Basketball is back in Canada. No, basketball in Canada has not had a resurgence because it has always been there (hardly), but of course, hockey will forever be king. Basketball is back in Canada despite it never really having left. It is making its presence felt like never before because it can boast about something that more than a third of the NBA’s teams cannot - the Toronto Raptors, the only Canadian team in the world’s premier basketball league, recently hoisted their first NBA championship in their 24-year history by beating the two-time defending champions Golden State Warriors, 4 games to 2, in the 2019 NBA Finals. The Raptors’ first Larry O’Brien Trophy has sent shockwaves throughout the sporting world because it upended a bitter history of frustration, profoundly changed Canadian culture, and truly joyed the team’s devoted “We the North” fan base that never ceased to support them.
The unlikeliest city
Why does the success of the Toronto Raptors taste so sweet? Consider basketball to be Canada’s “prodigal” sport. Thirty years ago, basketball was like an afterthought in Toronto, let alone the rest of hockey-crazy Canada. Despite being a major sport and an Olympic event since 1936, it never made headway in the country. Still, Canada was blameless for basketball’s little popularity, you could reckon it just was not in its DNA during that time. Hockey was first, second, and third segment of every TV sports program and from there you can draw the storyline. If you were a basketball fan in Canada even in the early 90s, you could liken the feeling to being a member of a little tribe. And understandably so. Despite Toronto’s proximity to major NBA markets like Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia, it was as if Canadians wanted to distance themselves from the game that a Canadian invented. In a nutshell, Canadian NBA fans would have to look for a broadsheet just to know the latest goings-on in the NBA. Basketball was grossly overlooked.
The first professional basketball team in Canada was the Toronto Huskies of the Basketball Association of America (which would later merge with the National Basketball League to form the NBA). Basketball in Toronto would be short-lived as the Toronto Huskies folded after only one season due to poor attendance and an equally bad record. Toronto was not a basketball city, it was that obvious. For the next half a century, Toronto would not have a basketball team of its own. Considering the city’s almost unenthusiastic attitude towards basketball, it could not care less, or so it seemed.
Sport’s globalization leads to experimentation
Fast forward to 1993. Basketball had become one of the four major North American sports; the NBA had become one of the richest sports leagues in the world. The NBA’s worldwide following was so huge that it could afford a Canadian experiment in Toronto and Vancouver – could it enter a new country and make itself profitable and relevant? The Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies started play in the NBA at the beginning of the 1995-06 season. The rest is history. After six forgettable seasons, the Grizzlies’ inability to fill arenas and capture Canadian interest prompted the move to Memphis in 2001. The Raptors, on the other hand, had it a bit easier. They sold tickets easily despite the city’s more exuberant support for their NHL counterpart, the legendary Toronto Maple Leafs. Still, unlike the bitter taste that the Grizzlies’ six seasons left in the mouths of basketball fans, casual Toronto basketball fans began to acquire a liking for their NBA team. Attendance was not a problem, but it was the cultural assimilation of the Raptors that remained uncertain. Things were looking up, nevertheless.
Cultural assimilation process
Glimpses of promise few and far between endeared the Raptors to the new Torontonians - immigrants, transplants, and their youngsters energetically looking to create their own cultural identity by way of sports. An overwhelming majority of Toronto youth, mostly teenagers and first-generation Canadians, came to love the Raptors because of the fantastic and proud way they viewed the situation: they could relate to the team; professional basketball was “new” to the city the way they were new to Canada. They "adopted" the team, so to speak.
A fan base was established. When the Toronto Raptors landed Vince Carter in the 1998 NBA Draft, it grew more apparent that the Raptors were here to stay. He was the Toronto Raptors’ first superstar and for a short while during his Raptors stint, he WAS the Toronto Raptors, and to a lesser extent, the face of the NBA and the basketball world. It is an understatement to say that he took the sporting world by storm. In the six seasons, his exciting, gravity-defying brand of play would be etched into the fabric of the city. He made it cool to be a Raptors fan, even if you were not Canadian. It was Carter’s doing that the Raptors evolved from being liked to mildly loved. The latter part of his stint was rather uneventful, though, and Torontonians knew that the Carter days would not be permanent. Still they maintained ardent support for the team in spite of the struggles that ensued after Carter had left. From any avid sports fan’s point of view, the Raptors should remain loved as long as they stayed in Toronto, but if they were to enjoy an entirely different and exhilarating level of support and love, they would need to win meaningful games in bunches. It would take winning to complete cultural assimilation.
