Jurassic Bark: How Samuel L. Jackson Taught Raptors Fans to Heckle

Growing up as a Toronto Raptors fan, I was always fascinated by a photo of Samuel L. Jackson, decked out in Raptors gear, sitting courtside at a game during the inaugural season.

Jurassic Bark How Samuel L. Jackson Taught Raptors Fans to Heckle

When I spoke to Sharon Edwards, who was the team’s special event and game operations coordinator during that first season in 1995, I asked about this photo. Edwards was responsible for many things on game night, including helping to escort celebrities to their courtside seats. Basketball was new to many fans in the hockey-mad town of Toronto, and getting A-listers to show up at games would help create buzz about an expansion NBA team.

It turns out, Jackson wasn’t just another celebrity passing through. He was the first celebrity fan of the team, before Drake was even on anyone’s radar. But how did he become a Raptors fan in the first place? And how did a team-issued duffel bag end up in the film Jackie Brown? Edwards—and Jackson—helped me figure out the answer.

To start, the Raptors benefited from playing in a city known as “Hollywood North.” In 1979, mayor John Sewell proudly announced Toronto had become the third-largest movie production center in the world after New York and Los Angeles. Major movie production companies in the United States took advantage of the Canadian federal government’s subsidies and tax credits and started filming north of the border. The Toronto International Film Festival, founded in 1976 and held every September, became a rite of passage for any film looking to enter the conversation for Academy Awards consideration.

During the first season, the team would contact the Toronto Film Association and provide courtside seats to any television and movie stars in town. For any fans attending a Raptors game at SkyDome, they might have spotted Arnold Schwarzenegger, Gene Hackman, or John Cusack in their section.

Will Smith and Denzel Washington were among the other Hollywood actors who would make a cameo at the game. When the team hosted the Los Angeles Lakers, Sharon Edwards organized a “Hollywood North” event, working with Spalding to create a custom ball that was sent to celebrities across the city. Similar to opening night, they were invited to a pregame reception and seated courtside for the game.

On game nights, Edwards would be running around the stadium with the rest of the game ops team, making sure everything went according to script. When a celebrity arrived, Edwards would get a message on her headset to run to Gate 9 to escort the person into the stadium and to their seats. There was no bigger Hollywood presence at the SkyDome in the first season than Samuel L. Jackson.

Jackson back in Toronto in 2011.

When the 1995–96 season began, Jackson was living in the Forest Hill neighborhood of Toronto and filming The Long Kiss Goodnight, an action thriller co-starring Geena Davis. Isiah Thomas was friends with Jackson. When the actor was in town, the general manager extended an open invitation for him to attend any Raptor home game. “I went as often as I could. I was always there if I was off and I could make it to the stadium,” Jackson says. “They were a fun team to watch.”

The actor, who played chief engineer Ray Arnold in Jurassic Park, the film which influenced the Raptors’ brand identity, would sit courtside, heckling the visiting players and occasionally asking Brendan Malone about his minutes distribution.

“I remember asking him why John Salley wasn’t playing,” Jackson recalls. “He would tell me, ‘Sam, he’s not in the rotation.’”

On most nights, the actor was the only person talking trash courtside. “The fans were so polite. They didn’t understand you could yell at the players and the referees,” Jackson says. “I would yell, ‘He can’t dribble left!’ or tell one of the guys, ‘He can’t catch and shoot!’ and the fans would look at me like I was going to get our team in trouble. I was having fun and teaching the fans how to be fans.”

Aside from being the team’s most vocal celebrity fan, Jackson enjoyed the city for its cuisine and would go golfing when the weather cooperated. “The club scene was banging, too,” he adds. Jackson often found himself in the same nightclub as the Raptors players. “I would run into them at different places,” he laughs. “I think it was interesting for them to find out that movie stars were way more popular than athletes.”

