Play-by-play commentary is crucial to the sports-watching experience. The Toronto Raptors have had a few good commentators over the years. Who is the greatest of all time?
When you watch the Toronto Raptors, at a pub or in the comfort of your home, you are focusing on the players playing the game. You watch expecting to be entertained by outstanding performances— you want to see something you haven’t seen before (or at least not recently).
What about the role of play-by-play commentary? Unless you are at Scotiabank Arena or watching the game somewhere at a distance with the sound muted, the broadcasters covering the event are essential to your viewing experience.
Uninspired performances can leave you feeling flat. Good commentary, however, can elevate a basketball game, engaging the audience by not only narrating the action as it happens but making you feel the mood and drama.
So just like we do with players that play(ed) for the Toronto Raptors, it is only fitting that we rank the team’s best commentators.
For the purposes of this ranking, we are only going to focus on broadcasters with the longest tenure who’ve called Toronto Raptors games on television. The main guys. That leaves Paul Romanuk, Dan Shulman, Rod Black, Sherman Hamilton and John Saunders as honourable mentions.
So which commentator is the greatest of all time? Let’s rank the candidates, past and present, to see who reigns supreme.
What are the virtues of a good colour commentator? Some of it is going to be personal bias, as everyone has their own benchmarks.
In general, there are a few key criteria we can use to objectively gauge a performance.
- A distinctive voice
- Works well with a partner(s)
- Knowledge of the sport
- Positive energy, keeps things accessible
The person needs to have a distinctive and personable voice. Just like in real life presentations, movies and everyday conversations, people don’t like listening to someone who is monotone and deadbeat.
Commentators need to convey the mood and drama of the game by varying the pitch of their voice, adjusting their pace, using emphasis, pausing and using inflection when appropriate. A perfect example of this is former legendary Los Angeles Dodgers’ sportscaster, Vin Scully.
A good commentator also works well individually or when partnered with others, meshing with them seamlessly. They ask the right questions and form easy chemistry, playing off the other person’s strengths and filling in for any shortcomings.
Most importantly, the best of the best actually know the sport and offer interesting and timely analysis. It’s definitely ironic when the person calling the game knows less than the viewer. You don’t even necessarily need to have played the game either. Many former athletes come onto broadcasts, only to provide vague and sometimes idiotic insight. Think Ryan Hollins.
To paint an accurate picture, the commentator needs to be prepared ahead of time with relevant anecdotes, stats, trends, and historical comparisons. In the moment, they need to breakdown the strategies being used, tactics executed and developments (i.e. injuries) as they happen. They must relay all this information with positive energy and avoid excessive mumbo jumbo, keeping things accessible for the general audience.
Longevity is important too. If they hit all the above points, good sportscasters generally enjoy extended careers, leaving a lasting impression on viewers.
4. Leo Rautins
Since the Toronto Raptors’ debut in 1995, Leo Rautins has served as a TV analyst and colour commentator. This comes on the heels of an outstanding college career at Syracuse and being selected 17th overall in the 1983 NBA Draft. From 1985 to 1992, he played with the Sixers and the Atlanta Hawks before finishing his career in the Italian, Spanish, and French professional leagues. Rautins has been named to both the Ontario Basketball Hall of Fame and the Canadian Hall of Fame.
So there’s definitely a lot of basketball pedigree, but how has the “Kid from Keele Street” fared as a broadcaster? It is a mixed bag. Rautins definitely has longevity and as a former player, he certainly knows the sport of basketball very well. While never going extremely in-depth like Jack Armstrong, he will occasionally provide interesting analysis of different plays and situations for viewers.
When it comes to having a distinctive voice, exuding positive energy and working well with his partners, this is where Rautins falls a little flat. From a fan perspective, people find him to be less than enthusiastic. He’s very professional, but almost to the point of being rigid and boring. Very rarely do you see him varying his voice to match the intensity and emotion of the game, which is disappointing. He doesn’t take many risks and sticks to his comfort zone.
This rigidness comes through in his partnerships with other broadcasters like Matt Devlin or Jack Armstrong. While generally successful, Rautins can be more pessimistic than his colleagues and his conversations can become stilted if he’s not teamed with the right person.
3. Matt Devlin
Matt Devlin, also known as Matty D, started his broadcasting career in Toronto in 2008, filling in for the beloved Chuck Swirsky. A seasoned veteran and former play-by-play man of the Memphis Grizzlies and the Charlotte Bobcats, Devlin has also called MLB, NFL, and Olympic broadcasts.
