Writer, Stefano Schiavone
It’s difficult to describe 2019 in Canadian sports as anything other than a year of champions. From the St. Louis Blues’ Canadian-dominated roster winning the Stanley Cup (sort of a given in hockey), to 19-year-old Bianca Andreescu’s meteoric rise to win the US Open, Canada had a banner year in sports. Yet, what makes that even more unbelievable was the one sport in which a Canadian team came out on top as the world champion, and in doing so completely took over this nation: basketball.
I know, right? Basketball?
While the Toronto Raptors being NBA champions is still slightly unfathomable, their win means so much more than just sports. The reason why the Toronto Raptors winning the Larry O’Brien Trophy matters is because of what this team and its run meant to Canada. It’s not just about the Raptors becoming the first non-American team to win the NBA Playoffs. It’s about the unity of this nation to support a team that prides itself on representing this country. The Raptors’ championship run this past year was something we’ve really never seen before, and it deserves a look back.
Starting the 2010s, the Raptors were barely relevant in Toronto, let alone all of Canada. Losing seasons led to dismal attendance; the departure of Chris Bosh left a major hole in the team’s roster; and overall the team, and sport, struggled to gain any kind of interest with potential fans. But under the leadership of Masai Ujiri and stars Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan, the Raptors became not only successful but a consistent playoff team.
And their success bred a rabid fanbase that quickly grew in numbers, inspired by the team’s “We The North” campaign. Merchandise with the slogan became bestsellers around the nation while the viewing parties in the square outside the then-Air Canada Centre’s doors (lovingly nicknamed Jurassic Park) became a go-to event in the city.
Yet Toronto hit a wall, repeatedly. Playoff failure became increasingly more common and heartbreaking. So, Ujiri made controversial changes, firing Head Coach Dwayne Casey and trading away fan-favourite DeRozan for an undisputed superstar in Kawhi Leonard. Leonard’s arrival brought questions about his time here, arriving after a devastating leg injury and in the final year of a contract. But, for the first time, Raptors fans across the country had legitimate championship aspirations and expectations.
The Raptors were great in the regular season, but playoff excellence was the real goal. Though they lost Game One against Orlando, they quickly dispatched of the Magic and faced the Philadelphia 76ers in the Second Round, providing basketball fans in this country with one of the greatest moments in sports history this century: Kawhi’s buzzer-beater.
5.5 million Canadians watched the decisive Game Seven, which provided Toronto with incredible momentum heading into the Eastern Conference Finals against NBA MVP Giannis Antetokunmpo and the favourites Milwaukee Bucks.
Toronto faced a challenge early against Milwaukee, losing two straight away games, but rallied to win four straight, including an emotional, series-clinching Game Six in Toronto. Raptors fans across the country celebrated Canada’s first-ever trip to the NBA Finals, while the team itself prepared to face the defending champions Golden State Warriors, with Game One in Toronto only days away. While the Raptors weren’t completely counted out, many predicted the Warriors would once again win the Finals for the third year in a row.
May 30th signalled Game One and the beginning of the 2019 NBA Finals, and the first Finals outside of the U.S. Viewing parties were organized in Toronto and in cities across Canada (except in Vancouver, of course), and the day ended with the Raptors defending home-court in a raucous Scotiabank Arena. But with the team losing Game Two, the Finals became a best-of-five series heading to California.
While some saw the Raptors losing Game Two as the signal that they couldn’t hang with the Warriors, the team itself did not. Toronto took Games Three and Four in Oakland, shocking Golden State fans and many in the basketball world. And, most importantly, they were heading back to Toronto with the opportunity to win the championship in Canada. It sounded too good to be true.
And… it kinda was.
The Raptors and their fans, leading with three minutes left and bolstered by Leonard’s excellent play, could practically taste the championship. The championship victory was going to happen, and Scotiabank Arena, Jurassic Park (the team’s viewing party outside the arena) and all of Canada could barely contain their excitement.
Then came the Warriors. After losing star Kevin Durant earlier in the game to injury (at which point a vocal contingent of Raptors fans inside the arena cheered), Golden State’s stars Steph Curry and Klay Thompson took advantage of a Toronto timeout and rallied to take a late lead, and a last-second block by Draymond Green on Kyle Lowry took Game Five away from the Raptors. And so, onto Oakland.
Game Six was another tight contest between the league’s best, and even without Durant, the Warriors showed the championship-level of play that propelled their recent destiny. Lowry played the game of his life when it mattered the most for Toronto; Leonard delivered the calm excellence expected of him; and players like Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, and Serge Ibaka were critical in warding off the Warriors, even after Klay Thompson also fell to injury in the third quarter. And with a 114-110 victory, the Raptors became the champs. Canada became the champs.
In Oracle Arena, Raptors celebrated in front of a crowd of fans singing ‘O Canada.’ In Toronto, thousands migrated out of Jurassic Park and cheered into the early hours of June 14th. All across Canada, Raptors fans went wild with the country’s first championship since 1993. And a few days later, 1 million fans came out to Downtown Toronto to celebrate the championship parade, with nearly 100,000 packing the heart of the ceremony, Nathan Phillips Square.
It was here, in the celebrations after their final victory on June 13th, that everything the Raptors represent to Canada became visualized: swarms of fans proudly showing off “We The North” merchandise, fans of all ages and backgrounds celebrating together, and an untamed passion for a team whose journey resonated all across this nation.
The 2019 Raptors championship run didn’t just represent a franchise reaching the pinnacle of the NBA. It showed us so much more. This run brought this country incredible images of sporting achievement, tremendous memories of celebration and passion, and a national unity through which little could break us apart. In this run, Canada came together as one in a way never seen before. And it came because of basketball.