything was in play. He had a wide latitude to make creative decisions. “I’m the one that made the calls,” says O’Grady. And yet, “I’m going to [then commissioner] David Stern’s offices and taking the lashes in case it doesn’t work.” According to a Slam magazine oral history of the Raptors’s logo, Toronto owner John Bitove and his partners wanted a team name and logo that went beyond the Canadian border, and spent months studying iconic brands like Disney and McDonald’s. Or, as O’Grady says, the “happy meal box of uniform designs.” When Jurassic Park debuted in June 1993, Bitove realized he had found the perfect logo. “John was predisposed to a name that would resonate with kids,” says Tom Mayenknecht, the Raptors’s director of communications who — donning a outfit similar to that of park ranger Robert Muldoon — introduced the logo in the spring of 1994.

“John was chasing the youth of Canada,” explains O’Grady. “He was going up against the [NHL’s Toronto] Maple Leafs, and that not an easy battle to fight. Basketball was not a thing in Canada, and the franchise had to come in with guns a-blazing.”

Without the hype and critical praise that accompanied the Steven Spielberg’s film, it’s unlikely Raptors would have been a unanimous selection. Instead, we might have be cheering for the Toronto Huskies against the Warriors — prior to the NBA, the Huskies represented in the city in the Basketball Association of America in the 1940s. “The pop culture context made us predisposed to following that direction,” says Mayenknecht.

That April, The Star and radio station CFRB 1010 organized a team naming contest. Several dozen potential names were nominated, a list which included the Lakelanders, the Trilliums (Ontario’s official flower), and the Canadian Eh’s, but O’Grady claims that despite the ten names that were shortlisted, the franchise already knew which direction it was headed. “They were going to be the Raptors all along, [and the naming contest] was a smoke screen to let people believe they were part of the decision making process.” Even though Bitove and others were considering the possibility of naming the team the Toronto T-Rex, O’Grady says the franchise was driven by the notion that raptors, like birds of prey, travel in packs. “If Raptors barely registered [with the public], then that may have swayed Bitove a bit — ‘Let’s do another focus group’ — but those are all about sanity checks, to make sure not making colossal mistake,” he says.

Mayenknecht adds, “While the Tyrannosaurus was a high profile predator, it was a solitary dinosaur, whereas raptors were pack animals, so we could build a whole brand architecture around that facet.” (After our phone call, Mayenknecht texted me photos of the Raptors’s early merchandising efforts, which included the new team’s fact sheet on the side of a box of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies cereal box. The species of dinosaur? The previously unknown Globoraptor, which translates in Latin to “ball thief.”) “We’re business guys involved in sports,” says Mayenknect, “and we were talking like kids in the sandbox. We felt that if anyone didn’t get jiggy with the dinosaur storytelling would be more down with the path of the bird of prey, so we had fun building the storytelling POV.”

He adds, “The more fun we had building the backstory, the more successfully the franchise would launch.”

True to form, the logo reflected the personality and exuberance that the new franchise hoped to imbue upon its NBA debut. “The Raptor is quirky, which is why it is timeless: the snarling teeth and claws sticking out of sneakers gives the logo an attitude, but the other elements — like dribbling a basketball — is endearing,” says O’Grady. In the Slam‘s oral history, O’Grady further elaborated, “The traditionalists hate[d] it. It’s not classic, it’s not the Celtics or Lakers — well, no shit. The younger kids love it because it’s so different and so fresh and it’s so anti-traditional sports design.” Within the first month of the uniform’s existence, the Raptors sold about $20 million worth of merchandise.

Following Toronto’s launch, O’Grady assumed he’d return to the previous assignment, the one he was working on before anyone ever heard of Naismith Silver and Globoraptors — designing logos and uniforms for each of the eight WNBA franchises, a league that would debut in 1996 (“That was an enormous year for branding,” he says). But soon after he returned to Secaucus, commissioner Stern called him to his office: Vancouver wanted to also launch its own NBA franchise — the league’s 29th. The catch? While O’Grady had months to conceptualize the Raptors’s design, he had just 90 days to design Vancouver’s identity. “It was an enormous ask, to do that amount of work [to create a] brand new identity,” he says.

Whereas Toronto felt comfortable affording O’Grady a freedom to pursue abstract concepts, Vancouver preferred a more literal logo design, and asked the NBA’s creative director to explicitly link the new franchise with the history of the Pacific Northwest. One possible option — the Vancouver Mounties — was quickly jettisoned, and O’Grady soon decided upon a concept around the Grizzlies. “The franchise wanted to be provincial and connected to British Columbia,” says O’Grady. “They wanted something classic that would have long shelf life.”

With the WNBA’s deadline looming, O’Grady outsourced the Grizzlies’s design to Jamie Skiles of Phoenix Design Works, a New Jersey-based company. Skiles had previously designed the logo for the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins, and his concept initially began with 300 different iterations of the grizzly bears, each sketched out in pencil.  He and O’Grady would “often draw together in meetings we had, sketching on top of each other’s sketches,” he tells me during an interview earlier this week. “There were so many nuances — is he fierce? Is he bold? How is that rendered?” Equally important, O’Grady says, was the inclusion of Haida elements to the design, which would honor the area’s Native American groups. The colorways of the uniform’s trim — turquoise, teal, brown, and red — are a nod to that influence: “Those colors represented the air, the sky, and the sea, and then the red blood is for passion.”

Fully fleshed out on paper, the grizzly came alive amongst the fabric of the jerseys: a growling bear in mid-crouch, with one claw clutching a basketball and the other ready to strike an opposing team. Like the raptor, the logo had attitude, but there was also something playful of a bear holding a basketball in its oversized paw.

O’Grady says Skiles was paid at least $40,000 for the designs, which debuted in August of 1994. On Wikipedia, an artist named Josh Davis is credited with the logo, but Skiles claims that only he and O’Grady worked on the concept: “I’ve heard of stolen valor, but this is the first time I’ve heard of stolen logo valor. Seems a silly thing to take credit for a logo you didn’t do.”

While Toronto’s logo and design would last for almost two decades before the team unveiled a new uniform prior to the 2015 season, the Grizzlies made a change upon relocating to Memphis in 2001. The Grizzly remained, but the color palette that had perfectly aligned with the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia was now out of place — the colorways were jettisoned for various shades of blue and the logo transformed into a flinty looking bear. “It’s now an old fashioned NBA logo,” complains O’Grady. “It looks like another version of the [Chicago] Bulls logo. Facing forward with a crunched brow and mean looking eyes that just look at you. I miss the fun [logos].”

Skiles says he didn’t mind that his art was changed — “The new management had given them as a brief, and they were trying to solve a different set of problems” — and he explained that while his logo had anthropomorphized the grizzly, imbuing the bear with competitiveness and fierceness, the new look was “more user friendly.” But that’s to be expected of a designer working within the sports world. “I remember having a lot of fun doing it,” he says. “It seemed to make sense, the work that we did.” At least one of his designs — MLB’s the Rockies — is timeless: “That may outlive me!”