What does he do well as a Raptors commentator? Working alongside Jack Armstrong, Devlin’s composed voice conveys the feeling that he is an expert and as a fan, someone you can trust. In many ways, Devlin’s commentary style is a reflection of his perfectly groomed appearance— accurate but not very flashy.
During big moments, he will burst out of character with excitement and pull out his signature three-point call, referencing a Canadian locale like Mississauga or Yellowknife. This adds a feeling of national unity and anticipation for viewers. You are watching the game hoping that your spot in Canada gets mentioned.
Pretty cool, except this is not his own creation, as his predecessor Chuck Swirsky was actually the one who started it.
Basically, Devlin is very good at his job; he’s just not very original or exceptional in any particular regard. He’s at his best when paired with someone a little more spontaneous, like our next candidate.
2. Jack Armstrong
John Joseph “Jack” Armstrong has been the voice of the Toronto Raptors for over 20 years. The son of Irish immigrants, the Brooklyn native lives with his wife Dena and their three adopted sons—Kevin, 22, Brain, 21 and Tim, 20. Before starting his broadcasting career, Armstrong spent ten years as the head basketball coach at Niagara University, where he was named Division 1 New York State and MAAC Coach of the Year for the 1992-93 season.
So according to our criteria, what makes Jack Armstrong a great broadcaster? For 22 years he’s brought his unique brand of infectious, over-the-top enthusiasm to Raptors games. Many people love it. For some, it might be a tad too much. Often working side-by-side with fellow candidate, Matt Devlin, Armstrong’s hyperkinetic energy perfectly complements the former’s more laid-back demeanor.
Armstrong is widely recognized for breaking down the many complex terms, strategies, contexts and minute-by-minute plays we see on the floor on any given night. When you watch a Raptors game with him on the telecast, there is a personal feel to things. Many new and casual fans, especially those who came on during the Raptors’ wild playoff run, appreciated the way that Armstrong acted like a tour guide for them.
All of these insights feel fresh and exciting because of Armstrong’s distinctive voice—a thick Brooklyn accent and in moments of extreme excitement, hoarse and verging on laryngitis. From “Hellooooo!” to “Get that garbage outta here!” you’ll always hear him hollering one of his many signature phrases. Watch enough games and they’ll be stuck in your brain for days.
1. Chuck Swirsky
The man, the myth, the legend. It feels like an eternity since Chuck Swirsky manned the sidelines of a Raptors game. For ten years, first through radio then on television, Swirsky used his smooth, baritone voice and catchphrases to capture memorable moments for fans, from Vince Carter’s early brilliance to Kobe Bryant’s 81 point demolition derby. After becoming a Canadian citizen in 2007, he left a year later in 2008 to join the Chicago Bulls broadcast team.
Having only ever heard Jack Armstrong, the newer and younger generation of Raptors fans might find this choice a bit controversial. Let me assure you, Swirsky definitely has all the golden qualities that you want in an all-time great commentator. And this is not just nostalgia speaking.
His voice and positive energy were something else. From unforgettable catchphrases such as “Onions, baby onions!” and “Get out the salami and cheese mama, this ballgame is over!” to colourful nicknames for players (i.e. The Red Rocket for Matt Bonner, Apollo 33 for Jamario Moon and most famously Air Canada for Vince Carter), he was endlessly entertaining and enthusiastic. Many of these are still part of the basketball lexicon in Toronto to this day, even if you’ve never heard of Chuck Swirsky.
He had an easy camaraderie with his fellow broadcasters too, often elevating their performances. This is especially true of his partnership with Leo Rautins. As mentioned before, Rautins tends to take a more reserved and professional approach to his commentary, which fans can find boring. Swirsky had the ability to animate him, teasing Rautins and engaging him with witty banter. If you’ve watched a Raptors game these days, you know this is not an easy task.
Like any good commentator, Swirsky’s knowledge of basketball and his preparation before games was impeccable. Outside of his legendary phrases and nicknames, he always had interesting things to say and relevant information to pass along to fans— his expertise was never in doubt.
You know you are a special breed of broadcaster when fans, including myself, would tune into Raptors games (especially during the lean years) just to hear Swirsky’s calls. His commentary always felt natural and when he left in 2008, it was like an important piece of the Toronto Raptors' soul had been lost. You don’t get that same feeling from the current crop of broadcasters, not even the great Jack Armstrong, at least not yet.
That’s why Chuck Swirsky stands alone as the greatest Raptors commentator of all time.