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Wave to the Champs as they pass us by

The COVID-19 pandemic has robbed us of many things, including the chance to show our appreciation to some former Raptors.

NBA: Miami Heat at Toronto Raptors Nick Turchiaro-USA TODAY Sports

You know the names: Serge Ibaka. Marc Gasol. Danny Green. Jeremy Lin. Fred VanVleet. Norman Powell. Eric Moreland. Pascal Siakam. Malcolm Miller OG Anunoby. Patrick McCaw. Chris Boucher. Jodie Meeks. Kawhi Leonard. Kyle Lowry.

They’re the champs; our champs. The 2018-19 Toronto Raptors, even the ones who barely a played a minute that season, are legends, rightfully so. Their names adorn the one and only NBA championship banner hanging in the rafters outside the United States.

But only Anunoby, VanVleet, Boucher and Siakam remain. And of the others who’ve left, only one—Leonard, the first one to leave—has come back to receive the standing ovation each one so richly deserves. As has been well-documented, poor Danny Green still hasn’t even received his championship ring!

Of all the things the COVID-19 pandemic has cost us, including the lives of many loved ones, the long-term health of many others, the extra burden on our frontline and healthcare workers, and the impact on the learning and development of our children among others, the chance to cheer on some guys we liked falls very, very far down the list.

But not getting a chance to show our appreciation to Our Guys still stinks.

Now, a good chunk of those guys’ careers have taken them elsewhere, outside the NBA; Moreland and Lin went overseas after the Raps’ championship, and Meeks went on to the BIG3. Miller and McCaw, who stuck around in Toronto for the super-fun 2019-20 season, were both eventually released and have yet to make it back to the NBA.

But the rest of them? The key contributors to that team, and beyond?

Green’s Lakers never made their trip to Toronto in the 2019-20 season, thanks to the initial COVID stoppage; now he’s on the 76ers and was in the health and safety protocols for last week’s Raps-Sixers game, for which there was only half a crowd anyway.

Marc Gasol remained on the Raptors for the 2019-20 season; he went to the Lakers last season, while the Raptors were in Tampa, then retired back to Spain. We might not ever see him in Toronto again.

Ibaka signed with the Clippers the same year, after having a sensational 2019-20 with the Raptors, and now he’s coming back tonight — with no fans in the building.

As you know by now, the province of Ontario has mandated that arenas hold no more than 1,000 fans, and the Raptors have suspended all general ticket sales and admissions altogether, opting to save those seats for family members and VIP. The mandate — which, to be clear, is absolutely the right thing to do at this time, as much as it stinks — will be reevaluated in three weeks, but given the still-rising COVID cases and the overall apathy of our incompetent government to actually do anything proactive, I don’t foresee the situation changing much before then.

Which brings us, first, to Norman Powell. Powell’s Portland Trail Blazers are set to make their lone Toronto appearance on January 23, so just four days after that three-week fan hiatus. Again, I have little confidence in the situation changing before then. Norm, who we all watched develop in front of our eyes and who delivered one of the biggest playoff moments in Raptors history at Scotiabank Arena — as a rookie, no less — will likely not play in front of any fans.

We also can’t forget Jonas Valanciunas, who was a key member of the Raptors until he was dealt for Gasol during the championship season; this poor dude has not played in Toronto since he was hurt in December of 2018! (At least he attended a playoff game in 2019!) He’s having a fantastic season for the New Orleans Pelicans, who’ll be here… January 9. No fans.

And then there’s Kyle Lowry, the greatest Raptor of all time, who left for the Miami Heat this past offseason as his late-career timeline didn’t match up with Toronto’s youth movement. He’s supposed to come back in just over a month, when the Heat play the Raptors on February 3.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed for at least improved capacity, if not full capacity, by then. But unless there’s a drastic reduction in case numbers and a rapid rise in vaccine deliveries, both boosters and second shots for children under 12, I’m not sure we’ll get there. (Lowry and the Heat are scheduled to return on April 3, at least.)

When we found out in October that the Raptors were allowing a full capacity crowd back this season, the first thing I thought of was Lowry coming home. And now the chance to see that might be gone.

Again, in the grand scheme of things, this means very little. And yet it’s often the little things that, when taken away, hurt the most. When the “big things” are going wrong, we look to the little things, like a moment of joy when we can give a player we loved watching a standing ovation, to shake us out our misery and lift us up, even if it is just for a moment, before we go back to the “real world.”

I hope that things settle down. I hope that fans can safely be in their seats, if not on January 23, then on February 3, or April 3 at the latest. The players deserve to hear the appreciation from the fans, and the fans deserve the opportunity to express it.