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Tales from the Raptors’ Bandwagon

Watching a city embrace basketball in real time has been a surreal experience

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NBA: Finals-Golden State Warriors at Toronto Raptors
Toronto, Ontario, CAN; A view of \”Jurassic Park\” before game two of the 2019 NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena. Mandatory Credit: Peter Casey
Peter Casey-USA TODAY Sports

I moved north of the border to Toronto just over a year ago. And as fortune would have it, my first year in the fourth largest city in North America has been easily the biggest in the history of Canadian basketball.

Consider that mere days after I arrived in my new, overpriced apartment (thanks Toronto rent!), Duke announced its summer exhibition tour through Canada. National treasure RJ Barrett and soon-to-be No. 1 overall draft pick Zion Williamson proceeded to put on a show in both Toronto and Montreal which, combined with a plethora of other Canadian talents in the NCAA (including Michigan’s Iggy Brazdeikis, Florida State’s Mfiondu Kabengele, and Arizona State’s Lugentz Dort, among others), led to the most Canadian interest in American college basketball in recent memory. (It also contributed to more than a few comedic moments when Canadian NBA analysts were forced into spot duty as college basketball analysts, and more often than not quite quickly revealed their naivety to the college game.)

But the biggest moment came in July when the Toronto Raptors made the most daring move of the NBA offseason, trading for superstar Kawhi Leonard despite him having only a year left on his contract, and no reported interest in staying in Toronto. The media was torn: Demar DeRozan was beloved across the country and had committed to the franchise, and was conspicuously hurt by being traded for Leonard. But most agreed that Kawhi provided the team’s best chance at making it to the NBA Finals now that LeBron had left the Eastern Conference.

Now, despite just now living in Canada, I am a Canadian citizen (dual citizenship has its perks). I grew up visiting my grandparents in London, my cousins in Grand Bend on Lake Huron, and extended family and friends in Toronto. I was well versed with TSN (the Canadian equivalent of ESPN) and SportsCentre (note the spelling!), and knew that sports coverage in Canada consisted 75% of hockey whether there was snow on the ground or not. So it was fascinating to slowly watch as an entire country, driven by Kawhi-mania, fell in love with the Raptors.

With each regular season win, more and more Raptors analysis made it onto the airwaves. Jay and Dan, the comedic duo who are the primary SportsCentre hosts, had a running gag of “Did Kawhi Play?” every night as he dealt with “load management”. Every word from Kawhi was poured over for potential hints as to his offseason plans. And, slowly but surely, more and more people were simply talking about the Raptors, and in turn basketball, around town.

Now, I’ve never been one for bandwagon fandom: my allegiances are die-hard to my Detroit teams and my alma maters, Duke and Michigan. The most I’ve ever strayed is becoming a Patriots fan due to my love of Michigan man Tom Brady (and the perpetual incompetence of the Lions). But, as playoff time came around, I must confess: I became a bandwagon Raptors fan.

Can you blame me? Duke had just suffered one of the more heartbreaking ends to a season in recent memory. Meanwhile, my Detroit teams are all in various states of rebuilding; even the Pistons’ stay in the playoffs lasted just long enough to get swept. So as Toronto caught Raptors’ fever, so did I.

And what a ride it’s been! When the beloved Maple Leafs bowed out of the Stanley Cup Playoffs in Game 7 of their first round series (to Boston, a team now in the Finals), I expected the city to go into the mourning period that is almost law in any Canadian city at the end of hockey season. But the Raptors were still alive, and playing exciting basketball, keeping the city’s collective energy from plummeting. Kawhi’s shot to win Game 7 against Philadelphia in the second round will go down as an all-timer. The Raptors were written off as dead after going down 0-2 to Milwaukee and the Greak Freak, but came storming back. And now, after being given almost no shot to dethrone Golden State in the NBA Finals, Toronto is one win away from bringing a championship north.

Throughout it all there’s been a tangible air of excitement throughout the city. Raptors gear is everywhere. After every victory I can hear hooting and hollering down my street. Heck, the Raptors even adopted their own version of K-ville, with patrons standing in line for days just to watch games outside the arena in a communal venue known as “Jurassic Park”.

I’ve written a lot, both here and for The Chronicle way back when, about the power of sports to create community. Living in Toronto this past year has been like observing a sociological experiment probing this theory first hand. And few would argue how successful it’s been. The city is all but shutting down in preparation for Game 5 tonight, and you couldn’t go a block today without seeing a Raptors jersey or hearing a spontaneous “Go Raps Go” chant. And, in their best K-ville impression, they’re camping out in the rain to enter Jurassic Park.

I’ve never been a bandwagon fan until now. But I want the Raptors to win tonight so badly, just so that I can watch this city and my friends, many of whom are long-suffering Raptors fans, experience the euphoria of victory. If that makes me one of those reviled “bandwagoners”, than I’ll wear that badge with honor.

And as a bonus, I’ll never have to explain what would make me camp out for a basketball game to my Canadian friends ever again.

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