In 1994, Jackson played Bible-quoting hitman Jules Winnfield in Pulp Fiction, one of the most iconic movie characters of all time. The film was written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, who had put himself on the map with his 1992 feature-length debut, Reservoir Dogs, described by Ella Taylor of LA Weekly as “a heist caper without a heist, an action movie that’s hopelessly in love with talk, a poem to the sexiness of storytelling, and a slice of precocious wisdom about life.”

Critics and moviegoers fell in love with the pop-culture-driven dialogue, non-linear storytelling, and black humor of Reservoir Dogs, which would become Tarantino’s stylistic trademarks.

The director ran into Jackson at the Cannes Film Festival after the release of the movie and told the actor he was writing a character specifically for him for his next film. The movie would feature a series of intertwined caper stories, drawing inspiration from crime novelists Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who wrote similar tales in the 1920s and 1930s pulp magazines. It would be called Pulp Fiction. Jackson read for the role of Winnfield and expected to land the part. When his manager told him Tarantino wanted the actor to fly out to Los Angeles for another audition with actor Paul Calderón, who had impressed the director in a separate audition, Jackson was pissed.

When he arrived at the studio, he only grew angrier when a line producer mistook him for actor Lawrence Fishburne. Jackson had landed at the airport and stopped by a fast food restaurant. He walked into the audition with a burger in hand and a drink in the other and channeled his anger into a readthrough that blew everyone away. Pulp Fiction began shooting in California on September 20, 1993. Jackson had arrived on set having created an entire backstory for his character.

He also grew muttonc hop sideburns to give Winnfield a distinct look. The character’s iconic look was complete when a production assistant was sent to buy an Afro wig but returned with a Jheri-curl wig.

On a budget of just over $8 million, Pulp Fiction became the first independent film to gross over $200 million. The movie won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and received seven Oscar nominations. Movie critic Roger Ebert called it the most influential movie of the 1990s.

Adam Nayman, a film critic, was 13 when he tried to sneak into a local screening of Pulp Fiction in Toronto. The film received an R rating in Canada, meaning you had to be over 18 to watch the movie. Nayman would succeed in seeing the film and later rewatched it several times when it became available on home video.

As a kid, he fell in love with the characters in the film and the references to classic movies, including Brian De Palma’s Dressed To Kill, Walter Hill’s cult classic The Warriors, and Jean- Luc Godard’s Band of Outsiders. There was also the film’s soundtrack, which featured Kool & The Gang’s “Jungle Boogie,” Dusty Springfield’s “Son of a Preacher Man,” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”

“Pulp Fiction was immersed in the ideas of cool, which has to do with knowledge and frame of reference,” Nayman says. “As a 13-year-old, I wanted to see it because I felt like I’d be smarter. I felt like participating in this movie’s release was a way to show that I got it. This was the biggest thing that ever happened in terms of what was taste-making in the teenage cinephile circle.”

After Pulp Fiction, Nayman eagerly anticipated Tarantino’s next film, Jackie Brown, an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard 1992 novel “Rum Punch.” The film’s emotional core would be centered around two characters, Jackie, played by Pam Grier, and Max, whose role went to Robert Forster.

After the success of Pulp Fiction, Tarantino decided to partner with Jackson again, casting him as a dangerous Los Angeles–based black-market drugs and guns dealer named Ordell Robbie, who would be the main antagonist in the film. In one of the scenes, Jackson’s character has to hand over $10,000 in cash. He reaches into the chair next to him to show the money and holds up a Raptors-branded black duffel bag.

The team had provided Jackson with plenty of merchandise during his stay in Toronto, from hats to jerseys to a leather jacket he often wore sitting courtside. He was also given a duffel bag, which Jackson brought to the set of Jackie Brown, asking the prop manager if it would be okay to use in the scene. “He said yes, and Quentin didn’t mind either,” he recalls. “So I got to say, ‘Got it right here in my Raptor bag.’”

Nayman went to a Jackie Brown screening at the Hollywood Theater on the east side of Yonge Street, north of St. Clair Avenue, within walking distance of his house, and remembers the entire theater applauding the reference to the Raptors. “It brought the house down,” Nayman says. “I remember laughing and just being like, ‘Where did that come from?’”

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