In the spirit of fully embracing the #WeTheNorth campaign, the Toronto Raptors continued their trend of playing exhibition games in various spots across Canada this year. They opened the preseason against the Sacramento Kings in Vancouver and closed it out on Friday night against the New York Knicks in Montreal.
I've been the definition of an NBA fanatic for more than two thirds of my 31 years on this planet. I grew up in Newfoundland, so I never got many opportunities to experience live basketball growing up. No, if you're wondering, I don't count that game that was supposed to take place between the Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers in St. John's, NL in 2003. You know, the one that got cancelled for condensation on the court. I was at the stadium and enjoyed watching Vince Carter and rookies LeBron James and Chris Bosh go through layup lines, but that didn't exactly quench my thirst for live NBA action.
As an adult, I now plan most of my trips around passing NBA cities and stadiums and making up for lost time. I moved to Montreal in 2007, so you can only imagine how excited I get every time the preseason schedule is announced for the NBA Canada Series and I get the chance to attend a live game in my own backyard. Of the four preseason NBA games that have taken place at the Bell Centre since 2010, I've been at all three of the games between the Raptors and the Knicks (and unfortunately missed the Minnesota Timberwolves and Boston Celtics last year for a wedding).
The funny thing about the Raptors being "Canada's team" is that it's kind of hard to tell when you're at a game in Montreal. I don't know if it's because Quebec doesn't typically consider itself "Canada's province" or because the Knicks just have so much large-market appeal, but I find the fandom pretty close to split at these games. Yes, there is a bit more excitement when the Raptors score or make a big play, but the cheers for the Knicks tend to be plenty loud as well.
Glancing into the stands, you'll find just as many Knicks jerseys as Raptors ones (although the vast majority of people were dressed neutrally and just looked happy to be there). Even the memorabilia kiosk had pretty divided allegiances, being about 60 percent Raptors gear, 30 percent Knicks, and 10 percent general NBA (with Los Angeles Clippers shirts, and hats for most of the bigger franchises).
Speaking of paraphernalia, there were about as many Vince Carter and Carmelo Anthony jerseys as you'd expect, but my personal favourite sightings were fans wearing Reggie Evans, Alvin Williams, Anthony Parker, and Morris Peterson (twice!) on their backs. Bonus points for the guy that converted a retro Vince Carter jersey into a Bruno Coboclo by covering up the name and the number one.
Before the game, the Knicks' Samuel Dalembert and Patrick Patterson from the Raptors welcomed fans to the game. Dalembert, the Haitian-Canadian who moved to Montreal at 14, got the bigger ovation of the two for addressing the crowd in French. There was even a section of 30 or so people in matching jumpsuits shown on the big screen holding a huge "Dalembert Nation" flag. Each of his 10 rebounds were met with plenty of love.
Speaking of French, props to Herbie Kuhn for calling a large part of the game en français. The use of "merci beaucoup" in place of "assisted by" was particularly endearing ("J-J-J-J-J-Jam! DeMar DeRozan, merci beaucoup Kyle Lowry!").
There were some fun cameos on the big screen throughout the night. Montreal Canadiens' goaltender Carey Price was in attendance and sitting courtside, as was NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo. Muggsy Bogues was also at the game, taking time during a timeout to walk around the court and throw miniature basketballs to fans in the lower bowl.
During halftime, a group of local children played a game of pickup on the big court, entertaining the crowd with their surprisingly proficient shooting for their size. Once the game was over, Raptors GM Masai Ujiri came to center court to present Basketball Québec with a donation by way of an oversized cheque. It was a nice gesture by the NBA to include the local community in the proceedings.
While the Bell Centre, the NBA, and the Raptors' mascot and Dance Pak did a fantastic job of keeping the fans entertained during game breaks, the players held up their end by keeping the on-court product close and exciting as well. The 20,738 spectators in attendance were on the edge of their seat until the final buzzer of the Raptors' 83-80 victory.
At the end of the game, I bought a t-shirt like the ones the Raps wore during warmups with "Le Nord, c'est nous" ("We the North" in French) on the front. It was a good memento of the experience and I particularly enjoyed the irony of the patriotic Canadian statement written in French.
As is always the case with these games in la belle province, the buzz around the city was all about whether or not Montreal could support an NBA franchise. Based on the rate of attendance and general rowdiness of the crowds at these contests and the exhibition MLB games the Toronto Blue Jays held here earlier this year, the city's hunger for another professional sports franchise is obvious enough. The Bell Centre seems perfectly capable of filling infrastructure needs, so an available franchise and a buyer with deep pockets might be the only missing pieces.
If Montreal does ever get an NBA franchise, you can bet I'll be in attendance (as an objective Raptors fan, of course).