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Riding the Raptors bandwagon to the NBA championship

With millions of people in Canada celebrating the Raptors’ title run, we reflect on what it means to be in Toronto for such a momentous occasion — and what it means to be a fan of the team.

Toronto Raptors Victory Parade & Rally Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

On Monday I was at the Raptors championship parade, thinking about not being a basketball fan. I was in the middle of the throng on Bay street, squished in between a group of guys who had all taken the next 24 hours off work to do the maximum amount of celebrating possible, and a clutch of office friends who’d come down on their lunch break to catch a bit of the action. The office people were complaining about a coworker who’d been trying to make small talk with them about the Raptors. She probably doesn’t even know the name of a single player, one of the women snorted. The day-off guys on my other side nodded solemnly, one of them gesturing to the endless sea of humans — teens Juuling, dads sipping on Bud Light, a mom in a bucket hat live-streaming via selfie stick — that surrounded us. “I bet half of these people aren’t even real fans,” he said. Everyone agreed.

Listening to this conversation flashed me back to a kind of fear I’ve experienced twice in my life — first as a young punk, then as a young basketball fan: the irrational, overwhelming anxiety that my own personal fandom might be dug out of me, held up to the light and deemed unworthy by truer connoisseurs of the genre, who would know I didn’t know enough about the thing I loved to like it properly.

Compared to many NBA fans (including you, probably, if you’re reading this), I haven’t loved basketball for very long. For most of my childhood and adult life, any contact I had with professional sports came from running into it on the street. I shrank from passels of drunk hockey fans on the streetcar ride home, elbowed my way through swelling crowds in front of the ACC on my way to somewhere else, heard scores on the radio and felt them drift over my attention like music, signifying nothing. Sports seemed like a separate dimension running parallel to the world I lived in day-to-day, overlapping occasionally but operating essentially on its own terms.

This feeling hasn’t diminished since I became an NBA fan. In fact, the more I immerse myself in basketball, the more it feels like its own self-contained universe. Basketball has its own laws, its own history, its own politics and vocabulary, its own economy, news, celebrities, metrics and math, its own psychics and poets and mystics and gods and flawed mortals, its own stratified layers of myth. If it wasn’t tethered to the rest of the earth by time and physical space, it might float away entirely.

This, I think, is why the relationship between a city and a team actually matters, beyond generic boosterism or cynical pandering. A team’s physical location binds its life to the life of the world outside of it. The history of a franchise is by no means the entire history of a city, but the story of a team does double as a kind of core sample of the place where it lives, a narrative arc that tracks with (or resonates against) its city’s growth and change.

I thought about this often through the NBA Finals this year, watching the Golden State Warriors play out their last days at Oracle Arena before they leave Oakland for San Francisco. I thought about it, too, as I greedily consumed every single personal essay written about the Raptors as they got closer and closer to the title. I loved how the story of the team, for so many people, was the story of childhood, of family, of growing up. Talk to any sports fan about their relationship with their favourite team and you will, of course, learn something about their life, their preferences, their values, and the things that bring them joy. But a large portion of the Raptors’ fan base have followed the team since its literal inception; they named it the way a child might name a pet (and with the same logic). It makes sense that the story of the Raptors would feel not just connected to, but inextricable from, the story of their lives.

The first time I felt the life of any sports team overlap with my own was during the Blue Jays’ 2015 playoff run. In my memory this season glows lavender and orange, the end of summer burning off. I remember walking through Parkdale at civil twilight during a game, hearing the sound of cheering echo between bars as the streetlights switched on. I remember people spilling out onto the streets after games, all talking together about the same thing. For the length of that series, the city seemed charged and shimmering with collective energy — an unpredictable, loose joy that made everything continuous. I remember feeling both lifted out of the place I knew, and delivered into the heart of something true about it.

This was the dimension of sports lining up with the life of the city — each lending the other its depth — but I didn’t know that yet. For a long time, I didn’t even think of that story as sports-related. Instead, it was a part of my own personal mythology about the kinds of magic Toronto is capable of producing at its best. I thought of that Blue Jays run the same way I thought of the 2003 blackout, where my father and I walked the dog through Trinity Bellwoods park against a purple sky and watched our neighbours gathering on the grass, making disaster into a party. I thought of the first Nuit Blanche, where I drifted around downtown half-stoned, and realized in a gold rush how few things you had to do to turn this city into art.

It is a gift and a privilege to see a familiar thing made new. As much as I loved hearing about the personal histories of longtime Raptors fans throughout these playoffs, I loved watching people get into the game for the first time even more. I saw friends who had never watched a single game all the way through white-knuckling the table as the ball bounced four times on the rim; I watched them screaming reflexively when the clock finally ran out on Game 6. Watching everyone immediately access the emotional arc of these games confirmed for me that there is something essential about this sport — and about this Raptors team, specifically — that extends beyond box scores and narrative. Something that you can immediately immerse yourself in without having to know a single statistic, or even the names of the players.

Every new basketball fan is a poet. Their perspective is invaluable, and right now the city is full of them. When you’re not yet used to the formal conventions of the game, you see them clearer, appreciate their strangeness. My friend Haley, watching the Finals, said that sports are “the only thing (besides real life) you can watch and not know what’s going to happen.” I was thinking about this as I left the parade early on Monday, a few hours before the buses got to Nathan Phillips Square. I’d stood in the sun for too long and the throbbing crowd was starting to make me queasy; I got on the subway feeling regretful. When I emerged, blinking, my neighbourhood was Rapture-empty, sun-bleached and silent. I got home and took a nap, and when I woke up it was evening. The light outside was golden, falling. Every solid surface looked translucent, like you could put your hand right through.

I got on my bike and pedaled up to the park where I practice my terrible jump shot, ever since the Catholic school around the corner took their hoops down. On my way, I saw kids out on their front lawns in Raptors jerseys — Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard, two different signifiers, two different kinds of history. When I got to the park there was a pickup game already going, so I laid my bike down in the grass and watched. Everyone was playing joyfully, hard. One guy in particular was magnetically talented; you only had to look for about ten seconds to recognize it. I sat there in the grass and watched for a full half hour, mesmerized the way true good basketball can mesmerize you, as he floated weightless layup after layup against the streaky blue-pink sky.

I thought about convergence, about the porousness of certain borders. Toronto is a crowded city. The boundaries between us are flimsy at best, often totally fictional. Our walls are thin, our subways are packed, sound carries; sometimes it can feel (for better or worse) like you are living inside your neighbours’ lives. This can be frustrating, but it also means it takes very little to turn this city continuous with itself, make it shimmer. All we need is space, permission, and a spark.

The Raptors have given us all three. The team is a franchise, and the NBA is a corporation, but there is something about the collective experience that has taken hold of this city during these Finals that floats out beyond the reach of any single organization or enterprise; that has the potential to settle across your summer, turn everything see-through. Maybe we can find a way to let that feeling dissolve into the rest of the season — to align this moment with our lives a while longer, before all of it starts to feel real, and then like history, then myth. Enjoy this moment, said Fred VanVleet in the parade. You never know what happens next. For now, at least, that’s the best part.