I started loving sports before I can rightly remember. My dad famously took me to my first Blue Jays game when I was just three and a half years old — he tells it as Clemens vs Stieb in 1989, the year that the SkyDome opened in Toronto — though a quick Baseball Reference search reveals that those two titans never actually faced one another that season.
I do remember it vividly though, and not just because I still have the souvenir bat.
I remember wandering around the concourse. I remember being gifted a plush Domer, the new stadium mascot with the wildly unfortunate name.
I remember my favourite player, George Bell, being so far away that I couldn’t see him. I remember asking my dad, “Why can’t I see him like on TV?”
I even remember the two Statler and Waldorf type old men sitting next to us, who encouraged me to wildly swing said souvenir bat around and goaded me to toss it off the 200 level onto unsuspecting heads below. (My dad quickly intervened.)
I remember it all, because I was there. I remember it all because I became a fan that day.
When the Toronto Raptors franchise was born, I was beyond excited. In the years since my first SkyDome experience, I’d become a full blown sports obsessive. It helped that the Blue Jays won back-to-back World Series and that the Maple Leafs had visited back-to-back Conference Finals in my formative years — Toronto was a sports mad town in the early 90s.
The Raptors tipped off in late 1995 and Damon Stoudamire captured my heart. A fond recollection of staying up late with my radio turned down low, under my covers, listening to the fledgling Dinos topple the soon to be 72-10 Chicago Bulls is one of my favourite childhood memories. It was the beginning of that well-documented tumultuous early Raptors run — Damon and Camby, Vince and T-Mac, a first sniff of the playoffs and everything in between.
One of the things I remember most, though, is sharing those memories with my dad.
My dad didn’t really care about basketball. He was a big Jays and Leafs fan. He grew up a tennis player and by the mid-90’s, had gotten deep into golf. But he loved how excited I was about it all. We would sit together and swap stories — I would tell him about whatever was happening in the world of the Raptors and he would tell me his memories of the Leafs and Jays of yesteryear, the close calls and missed opportunities.
He was particularly chafed by the fact that the Leafs won three Stanley Cups in his lifetime, but he remembered none of them, as they all happened before he turned five years old. He would joyfully tell me about the Summit Series, which happened when he was just nine years old, and the Canada Cups that followed it. But while they seemed wonderful, you could hear the wistfulness in his voice when discussing the Leafs. I remember asking him if my grandfather, an Irish immigrant and rabid Leafs fan, remembered the Cup wins better and if they had ever talked about them. If he had ever gotten to experience them that way.
“Oh, probably,” he said. “But Grandpa wasn’t big on details.”
Either way, whether it was in person or on the phone, some of my favourite memories are just us talking and talking, with no end to the conversation in sight.
I remember him taking us to the Dome again, but this time to see the Raptors play. I remember getting to see a sneak preview of Space Jam that he’d scored through work and being the envy of my class at school. Stuff that he didn’t have a ton of interest in but that he knew my brother Pat and I would love. Those things meant a lot to me then but looking back, they mean so much more, given everything that is happening now. They were the seed of something that has become such a large part of my life.
You see, my dad and my mom split up shortly after that first SkyDome trip in 1989. My brother was only a year old and I was just over four. Despite all the good things that have happened since and despite a Herculean effort from my father and especially my mother to make things relatively normal, that kind of early event is something that becomes a bastion of your life. It shapes everything from there forward. It becomes a part of who you are.
Sports, for me, became my way to bond with my father. Instinctually, I knew that he loved them and I knew that it would keep us close as we got older. I’m not saying that was a conscious decision that I made — or was it? It’s hard to know, this far removed from the moment. All that matters is that I sensed that passion in him and did my best to mirror it; he saw it in me and did what he could to nurture it.
Basketball and the Raptors became the first time I knew more about a sport than him. The first time I could sit and talk and he would listen and ask me questions, as if I were the expert. And unlike my grandfather, I became big on details.
And as we sit here, with the Toronto Raptors leading the Golden State Warriors 3-1, on the precipice of greatness, the very doorstep of history, I can’t help but think back to those early Raptors memories. Of Damon and Camby, Vince and T-Mac. Of games in the SkyDome. Of players refusing to report. Of Bosh and Jose, hell, even of Andrea and Hedo. All of it, every last second of anguish and frustration and joy and catharsis — it was all our version of that first trip to the SkyDome together.
It was the fire that forged us together as fans.
Some of you (precious few, I’d imagine) may have noticed that I haven’t written much for Raptors HQ this season. My own son, John Norman Leverty Grant — Norman — was born back on November 7th, and he has joyfully, hilariously and wonderfully sapped much of my free time, which has meant I’ve had less time to spend with all of you.
When this playoff run began to seem like something special — after Kawhi’s shot bounced four times, after the tide began to turn in Games 3 and 4 against Milwaukee — I sat down with Norman, just before his bedtime. I’d finished reading him a story and giving him his bottle. As he sat there, sleepy-eyed, as friends waited downstairs to watch Game 5 with Emma and I, I hugged him close, leaned in and whispered:
“Someday I’ll tell you about all of this.”