TORONTO– It was supposed to be a day of celebration. The Toronto Raptors were coming home to party with their fans, in the franchise’s inaugural championship parade. A historical moment that the Raptors fan base had been waiting for since the organization’s first game in 1995.
The parade featured all of these realities. While lengthy in time, the crowd was energetic and jubilant. Thousands congregated at Nathan Philips Square to be a part of this commemoration that hasn’t happened in Toronto for 26 years. Lifelong Raptors fans, like myself, hugged the street lines of Lakeshore Boulevard or University Avenue. To get a glimpse of the basketball heroes that brought a city and country together.
An unforgettable moment turned dark in a heartbeat. The raucous enthusiasm switched to intense fear and uncertainty. People scattered from Nathan Philips Square to take cover. Sounds of gunshots were heard throughout the crowd.
This was not supposed to happen. Images of violence and horror did not fit the canvas of love and positive spirit that was felt throughout the city. But the show would go on. Amidst the chaos of the tragic events, the first responders acted quickly to diffuse the situation. And the ceremony would continue on as planned. No act of evil was going to interfere with the zestful spirit of celebrating an NBA Championship. That is the Raptors way; a testament to a franchise that has been waiting decades for glory.
From the moment the buzzer sounded in Game 6, signifying the Toronto Raptors were going to be NBA Champions, I knew I wanted to be a part of the championship parade festivities. In my lifetime, I have never seen a major Toronto sports franchise win a championship. Let alone be relevant in their respective leagues. My Dad, whom I watched the Raptors’ 114-110 Game 6 win over the Golden State Warriors with, has seen seven in his life.
The Raptors were once irrelevant and doomed to fail. I was often jeered by my peers for saying I was a Raptors fan. Until they underwent a significant branding transformation. Or when they brought superstar talent, like general manager Masai Ujiri or Kawhi Leonard, to the organization.
The movement reached an all-time high with memorable moments like Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers. And exploded when the Raptors complete team effort stymied a Golden State Warriors squad that had won three NBA championships in the last four years.
When Kyle Lowry raised the Larry O’Brien trophy, it was more than just the Raptors winning an NBA Championship. It was the years of heartbreak that Raptors fans had to endure. Canada was becoming a basketball country before our very eyes. And the proof was in the thousands that stormed out to the streets of Toronto, to participate in a once-in-a-lifetime frenzy that many reckoned to be impossible.
Unforgettable Moment Witnessing Toronto Raptors Procession
I got to University Avenue just past nine in the morning. Nathan Philips Square was filled to the brim and many more were lining up on the streets where the parade would pass by. I was lucky enough to get a spot right near the front, to witness the procession proceed through.
It would take four hours before the parade arrived. All throughout the wait, the crowd got to witness the newly-anointed “Plant Guy,” someone with “chips and dip”, and cheer “Let’s Go Raptors” at the top of their lungs. Red and purple smoke blazed the scene when the Raptors championship buses slowly came through to meet the rowdy fans. First, it was Grand Marshal and Raptors superfan Nav Bhatia, waving his white towel. Then, the sound management of Masai Ujiri and rookie head coach Nick Nurse.
It culminated with the players, those who sacrificed their body and mind to put forward an inspiring product of basketball. Kyle Lowry with his Damon Stoudemire jersey holding the Larry O’Brien Trophy. Danny Green conducting a “Let’s Go Raptors” chant. Serge Ibaka and Fred VanVleet smoking cigars. Drake observing the crowd in disbelief and awe. Kawhi holding up his second NBA Finals MVP. And finishing with Pascal Siakam, spraying the crowd with beer and champagne.
It was a painting out of a fantasy novel. There were those who had recently become fans of basketball. And others like myself, who have followed the Toronto Raptors all throughout the team’s peaks and troughs. A father who brought his young children said it was one of the “greatest moments of his life.”
A scene like this could not get more perfect.
To avoid the commotion of fans trying to watch the rally at Nathan Philips Square, I went inside the nearby Sheraton Hotel. I was gassed and desired to view the commemorative speeches in a calmer atmosphere.
Energy and excitement turned into utter chaos. People stormed through the hotel at a lightning pace. Fear and worry was visible on every single one of their faces.
“Get down,” people were exclaiming.
I was in the hotel’s restaurant and was moved to the backroom exit to take cover. No one had any idea what was going on. The minutes in that room, entrenched with worried individuals, felt like hours. There were tears streaming down people’s faces. Mothers were screaming to make sure their kids were safe. Something terrible had clearly happened.
Updates soon came in on social media. There was a shooting in Nathan Philips Square. The ceremony had been paused. A scene of jubilation became one of tremendous anxiety. Would more violence occur or was this just a one-time incident?
What would subsequently transpire demonstrated proper action in the face of tragedy. With gunfire breaking out, one reaction may have been to suspend the ceremony entirely. Or remove the political dignitaries and Raptors personnel from the stage. But this would ultimately stoke more fear within the crowd that was on the precipice of stampeding out of the square.
Matt Devlin, the Raptors play-by-play announcer and the emcee for the ceremony, displayed tremendous calm in a treacherous situation. He told the crowd to “stay together” and remain calm during this emergency.
“This is about love, it’s about rejoicing,” Devlin told an estimated one million people gathered city hall’s public square.
The Toronto Raptors Spirit Lives On
The situation was dealt with immediately by first responders. The ceremony marched on. The crowd at Nathan Philips Square returned to its lively exuberance. The players would get the opportunity to thank the fans for their support all throughout this historic run. And Kawhi Leonard would get the last laugh, mimicking the awkward chuckle at his Toronto Raptors introduction that sent social media awry.
A vigorous celebration would unfortunately forever be marred by a senseless act of violence. Four individuals would be sent to hospital with serious, non-life threatening injuries. A day that will change these Raptors fans’ lives forever for all the wrong reasons.
The true heroes were the first responders. As well as those involved in making the decision to keep the ceremony going, quashing the fear of individuals in the area. No violent act was going to prevent the city of Toronto and the country of Canada from showing their love towards the Toronto Raptors. The accomplishment that this team achieved transcended the meaning of sports.
Canada isn’t perfect, neither is Toronto. But communities from coast to coast could escape their present challenges to unite in their spirit and passion for the Toronto Raptors and basketball.
“Man, it was a great experience. Everybody off the court was great,” said Kawhi Leonard during the parade. “The fans, just meeting people in Canada. It’s been fun.”
Everyone present at the parade will never be the same. Toronto showed great resiliency. And the Raptors are now forever etched into the Canadian identity.