It was hard not to notice the line. Almost four hours before tip-off, Raptors fans were already snaking around the Scotiabank Arena, from the entrance to Jurassic Park in Maple Leaf Square, along the building’s southern edge, up Bay Street, across Front Street, all the way back to University Avenue and beyond. This, even as the humidity began to break and the clouds rolled in; and despite the day’s earlier rain and the thunderstorm warnings issued by Environment Canada.
Toronto would not be denied its day in the sun though. In the hour or so before the official start of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals, with the Raptors one win away from destiny, the thunderstorm warning was called off, every public space around the arena was filled, and Toronto was ready.
The game itself played out as many Raptors’ contests have so far this post-season. The team didn’t quite make it easy on themselves, falling into a 15-point hole, and looking every bit like a squad preparing for a seemingly inevitable Game 7. If you’d asked 100 people in Jurassic Park during the game’s first two and a half quarters, I suspect many — the majority even — would have said the Raptors were not coming back. The pain runs deep.
Ah, but this version of the Raptors has Kawhi Leonard. And even as those final seconds took seemingly forever to play out, the entirety of the fourth quarter began to feel like a coronation in Toronto. We, of course, should have believed they could turn things around. The Raptors, losers for 24 straight seasons, were suddenly winners. They’d made it. Toronto had arrived.
To people just paradropping into the city now — media members from outside the city, people from around the world watching at home — it’s hard to describe the feeling of downtown Toronto post-victory. The images beamed out on social media paint some kind of picture though, don’t they?
Can you tell the Raptors just made it to their first ever NBA final? pic.twitter.com/8OVpM22qJ2— huliä (@JuliaHoffe) May 26, 2019
As we took in the scene inside Scotiabank, with the confetti strewn about, with Masai Ujiri, Wayne Embry, Kawhi Leonard, and Kyle Lowry getting a turn on the microphone at centre court, those were just some of the scenes outside. It’s not an unfamiliar scene if you’ve been in, say, Little Italy during that country’s 2006 World Cup run, or if you remember the Blue Jays winning back-to-back World Series in 1992 and ‘93. But images of those experiences would show a different Toronto than the one we have now. And of course, those times never featured the Raptors.
A stroll across King Street West, even at as late an hour as three o’clock on still found revellers out and about. It was, at least in part, the normal scene on a Saturday night on that street, but now the energy was different. How could it not be? Earlier in the evening there had been celebrating on top of a city bus.
Even with the club scene of King, Richmond, and Adelaide radically different than when the Raptors came into existence, people still roamed the streets. There were people hanging out of car windows as they drove past. Jerseys of every type you could possibly imagine. Horns honking at random intervals. At least one couple making out like it was V-J Day in 1945. The vibe remained positive enough that I couldn’t even get mad at drivers ignoring the King Street Pilot traffic signage and turning restrictions. Truly a momentous occasion.
Now, not to get too much into my own feelings here, but it’s hard not to laugh in giddy relief while recalling all of this. The team I’ve watched and followed since I was 11 years old, the one that has been clawing its way towards legitimacy for the past near quarter century, is going to the NBA Finals. Just to say those words out loud feels insane — even though they are incontrovertibly true. My brother Dennis, a fan who has made this journey with me since he was just seven years old, went through just a sampling of all the tragedies that have befell the Raptors over 24 years. If he could have set fire to the following list — by no means even a complete accounting — as an exorcism, I’m sure he would have done it.
My walk last night continued across King Street West until Bathurst Street, where I live. I had to veer out of the party zone — yes, it had stretched all the way out to there. You wouldn’t believe the crowd outside of EFS on 3am, for example. (OK, you probably would). It was, as per usual, Raptors party central.
As I headed a few blocks north, one more truly unbelievable turn of events came my way. There on the street was Adam Francis, the original founder of this very site, Raptors HQ, who resides in Seattle now. He had just attended a wedding, one that was essentially put on hold so the bride, a Raptors fan, could watch her team make it to the mountain top. He and I embraced, dumbfounded and speechless. What were the odds we would find ourselves in that very moment, together, and revelling in the Raptors climb to the Finals?
”The city’s been waiting so long for this,” Adam said, those words carrying the weight of a million blog posts he’d written about Andrea Bargnani, about the 22-60 team, on Chris Bosh leaving, and Bryan Colangelo trying to talk us into Jermaine O’Neal. It was a turn of phrase that considered those foolhardy mid-00s playoff runs, the ones that never really had any hope of getting off the ground. They contained the history of cheering for nice guys like Jose Calderon and Ed Davis, for lamenting having to root for Hedo Turkoglu and Mike James. The scars inflicted on Toronto by LeBron James were in that sentiment too. We, the city, really had waited so long for this.
Eventually Adam disappeared into the night, and so did I. I pressed play on my iPod, the lyrics of Mac DeMarco’s “All Of Our Yesterdays” coming through loud and clear.
“And that don’t mean your dream is over
And that don’t make your heart beat slower
Such a shame to complain
When all of our yesterdays have gone away”
Then I jumped on a bus and returned home to sleep. Tomorrow, after all, was a new day in Toronto.