Frustration + entrance into the Canadian bloodstream
Despite the emergence of rising star Chris Bosh, the following years were mired in mediocrity. Like in the Carter years, the Bosh era would prove to be just as bad, and the only consolation was the support of Torontonians. Toronto’s play shuttled back and forth from bad to average and hit a new low from 2009 to 2013, when one dismal season after another became the norm. The impetus would arrive in 2014, when the Raptors clinched a playoff spot after what seemed like eternity, and from there the team made itself a mainstay in the annual hunt, despite losing repeatedly in the playoff round for five consecutive years. It was during this competitive run that the team slowly inched its way to the heart of Canadian culture. The Raptors evolved again, from being mildly loved to being inside the heart of every Canadian sports fan. So to speak, it had now entered the Canadian bloodstream.
To deconstruct how the Raptors turned Toronto into a full-fledged basketball town in just a span of six years, both their failures and successes must be detailed. In the 2014 playoffs, they finished 3rd in the Eastern conference but was defeated in the first round. In the following year, they were swept in the first round, again. In 2016, they almost crawled their way to the conference finals, only to get beat by perennial East power Cleveland. Cleveland again would dismantle the Raptors in the conference semifinals in 2017 and 2018, swept both times. From 2014 to 2018, spurred by a potent roster and energized by a young and proud fan base, the Toronto Raptors found success in the regular season only to be met with failure in the playoffs. It must be understood these playoff runs, while coming up short each and every time, also brought needed jolts of energy to the city with each made shot, each victory, each playoff spot earned every year, and even when they were defeated by the slimmest of margins. You could almost argue that this is how the most passionate fan bases get created. The case of the Raptors is almost similar to that of Toronto’s MLB team, the Blue Jays. The Blue Jays won the MLB World Series in 1992 and 1993 and are as close to the heart of any Torontonian sports fan even if they are not doing very well. But when they are good, the Blue Jays support is as loud and proud as any other storied sports franchise’s fan base. It had become the case for the Raptors. The string of playoff appearances that the Raptors made from 2014 to 2018 was enough for the team to be embraced. As expressed earlier, it was the five-year run that injected the team colours, spirit, and logo into the national bloodstream. This is greatly evidenced by their “We The North” rallying cry. “We the North” has made its way to the most familiar rallying cries in the NBA, and the sporting world in general.
The magical season
Having built a reputation for a strong showing in the regular season and faltering when it mattered the most, the 2019 playoffs seemed no different. The Raptors were able to weather the initial surge from the Orlando Magic in the first round by winning four straight to win the series after dropping game 1, and that was expected due to the the Magic being grossly overmatched. But when they outdueled the Philadelphia 76ers in seven games by way of what is now considered as the greatest shot in team history, courtesy of new acquisition Kawhi Leonard, the effect thereof was so dramatic and profound that Torontonians were given a new sense of hope. It would be fair to argue that that moment made them start to think that their team was no longer the flash in the pan or one trick pony in the playoffs, when games actually had significant bearing. Who could blame them? The repeated failures from 2014 to 2018 conditioned them negatively, that the joy ride year after year could end with familiar defeat. This year was different. The moment of Kawhi Leonard’s shot during the waning seconds of the final game of the East semifinals against the 76ers punched its ticket to basketball and sports immortality. Any casual sports fan will tell you, every sports team has its own defining “moment.” Baseball, basketball, hockey, football, even American football. For the Blue Jays, it was when Joe Carter hammered a last inning 3-run home run in Game 6 of the 1993 World Series against the Philadelphia Phillies. For the Raptors, it is Leonard’s shot that buried the 76ers. No contest. That a relatively young team like the Raptors had “that moment” when more than a third of the NBA’s teams haven’t won a championship yet is more reason for the Raptors to be loved by Canada.
Despite trailing the Milwaukee Bucks two games to none in the East finals, the Raptors, perhaps energized by the “moment” notched 4 consecutive wins to make their first appearance in the NBA finals against the two-time defending champions, the Golden State Warriors. In 6 games, it was obvious that Toronto had control of the game tempo, had more productive spurts, and more energy than the Warriors. One can make the case for Toronto having the more enthusiastic and devoted fans, even when they played in the Warriors’ home floor across the continent. From a purely basketball standpoint, Toronto simply played better, energized by better fans.
When the final buzzer sounded in Game 6 and coronation time was just minutes away, it was evident in the delight of the fans watching outside their stadium back in Toronto that indeed, their time had come. After 24 years of a few glimpses of promise, immeasurable frustration, numbing mediocrity, the long process of cultural assimilation, and now, a revived hope in the team, the Raptors are now NBA champions. From a social standpoint, this could not get any sweeter. The Raptors might win it again next season or in the foreseeable future, but even if they do, those victories will not come anywhere near the sweetness of this first one. The 2019 Toronto Raptors championship reversed team fortunes, forged a solid and distinct attitude of unity in a diverse global city through a sport it had once forgotten, and gave joy to a whole new generation whose love for a sports team gave birth to a dramatic cultural shift felt not only in sports, but in an entire country.