It was a sunny Sunday morning. Blue skies, birds chirping. Summer was in the air.
There was an energy felt inside of me as I poured my morning coffee to start the day. I was wearing my bright red Toronto Raptors “We The North” T-shirt. In May. Seems a little exaggerated for this time of year, right?
In reality, this is the new normal. As I turned on the TV to catch the sports highlights, the anchors could not contain their enthusiasm. Shots of Kawhi Leonard dunking, Kyle Lowry draining threes, Drake shoulder rubbing was scrolled across the morning highlight package.
I thought what happened the night before was a dream. But it was the opposite. The Toronto Raptors were the 2018-19 Eastern Conference Champions, advancing to their first NBA Finals in franchise history. The first time that the National Basketball Championship, once considered the culmination of an American cultural obsession, will now occur north of the border.
This is the new normal. This is Toronto sports. It’s real and it is time to embrace the basketball revolution that is about to sweep across Canada.
I was born in February of 1996, halfway through the inaugural season of the Toronto Raptors. In 1993, Toronto businessman John Bitove paid an expansion fee of $125 million USD to establish the 28th NBA franchise. Along with the Vancouver Grizzlies out west, it was NBA Commissioner David Stern’s attempt to open the borders, diversifying the portfolio of basketball franchises.
The first game of the Raptors franchise occurred at SkyDome, the home of the two-time World Series champions Toronto Blue Jays. In front of a small crowd of 33,306, the Raptors defeated the New Jersey Nets by 15 points, led by stellar performances of Alvin Robertson and Damon Stoudemire.
But the initial enthusiasm for a new franchise in Toronto, was met with subsequent uncertainty and doubt. Toronto, and Canada in general, is first and foremost a hockey country. Regardless of their performance, the Toronto Maple Leafs will always be the talk of the city. The hype surrounding the Blue Jays was still high, after winning their second consecutive World Series in 1993. Ask a sample of Torontonians certain basketball terms and phrases, and they wouldn’t know the answer. Toronto residents easily can recollect the household names of Joe Carter and Doug Gilmour but would have to scratch their head to know who Alvin Williams was.
South of the border, the Canadian franchises were ostracized and shunned. While many were wishing Toronto and Vancouver well, the economic prosperity of American markets such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago far outweigh any success of Toronto or Vancouver. The NBA was still enthralled by Michael Jordan and were beginning to embrace the greatness of stars such as Patrick Ewing, Reggie Miller, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
With the non-existent basketball culture in Canada, coupled with the NBA’s desire to expand within America, the Vancouver Grizzlies moved to Memphis after six years in existence. The Raptors stayed as the lone Canadian team, about to undergo the long and arduous journey to national consciousness and relevance.
Love Affair Instant with Toronto Raptors
I grew up in a sports family. My Father was a recreational golfer, my Mom was integral in Canadian tennis tournament operations. And my older brother got blessed with athletic genes, specializing in competitive tennis.
I unfortunately have chronic asthma and motor dyspraxia. While exerting physical activity, it causes me to get out of breath instantaneously, coupled with the inability to accomplish the motor skills necessary to play competitive sports. Gym class was difficult, seeing other kids who were more athletic than I am accomplishing drills with ease. But what they did not have that I did was a deep, burning passion and love for the stories and narratives that arise from sports.
On TV, the main subject were big sporting events. Dinner conversations at the table with the family were about various sports issues. Playing video games such as NBA Live or NHL became a routine. It was through this where I got my first initial wave of love for Toronto sports teams, including the Raptors.
I remember rising from my couch to watch Vince Carter’s all-time unforgettable dunk at the Slam Dunk Contest. Little did I know at the time, but it would live on for years to be the biggest moment in the franchise’s history. I would watch Canadian sportscasters such as Tim Micallef and Sid Seixeiro on The Score, Leo Rautins, Chuck Swirsky and Jack Armstrong, make the Raptors entertaining to follow, despite underwhelming results. When I was old enough to read, I was an avid disciple of Toronto Star columnist Doug Smith’s Raptors coverage, who would consistently write thorough, engaging content since the franchise’s inception.
