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On the Raptors making the NBA Finals, and family

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The Raptors making the Finals helped close up a decade-old wound. Sports, man.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

On April 4th, 2010, I could have done something else. It was a weekend afternoon in high school — surely there was a Wii in a friend’s basement I would have been welcome to play, or a laid back set of parents opening up their house to a bunch of idiot 12th graders looking to be idiot 12th graders. To be 17 is to spread yourself thin socially. There were options that day.

The plan I landed on didn’t involve any of my high school pals. It involved my best friend, my Grandpa Jack.

***

A few months earlier, my family decided to go out for Christmas dinner. It was an executive decision from the higher-ups — mom and grandma — after they deemed cooking a turkey was too much of a damn chore, and it’d be worth transferring the group of 15 or so who’d come to our place every year to a restaurant up the street. It was an unremarkable meal, from what I recall. The turkey didn’t taste like grandma’s, the stuffing was a little soggy, there were sides, I’m sure, but I couldn’t tell you what they were. Amidst all the positively normal Christmas dinner-isms — chit-chat, drinks, cheap crackers, bad jokes and stupid paper crowns — took place an oddity that was easy to miss if your attention was elsewhere around the table: Grandpa Jack, strapping, 6-foot-2, no stranger to a large meal, with a salt shaker in hand, straining, but unable to lift it. I’ll never forget the look on his, nor my grandmother’s face.

Six days later, on New Year’s Eve, Grandpa Jack had surgery to remove a brain tumor.

Though everything happened fast, every day in the hospital was eternal. The operation went well, but the cancer was discovered too late. Grandpa’s hospital bed was eventually moved to his bedroom at home. You could have used that development as a source of optimism; in reality, it signaled the fast approaching end. Quality of life, and all that.

A tag team of nurses, plus my grandma, mom and uncle tended to him around the clock. Bad days outnumbered good ones. Nerves frayed. There were too many tearful breakdowns to count. We’d try to trick ourselves into thinking each decent day, every joke Grandpa Jack mustered, and every deescalation of pain was the first step towards recovery. But with the knowledge that the cancer had spread well beyond grandpa’s brain, the tick-tick-ticking of his clock grew louder.

That’s the sound I heard ringing in my ears on that early April evening. It’s the sound that prompted one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. Instead of doing something with my friends that I’d forget by Monday, I opted to put my recently acquired G2 to use, told my dad I was taking his car, and made the Oshawa to Pickering drive to spend the night hanging out with one of my favourite people, someone who I knew I wouldn’t have many more nights with.

I caught him on a good day. He was alert, his voice breaking through the rasp that typically prevailed. And he put it to good use.

We talked. Man, did we ever talk. About how he was feeling, though he never let on just how much agony he was in, at least not around me. About the end of high school, my move to Ottawa to study journalism at Carleton coming up in September, and about how proud he was of me for that. About my grandma, and their 40-plus years together. But more than anything, we talked about what was on the TV in front of us: the Toronto Raptors, playing a game against the team they’ll square off against in Game 1 of the Finals this Thursday, the Golden State Warriors.

Before you read on, take a second to soak in this box score. These are now two Finals teams. Wild.

Grandpa Jack is the reason my mood is so intrinsically tied to how well the sports teams I like are doing. Every game we’d watch together, every phone call talking about some bit of pressing sports news — “can you believe the Jays got Troy Glaus?!” — and every live game attended drove the roots of my sports nuttery deeper. One time at a Blue Jays game, he locked eyes with Ozzie Guillen, then an outfielder for the Rays, and had him soft toss a baseball my way. More than the Leafs or the Jays though, our real shared love was for basketball, and the Raptors.

He was there for the first Raptors game I can remember attending. Toronto hosted Milwaukee on January 14th, 2000. On the GO Train ride from Pickering, all gramps could talk about was how great Ray Allen was. He was a Raps fan, but more than anything he just loved good basketball.

“Give and go, that’s what it’s all about,” he’d say. I’m glad he got to watch Steph Curry lay the hurt on the Raptors that night when we sat and talked and watched. He would’ve been a weepy puddle, aghast at the beauty of Curry at his giving-and-going peak.

All that talk of Allen, “the best shooter alive,” had me wondering if choosing to hitch my wagon to the Raptors was a horrible mistake.

Vince Carter squashed those notions right quick.

Our arrival to the game was delayed by some engine trouble on the train. We found our seats, about 30 rows behind the Raptors basket, with just a couple minutes to play in the first half. Vince already had 23 points. I was heartbroken to have missed his first half outburst.

Surely sensing the disappointment of seven-year-old me, Carter came out for the second half and upped his output, dropping another 24 in the second half to lead the Raptors to a 115-110 win. He capped his 47-point night with a windmill slam — the type only he could pull off. Grandpa was elated. I was absolutely, hopelessly hooked.

