One of the biggest victory celebrations in the country’s history took place in the streets of Toronto June 17 to pay tribute to the Toronto Raptors’ historic NBA championship.
The Raptors clinched the first NBA title in the team’s 24-year history by beating the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors Thursday night on the Warriors’ home court. It also marked the first NBA championship for Canada, original home of the game’s inventor, James Naismith.
The victory parade hadn’t had its equal in Canada’s largest city, and likely in the country, since 1993 when the Toronto Blue Jays captured a second straight World Series title. With the possible exception of Canada’s most recent Olympic hockey championships, it had been at least that long since a sports team united Canadians from coast to coast in a way the Raptors’ NBA title run did.
The Raptors’ support benefited from a perfect storm of other occurrences on the sporting landscape, including the absence of any Canadian teams in the late rounds of the Stanley Cup playoffs. The mediocre early-season performance of the rebuilding Blue Jays also helped to keep Canadians’ attention focused on the country’s lone NBA franchise. And that focus increased as the Raptors’ playoff run continued.
Reaching the NBA Finals for the first time was an exciting and notable accomplishment for the Raptors, who could have been forgiven for patting themselves on the back at that point and joining most observers in assuming they would then fall to the powerhouse Warriors, a superstar-laden squad that had won three titles in four years. But the Raptors weren’t done yet. Led by a superstar of their own in Kawhi Leonard, who had tasted championship success a few years earlier with the San Antonio Spurs, Toronto’s scrappy bunch showed their mettle by winning three times in enemy territory on their way to the crown.
Along the way, they ignited basketball fever among Canadians across the country who raised eyebrows among many NBA followers with their passionate support of the team. Jurassic Park, the popular gathering place for Raptors fans outside the team’s home arena, spawned similar fan festivals on game nights in other cities, including Montreal and Regina.
It also didn’t hurt that the Raptors were an easy team to root for, featuring a roster that was the antithesis of the star-studded Warriors. Not a single Raptor player was drafted higher than 15th in the NBA draft, and some had to scratch and claw their way through the NBA’s development league to reach the big time. One of those was guard Fred VanVleet, an undrafted free agent who became one of the feel-good stories of the playoffs by playing his best basketball after becoming a father for the first time during the playoffs.
Even their superstar, Leonard, is a quiet, under-the-radar type who, unlike many pro sports superstars, doesn’t call attention to himself.
The pieces all came together to produce a storybook ending that even Hollywood might consider too farfetched. It was a story that, in a world with plenty enough unpleasant news, united Canadians to get behind and enjoy something positive.
Yes, it was just a sports event, but it was something to feel good about. And we can always use more of that.