There were dark years for the Toronto Raptors franchise. Moments that were difficult to cover the team, when stars such as Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh would leave for warmer climates. But the Raptors gave me an avenue to follow and love basketball, despite being unable to play it well. The team provided inspiration, hope and belief that one day, enduring the troubling times would be worth it, when the franchise would become relevant. It only took 23 years of my life to make that happen.
In 2013, the Toronto Raptors underwent a massive branding change. They brought new general manager named Masai Ujiri. They made significant in-season trades to bring the pair of DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry together. As social media ramped up its influence on daily society, phrases such as “We The North” and “The Northern Uprising Has Begun” became mainstream vernacular for basketball fans. The Air Canada Centre, now ScotiaBank Arena, started to fill seats for basketball games. And the Raptors formed Jurassic Park, a mosh pit of enthusiasm and energy for fans outside the arena to watch the games on the big screen. Drake became the team’s global ambassador and Nav Bhatia was an overnight superfan sensation. The Raptors were starting to put a dent into the trifecta of the Toronto sports market.
As the Raptors became a consistent playoff team, fans across the country demanded more. They were tired of seeing LeBron James beat their team on a consistent basis in the playoffs. The fanbase yearned for a superstar that could lift this team to new heights. After getting swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers for a second consecutive year, Masai Ujiri had tough decisions to make. He would fire the NBA Coach of the Year Dwane Casey and bring in Nick Nurse. And he would trade DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poetl for Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. A superstar, who was considered the best two-way player in the NBA, and a proven playoff performer were coming to Toronto.
Toronto, a city used to sports teams always falling short of expectations, did not know how to react. The regular season was filled with questions and skepticism. Was the “load management” strategy for Kawhi Leonard going to work? Will the experienced Raptor players such as Kyle Lowry, able to galvanize this team and perform in the adverse moments? We were about to find out.
Toronto Raptors Provide Hope and Optimism
2019 has been a difficult year for me personally. My Grandma, full of vigor and spirit, had to be moved from her lifelong residence to a senior’s home for long-term care. My brother was in a serious car accident, which led to a debilitating concussion. And my Dad, who never had any health concerns, would be in hospital with blood clots in his lungs. Instantly, life changed forever.
But through those difficult moments, there was a light at the end of the tunnel that kept me going. It was the Toronto Raptors. A team that every single time, elated my spirits and exceeded my expectations. When they were down 0-1 to the Orlando Magic, the Raptors rattled off four straight wins with dominance. Down 2-1 to the Philadelphia 76ers, Kawhi Leonard would put the team on his back to force a Game 7. Only to convert the only Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA Playoffs history, sending Toronto into pandemonium.
And then down 0-2 to the league-leading Milwaukee Bucks, it would be a complete team effort that would enable Toronto to win four consecutive games, sending the Raptors to their franchise’s first NBA Finals. All the while this happened, the city and country began to rally behind the Raptors. More people were wearing Raptors apparel and jerseys. People at local establishments and work offices were for once discussing basketball in their daily conversations. And when it became official that the Raptors advanced to the team’s first championship, the city erupted. Cars were honking and stopped to take in the scene that was downtown Toronto. Fans were in constant jubilation to the early hours of the morning.
For once, a major Toronto sports franchise gave a city and a country something to be proud of.
Who knows what the outcome will be in the NBA Finals. The Golden State Warriors are on the precipice of their own basketball history, trying to become the dynasty of the 21st century with their fourth championship in five years. But what the Raptors have accomplished this season cannot be ignored or understated.
Canada has its issues. America has never been more politically polarizing. As our society tries to conquer certain challenges, we turn to sports as a platform for escape and unity. For all its problems, Canada and Toronto have shown why multiculturalism and diversity works. The Toronto Raptors fan base comes from all colours and stripes, it doesn’t matter who you are or your socioeconomic status. Canadians who never would think of tuning into basketball and are now beginning to love the sport.
“Look around at the square. I promise you right now, we did this.” said Drake.
The energy is palpable as Canada begins to place basketball on a pedestal with the other popular sports this nation has to offer. The Raptors represents the beauty of the North, as the entire country is united in their fervent support for a team that has transcended the concept of what is possible. Most importantly of all, the Toronto Raptors have solidified the hope, faith and belief that I and so many followers possessed many years ago, that one day, we could revel in the magnitude of an ultimate Canadian basketball moment.
Toronto is a basketball city. Canada is a basketball country. And the revolution is just getting started.