The thrill of victory lingers for the Ryersonian’s Charles Buckley months after the Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors to be crowned NBA champions
They said it was “too storybook” to happen.
Canada’s only NBA team, after years under the thumb of LeBron James’s champion Cleveland Cavaliers, had made it to the finals. For the first time, the Toronto Raptors were a single round from raising the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy and making Canadian history.
Road to the Championship
Along the way, they faced off against the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks; a study in picking up steam. In the eastern conference semifinal, Raptors newcomer Kawhi Leonard would deliver a legendary victory for Toronto, letting off a mid-range buzzer-beater in game seven against the 76ers to break a 90-90 tie.
Dubbed simply “The Shot,” Leonard’s performance inexplicably echoed another game-seven buzzer-beater between the Raptors and Sixers 18 years before, attempted by then-Raptors star Vince Carter. It was a heartbreaking missed opportunity that now, with Leonard crouching low and the ball bouncing what felt like four distinct lifetimes on the rim, appeared to have a second chance.
This time, evidently, fate smiled on Toronto. The crowd erupted as The Shot sunk, securing the Raptors a path to the conference finals and Leonard’s status as a Canadian folk hero; the King of the North.
Before anyone knew it, they were in the finals; the real challenge was still before them.
The 6ix in Six
At Yonge-Dundas Square after game one, a 118-109 win for Toronto, the mood from the crowd was electric. The streets filled with people, flouting traffic laws to celebrate an early lead for Canada’s team; one they feared wouldn’t last.
This fear would persist even through continuing success for Toronto. With two third-quarter breakaways following a game-two loss, Toronto was propelled into a safe 3-1 lead.
“Safe,” some warned, however, was what the Warriors likely said about their own 3-1 lead in 2016, before ultimately losing the championship to the Cavaliers. Raptors fans feared that history would repeat.
Anxiety peaked in game five when the Warriors managed a nail-biting 106-105 victory. Another would-be Raptors buzzer-beater, this time by Kyle Lowry, was blocked by Warriors power forward Draymond Green, taken as a signal by some that the magic of The Shot had faded.
In the end, the Raptors came out on top. By the final moments of game six, Warriors star players Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson were both out with injuries. The Raptors dominated the night, finishing with a 114-110 lead over Golden State. Toronto had clinched it; a 4-2 series win that secured the championship for Canada.
“The 6ix in six” had come to pass.
As the final buzzer sounded in Golden State’s Oracle Stadium, the people of Toronto stepped out of their homes, bars and block parties to outdo their previous game-night performance. A once-in-a-lifetime experience was going on right before their eyes, and nothing was going to stop them from celebrating.
I waded into the crowd with my friends, pressed in on all sides by the ever-shifting mass of bodies clad in red, black and purple. Over our heads were drunken revellers hanging from streetlights, standing on bus shelters and climbing onto construction scaffolding, awnings and TTC buses.
Without hyperbole, it took several minutes of shoving, dodging and shimmying to cross Yonge-Dundas Square; a distance of roughly 100 metres.
Parades of fans marched through the downtown core, streetcars were gridlocked in swarms of jaywalking people; somewhere, a young boy was bawling on a parent’s shoulders, up way past his bedtime.
For the first time, I got to see my city in a state of pure ecstasy. A city without an international major-league victory in almost 30 years. A city mockingly renamed “LeBronto” after losing three years of playoff runs to Cleveland. A city where, days before, I declared only partly sarcastically: “Guys; we get to lose to Golden State this year.”
And even as the night grew late, the party had just begun.
The city at a standstill
After four days of city-wide hangover recovery came the victory parade. This time, the city administration hoped, things would be more organized. They would be disappointed.
The convoy carved from Exhibition Place east along the Lakeshore, up University Avenue and finally snaking its way to Nathan Phillips Square, where attendees of the victory rally had been waiting, as was tradition for the 2019 playoffs, for close to 12 hours.
I took up position near Bathurst Street and Lakeshore Boulevard, waiting in anxious anticipation to see my favourite players celebrating the victory they fought so hard to achieve. I was lucky enough to witness them all, as well as a long procession of drummers, public figures, friends and VIPs of the Raptors franchise.
We managed to keep pace until Union Station. We lost them, not because of speed, but because at a certain point, we simply couldn’t move any farther north.
The crowd had long since filled the space between the concrete barriers and the buses themselves, showered by champagne and watching as desperate fans threw paraphernalia up to be signed, only to have it fall back into someone else’s hands.
We eventually came up against the other enormous crowd; the one waiting at the end of the line for a glimpse of the final rally. Accepting that we wouldn’t be able to see the buses arrive, my friends and I split off and made our way to Yonge and Dundas, where the square had become an open-air viewing party.
The rally would prove to be a surreal experience. Cascading boos for Premier Doug Ford, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau renaming Toronto streets at will and multiple violent crimes scattered throughout the crowd, some of which caused a wave of panic that had us running for cover some three blocks away.
As the celebration came to an end and the crowd finally began to thin, the excitement that had enraptured a city was subsiding. For some, that was the end of it; they’d put thoughts of the Raptors on the back burner until the next time something interesting happened. For others, thoughts immediately went to next season.
Regardless of what the Kawhiless future holds for Toronto, one thing is clear:
We won. We actually won.