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Parade Memories, or, The Longest Day: Inside Nathan Philips Square one year ago

Travel back in time to June 17, 2019, and the longest 10 hours in a Raptors fan’s life.

Toronto Raptors hold their victory parade after beating the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

One year ago today, I was baking in the heat in Nathan Philips Square. As I write this, just before noon, I’m thinking back to the same time last year. Nothing was happening. I mean, NOTHING. People were starting to wilt from the heat, and it was quiet. Nothing was happening on the stage. There were so many people in the area, cell towers were overloaded, so you couldn’t get a signal to send a text or find out what was going on in the rest of the world.

It was one of the longest days of my life.

I’m not a big crowds guy. I tend to avoid them. But, since this was the Toronto Raptors’ first ever NBA Championship parade, I knew I couldn’t possibly skip it.

My office is not far from Nathan Philips Square, so my plan was to head in there for about 7:30, catch up on some emails for an hour and a half or so, then head over to Nathan Philips Square around 9:00 a.m. The parade was supposed to arrive around 12:30, so I figured that would be plenty of time, and I could handle roughly four hours of standing.

[Cue the ominous music!]

So I’m on the subway around 6:45 a.m., and there are a lot of Raptors fans on there with me. Gear, signs, families with strollers, and so on — not your typical early morning work crowd. I immediately think, “maybe this is gonna be busier than I thought.” I decide to get off the Yonge subway line at Queen station, rather than my usual St. Andrew station, so I can walk by NPS and see how busy it is. It’s maybe 7:10 at this point. And it’s already really busy. I make the call to skip the office and stay at NPS — although I make a quick jaunt to Tim Horton’s to grab a coffee and a muffin before finding a spot.

When I return 10 minutes later, the “front” part of NPS — between the stage and the “Toronto” sign — is full. I snag a spot right behind the Toronto sign — I’m behind the last “O” in “Toronto,” about three people back from a fence that surrounds the sign and provides a walkway to the sound booth, just to my right, and I can see the stage through the “O.” Pretty decent spot, all things considered. Here I am:

Toronto Raptors NBA Championship parade

The space around me fills up fast. I quickly realize that I’d better not drink my coffee, or the water in my backpack, because if I have to leave to use the washroom, I’ll lose my spot. Still, I figure I can settle in and hold out for [gulp] five hours.

[Ominous music builds!]

I spend the next two hours taking an occasional bite of my muffin, and checking Twitter on my phone to keep busy. Around 10, right when the parade is supposed to start, signal starts getting choppy; within an hour, it was gone. I couldn’t use the Internet to keep me busy, which, as you can imagine these days, is like losing a limb. Still, the crowd around me seemed like a good group, several families, and everyone was still in good spirits.

Fan at Raptors NBA Championship Parade

It was around 11, if I recall, that Strizzzy and Kat and 4Korners, and I believe some of the North Side Crew, took the stage to entertain the masses. But it was also around this time that the parade’s delay became apparent, so they didn’t last on stage for long. Then things started to get weird.

This dude climbed up on top of the arches above the (boarded-up) pool/rink, and was soon followed by several others.

Goofball at Toronto Raptors NBA Championship parade
More goofballs at Toronto Raptors NBA Championship parade

Strizzzy got back on the mic to tell them to get down, threatening to shut down the whole parade if they didn’t. They did, thankfully, so Mark could shut off the schoolteacher vibe, but then everything just got quiet. They didn’t play any music or attempt to entertain the crowd. There was just... nothing.

Around 1:00, if memory serves, which is when we were all expecting to see our Raps, people started getting on edge. For one, people were starting to pass out from the heat, which prompted announcements about letting emergency personnel through and giving people space. The family of four beside me left, their kids clearly wiped out. Somehow, cops let people fill in the walkway area in front of me, which meant no one could leave the sound booth, and that people started climbing on the Toronto sign — blocking our view.

This prompted much yelling and cajoling from the crowd, and at first the cops tried to get people off — but then the cops left. Literally just walked away. Which was truly weird to see, though perhaps not surprising, that in a situation where people needed protection, as the crowd got hostile, they fled. Sigh. Fences started to come down, and were being passed around by the crowd — one went right over my head.

I’m not gonna lie. It was tense. And not fun, at all. I considered leaving, multiple times, but at that point — having been there so long — I felt I had to stick it out, you know? At least at this point, they had some stuff on the screens, scenes and interviews from the parade. But it wasn’t nearly enough. Why they didn’t just start replaying the playoff games, or highlight packages, or Open Gym episodes — or, you know, just some dang music — I will never know.

Around 2:30, we got the military jet flyby, which was interesting for 30 seconds or so. Then you could hear the crowd from Queen and University get loud as the Raptors finally made their way into NPS!

Flyover at Toronto Raptors NBA Championship parade

Finally, at 3:30, the team began to take the stage. This was, by far, the best moment of the day, as we got to hear Strizzzy call our champs’ names one last time, and see them come out to the loudest cheers and adulation possible.

Of course, it was immediately followed by the worst moment of the day.

I didn’t hear any noise that would indicate a gunshot or any trouble. Just, suddenly, a swell of noise from the crowd to my right, and then a second later, I was swept off my feet as the crowd — hundreds? thousands? of people — surged away from Bay Street, towards the western side of NPS. I couldn’t move, and yet, I was moving. It was, I have to say, terrifying, to feel so helpless and so in danger at the same time; I knew I could be trampled or that I could trample on someone else, and there was literally nothing I could do about it.

When the surge stopped, I was no longer behind the last “O” in Toronto; I was behind the first “O”. Under no volition of my own I was displaced about 60 feet, or about two-thirds of a basketball court. Amazingly, it seemed that no one had fallen underfoot, which I think probably tells you just how packed we all were in there.

Sometime around here, Matt Devlin took the mic and calmly told us about a security situation, so at least I had some idea of what had happened, although I didn’t know it was a shooting until later (again, no Internet).

If there was any “bright side” to this moment, it’s that people started to leave. As the players resumed speaking, there was space around me. I was able to move to the rear of the square, towards the overhead walkway; I couldn’t see as well from here, but I felt safer, knowing I could get out if something else happened. Hearing Kyle Lowry speak, and then Kawhi Leonard mock his own laugh, were both amazing moments, and brought me back a little bit of joy and as Drake took the mic, I called it a day. This selfie was taken at 4:01.

Josh Kern at Toronto Raptors NBA Championship parade

Naturally, my day couldn’t end quite that easily — I headed for Queen station, but Bay Street was blocked by police. I headed south, towards King, but King station was overcrowded and they weren’t letting anyone in. Traffic was completely snarled, so there was no point in getting a cab.

I walked east, then, all the way to Jarvis street, before traffic cleared and I was able to get a cab. I finally made it home around around 5:15.

It was a long day, mostly boring, often irritating, with one moment of terror and a couple moments of joy. I am happy to say I was there, yet at the same time, if I could go back in time, I don’t think I would do it again (or at least, I’d go and join the crowd at the Exhibition starting point). I remain, as ever, frustrated by this city’s inability or unwillingness to properly anticipate or plan events, or adjust to evolving situations. I hate that the day was marred by violence, though thankfully no one was killed.

I guess in the end, I’ll always be able to say I was at the Raptors first-ever championship parade, but I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to say that I have happy memories of being there.