The crowd in Scotiabank Arena was on-point the entire game. Deafening chants of “Let’s Go Raptors” — at one point mercifully overwhelming Game Ops’ asinine insistence of trying to make “This is Our House” happen — shook the building.
The cries of “De-Fense” came at exactly the right moment. Chants of “Danny”, “Freddy”, and “Lowry” rocked down from the upper bowl. The inevitable ‘M-V-P’ for Kawhi was heard too. Really all that was missing was a bespoke celebration for Pascal Siakam (I humbly suggest “Spi-cy, P!” to the tune of “Let’s Go Raptors”).
Even the “Ref, You Suck!” chants were on point, in that, for a game that was pretty damn well-officiated, they were largely left out of the proceedings.
It was a pump your fist, pound the railing, bounce-on-the-balls-of-your-feet-for-the-eternity-it-takes-a-Danny-Green-corner-three-to-splash-through-the-bucket, high-five your neighbour, and tell-the-guy-behind-you-who-was-bringing-the-bad-energy-into-the-building-to-stop-being-a-jinx kinda night.
It was sublime. It was breathtaking. It was also familiar.
For anyone who has been in the ACC/Scotiabank Arena, or hell even the old Skydome, during a big game it was something you had heard before. Something, that as far as Toronto sports experiences go, is rare. A crowd letting loose. All the “Toronto reserve” gone. The sound of a 20-thousand believers holding a roaring revival service in the cathedral of the game they love so much.
(It was also the least tense Raptors playoff crowd I can ever remember. It was almost as if the city had decided that there really was no way the Raps could lose, and so they felt no pressure. I mean, you either somehow beat the greatest dynasty since Michael Jordan, or, you lose to the greatest dynasty since Jordan. Winning would be better, sure, but what’s there to worry about?)
It also, again, sent the U.S. basketball media swooning.
Been covering the NBA Finals since (if memory serves me) 1986... and this is the most passionate scene I can recall in all those years. Oh Canada! pic.twitter.com/OMZduUXteS— Michael Wilbon (@RealMikeWilbon) May 31, 2019
The Raptors have had their champions in the U.S. for awhile now. Some of them are guys like Charles Barkley who bought in early on the team and city, and have been stanning for both ever since.
Some of them, I think, are members of the American public who are frustrated with their own country, and see in Canada, rightly or wrongly, a template for a better way, and so they want to like the Raptors for reasons that go beyond sports.
But, for a good chunk of the basketball world there is still the sense of surprise that Toronto is such an electric game-day experience. That a city in a foreign country can care so much about a game that has quietly become America’s true past-time. It’s not malicious, if anything they’re excited, they want to relay this passion back to their audiences. To say: “hey, do you see what’s happening here?” It’s what prompted LeBron’s famous moment with Doris Burke four years ago. It’s a legitimate surprise that somehow this game matters this much up here.
What the U.S. media, even the Barkleys, have never realized — hell, what the Canadian media outside this city — has never realized, is that basketball isn’t some exotic sport that Toronto stumbled upon and slowly learned to love. It wasn’t something that had to wrestle space in our hockey-loving hearts. Basketball has always had a place in our hearts, it’s been part of the fabric of the city since well before the NBA came back here.
Before the Raptors debuted there were kids shooting in driveways, dreaming each shot was winning the title. There were kids who lived and died with Reggie Miller’s Pacers, or the Run-TMC Warriors, or saw Hakeem reduce the Admiral into a molten pile of rubbish, or who desperately wanted to be Air Jordan, or who desperately wanted someone to beat Jordan.
New York is basketball Mecca. That’s fine. That’s right. But Toronto is a holy city for round-ball as well. Has it grown since the Raptors arrived? Yes. Has it surged since the Raptors started their current six season run of playoff basketball? Absolutely. But that love was always there. The GTA area’s playgrounds are full of kids hooping. We’re graduating players to the higher levels of basketball at a rate that compares, per capita, with almost any other major city. This isn’t just Jurassic Park, we’re building a Jurassic Kingdom.
What this Finals hopefully does, besides crown a King in the North, is show the rest of the world this isn’t some fad. This is not a brief infatuation with a team that will fade when the success ends. The Raptors are not some second team, like the Pelicans in New Orleans, or the Timberwolves in the Twin Cities.
Toronto has a deep and enduring wellspring of love for the game. The city has some of the most knowledgeable fans in the world. Any notion that Toronto can only be a hockey city is old and lazy. (To be clear, this is not some sort of hockey vs. basketball argument. That’s exactly beside the point. Toronto loves, and bleeds for, both.)
Toronto loves basketball. Toronto knows basketball. Toronto is one of the very best cities in the world to ply your trade as a basketball player, because of those facts — and a host of others that are more suited to a sociology piece or a travel guide. To be fair, for a few years, the insiders in the NBA, the basketball nerds on the internet, the hipster hoopsters had all recognized that Toronto was legit. That its place as a hoops hotbed was secure.
Now, the rest of the basketball world gets to see that on the biggest stage — the NBA Finals.
I hope that the people who love the game spend the next two weeks, whether Toronto wins or loses, witnessing the energy in the arena, watching the scene in Jurassic Park, and thinking that coming to see a Raptors game in Toronto should be on their bucket list.
From one group of people who have hoops in their veins to another, we say welcome. We’ll be happy to have you. You’ve got a home here too.