Sixteen months later, I found myself once again in my favourite place in the world: at the Air Canada Centre, watching the Raptors, Grandpa Jack shepherding me through it all. This time we were about 25 rows back, just left of centre court, and the Raptors were fighting to stay alive in Game 6 against the Sixers. The hug we shared as the final buzzer sounded and Herbie Kuhn declared that the Raptors had won was surely the heartiest we ever shared. Until nine years later, that is.

As we watched Chris Bosh drag the bag of meat that was his supporting cast along that night in the spring of 2010, the sense of encroaching finality in that bedroom was two-pronged. That ended up being Bosh’s second-last game with Toronto. It was fitting that he spent it doing everything he could to will the Raptors to win only to fall just short — his 42 points and 13 boards nearly powered Toronto, down nine after three, to a comeback win, but they fell a point shy. Neither I nor my grandpa knew Bosh would be gone for sure that summer. But come on, we knew. And neither of us knew for sure that when I left that night, and gave him the kind of hug that only Vince used to inspire, that we’d never watch a Raptors game together again. But come on, we knew.

Grandpa Jack passed away the morning of April 30th. At his funeral, I gave a eulogy and said goodbye to my best friend. Without realizing it, I also said goodbye to my infatuation with the Raptors that day, too.

Bosh leaving for Miami sucked. It left me disenchanted, and more than anything, pissed off at the Raptors for failing to build around him so miserably. I tried to keep the spirit of my fandom alive early on in the following season, even coming home in late October to see the Raptors host the Cavs in the second game of the season.

What a fucking bummer of a game it was. Linas Kleiza led the Raptors in shot attempts, Bargs in points. Late-stage Anthony Parker, Jamario Moon and Joey Graham all suited up for Cleveland. The Raptors won 101-81, but everyone in that building lost. I love my little brother to death, but to his credit, his mind isn’t sports poisoned. He was 15, and was understandably unmoved by Ramon Sessions starting for the Cavs and going 1-of-10 from the floor. I could feel my heart no longer being in it, especially without Grandpa Jack there sitting next to me. He would’ve at least had some high praise for Reggie Evans and his 14 rebounds.

Being in Ottawa for school, where basketball was tertiary at best, gave me an excuse to leave the Raptors behind. I threw myself deep into the NFL, and back into the Leafs. I can’t say I regret skimming through the Triano years, though the Ron Wilson Leafs teams weren’t exactly fun to follow, either.

It wasn’t until the winter of 2013, two and a half seasons of detachment after losing the origin point of my fandom, that I got the itch to give a damn about the Raptors again, as the notification of the Rudy Gay trade — not the good one — popped up on my phone as I sat in Oliver’s pub at Carleton.

“You’re meaning to say the Raptors just got the guy I’ve been mad about them not taking first-overall for the last seven years?” I said, if not out loud then internally. “Count me back in.”

Tracing my arc as fan from there is pretty easy. Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, 50 wins every year — one or two tortuous playoffs losses a year aside, supporting the Masai Ujiri-era Raptors hasn’t exactly been laborious work.

The ease of rooting for them hasn’t made it any less rewarding, of course. Considering how futile Raptors fandom seemed at times during the aughts (I still hope Kevin O’Neill gets his breakfast order screwed up every day of his life), it’s been entirely refreshing to support a team that isn’t a hot mess all the freaking time. That I’ve gotten to cover the last four seasons in a community like this one has only amplified the joy.

Still, until this playoff run, there was something missing.

Sports fans constantly yearn for someone to stew in their irrationality with. It’s why sites like this exist, and why we keep going back to the hell website to fire off tweets about Kawhi’s brilliance and Kyle Lowry’s caboose. But there’s a little more heft when that person is someone you love. It was the force that made Grandpa Jack and I so damn close. He was my touchstone, the only guy in the room who understood my insanity in the face of sports happenings, because he was going through it right along with me.

When he died I lost my most counted on sounding board, the person I’d call to shoot the breeze about trades or stats or big games after my friends and family had already tuned my rambling ass out. My uncle — his son — has been that person for me in moments. We go to games together, and I love him to bits. But our sensibilities clash at times; our sports chats often devolving into a low-rent Pardon the Interruption. We love each other as much as we love to yell at each other. It’s not bad or good — it’s just how our relationship works. (Although even he’s softened on his Kyle Lowry opinions during this run, and has reveled in it as much as anybody).

My parents, bless their hearts, were always the ones who bore the brunt of my one-dimensionality. The following script may have repeated itself a thousand times when I was between the ages of 4 and 16.

Mom: Hey Sean, how was school?

Me: Did you see the goal Mats Sundin scored last night? He’s so good.

Mom: Good talk.

Dad: Want to go for a hike?

Me: Can’t, have to watch Gustavo Chacin make this late-July start against the Twins. Did you know he has a sub-3.00 ERA since May 15th?

Dad: ...

It’s not as though my parents were anti-sport. They tried to listen and understand their blabbering and afflicted son. My dad went to as many games with me as anyone. They just had lives, and other kids, and like ... bills to pay. They’d get semi-geeked up for playoff runs, but would go through the six stages of bad loss grief at a stage-per-minute clip.

Something changed in them this year, though. And I don’t think it’s a coincidence that it happened in line with the arrival of Kawhi Leonard. Over the course of the season, the texts from my parents during games would get increasingly more fan-ish. I started hosting a weekly radio show talking basketball, and they tuned in every week. It seemed to stoke the embers of the lunatic sports fan buried deep within them. My mom would learn what new terms meant. Nothing gives me more glee than when she texts me to remind me it’s “garbage time” when Chris Boucher is on the floor. I’m pretty sure she’s aware of the cult of Lowry’s booty. My dad texts during games now, too. Ahead of Thursday’s Game 5, which I had to watch on a delay, I had to warn them both not to send me spoilers about the goings on. It’s certain they would have otherwise reached out to offer some quip on the first quarter, whether it had gone well or poorly. The next night I received a text from my dad, asking for tips on how to watch Game 6 in or around Jurassic Park.

A little context on how jarring this was to read: My parents still live in Oshawa, an hour’s train ride away from downtown Toronto. My dad has arthritis in his legs, and is a bad stumble away from a full blown knee replacement. My mom’s feet are endlessly barking. If you’re ever in need of an ice pack, go knock on my parent’s door. They also don’t really have friends — in fact, they pride themselves on it! They’re each other’s best bud, and that’s all they need. Their yard backs on to a ravine. They have a nice deck and a screened-in porch. Sitting out there with a drink is the closest you’ll ever find them to a bar. Crowds disgust them.

So you can imagine my surprise when they expressed a desire to leave their comfort zone and trek into a space they would otherwise loathe simply because they were so in love with this year’s Raptors; this beautiful, resilient, unconscionably good basketball team. It moved me to the point of real, beady tears.

I met up with them before heading in to cover the game on Saturday to try and get them situated. Talking them out of standing for six hours on their creaky legs in the square proper was easy work. Finding an establishment that A) had space and B) wasn’t too scary for them was more tricky. With the help of my cousin and his girlfriend, they posted up at The Pint near Front and Blue Jays Way. The beaming pride I had when they texted me a picture with the table keg they’d just ordered could have blinded someone. They stayed there for five hours, texting me updates on their moods throughout. But as I expected they might try ro do, they left the bar with the Bucks up 15 to try and catch an early train home. They went radio silent as Kawhi Leonard single-handedly turned the game around in the final two minutes of the third quarter, and all throughout the uproarious fourth. I assumed they got on the train and were keeping tabs on the game from their phones. While a tad disappointed, I was proud they broke all their norms to come and be part of the moment at least in some way.

But then, at 11:17, six minutes after the final buzzer:

This text coinciding with Kyle Lowry’s ovation during the post game presentation was some cruel emotional battery. I was overcome, head in hands.

After just about every big Raptors win since 2013, one of the first thoughts to creep in my mind, like clockwork, is “damn, grandpa would have loved this.” He was right there in misery next to me the day Vince Carter got traded; we probably talked for an hour on the phone that night trying to get psyched for Alonzo Mourning, who Grandpa Jack assured me was very good. He would have appreciated the shit out of Kyle Lowry’s cerebral game, and would have been the first person I went to for consoling words after any of the losses to LeBron. Grandpa Jack was the first settler of It’s Fine Island. Tears would have surely flowed had he gotten to be part of this team’s journey all the way to the NBA Finals.

But in the minutes after Game 6, for the first time since April 30th, 2010, a huge Raptors triumph didn’t come with the accompany thoughts of my basketball-obsessed grandfather. Those came later, for sure, but what instantly popped to mind was something new.

“I’m so fucking happy mom and dad came down to see this.”

I was thrilled to have two people so close to me, who occupy the same, exclusive tier of love as Grandpa Jack did in my heart, finally understand the plight and payoff of being a fan of the Toronto Raptors to such a fanatical degree. It’s a connection that these Raptors — Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard and Pascal Siakam, Masai Ujiri and Nick Nurse, and every single other member of the team — are responsible for forging. The Raptors redemption tale has been long, unique and has now come full circle with their trip to the Finals. But they weren’t the only ones to find closure on Saturday night.