Raptors’ NBA Finals debut a surreal, long-awaited arrival in the spotlight


Kawhi Leonard looks for a way out under pressure from Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry and teammate Klay Thompson. (Frank Gunn/CP)

You can relive Game 1 of the Raptors’ meeting with the Warriors in the NBA Finals on Tuesday at 8 p.m. ET on Sportsnet and SN ONE. Game 2 airs Wednesday at 8 p.m. ET on TSN. The full broadcast schedule for the re-airing of Toronto’s historic 2019 championship playoff run can be found here.

The whole thing was surreal. It’s an over-used word these days, especially lately when the line between surreal and ordinary has become very much blurred.

But the overwhelming feeling as the Toronto Raptors — yes, the Toronto Raptors — were getting set to host the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the NBA Finals was that it couldn’t really be happening.

This was the franchise that couldn’t shoot straight, whose list of dubious past achievements was so long and winding and the struggles seemingly so never-ending that former first-overall pick Andrea Bargnani — il Busto — was once thought to be a saviour.

And yet here they were, hosting one of the NBA’s great dynasties for a basketball game on the last day of May.

For anyone who had been around the team for so many of the bleak years and the uncertain beginnings, it almost didn’t make sense.

Not that it wasn’t apparent that the Raptors were a very good team, a championship team — even if Los Vegas oddsmakers had them as underdogs to the Warriors, who started the series without superstar Kevin Durant (calf) and weren’t sure when they were going to get him back.

The Raptors’ game-by-game dismantling of the Milwaukee Bucks, after falling behind 0-2 in the Eastern Conference Final, had proven that. When Kawhi Leonard soared through the paint to dunk on Giannis Antetokounmpo to cement the Raptors’ comeback win in Game 6, the celebration that it set off was both in recognition of what had happened and what was about to come.

The thousands of Canadians squeezing their way into ‘Jurassic Parks’ springing up across the country and the millions setting TV ratings records game after game weren’t hoping. Bandwagons don’t fill to overflowing on hope.

They were believing, and with good reason.

But that didn’t mean it didn’t feel strange.

Things were happening that seemed both ordinary and mind-blowing, like a dream you wake up from that makes sense — sure, you were trying to read a co-worker’s Blackberry message at an Indian restaurant at a hockey rink about someone’s son who wasn’t really theirs — until you try to explain it to someone else.

There was Raptors head coach Nick Nurse giving a Finals press conference about how to stop Steph Curry (throw Fred VanVleet at him and don’t worry about it, it turns out). There was Raptors president Masai Ujiri using the Finals platform to sell Toronto like no one has before or since:

“Every day you come to work it’s — this is it and it’s overwhelming because you think, when I look at all the international players we have on our team, from Marc [Gasol, of Spain] and even our staff and the people on our staff and the backgrounds, it’s really brought us together,” Ujiri said as he held court before Game 1 to hundreds of journalists from all over the world. 

“And I think it says so much because that’s how our city is, that’s how the country is, that we can all relate to the multicultural or the diversity of Toronto and Canada and that’s how our team is,” he continued. “They talk in different languages on defence, they talk in different languages in the locker room, and it’s like that in our organization. And being international myself and being from Africa, I’m proud of that.”

There was a lot of that to go around, that sense of pride. Objectivity — or at least the effort to be objective — is an important quality in journalism.

Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri. (Frank Gunn/CP)

To me, it is really trying to see both sides of a story or an issue and being aware of your own feelings and how they might shape your view so you can be as fair as you can. 

It’s not that complicated.

But it didn’t mean I couldn’t watch the basketball world descend on my home to cover the team I’d been around in some shape or form since their inaugural season and not feel a sense of pride.

It felt good to be able to suggest restaurants or neighbourhoods to explore, or to explain the nuances of the growth in Canadian basketball or to fill in some of the gaps on the Raptors Shakespearian history as it veered between comedy and tragedy.

But it also felt weird, like this thing you had been obsessing over for most of your life when no one was really paying attention was suddenly trotted out on centre stage, under bright lights.

You didn’t know quite what to make of it, or what anyone else would make of it. But you knew that the city, the country, they were ready to make the most of it. That the opportunity to show out was not going to be wasted.

Again, Ujiri with the words:

“I can tell you it’s going to be crazy. It’s going to be crazy here,” he said. “It’s going to be crazy here on Sunday. It’s going to be crazy here for a few days because that’s the mentality of our fan base. We know it’s across the world. That’s something special about here. We can reach the world easy from here, from Canada, and we’re happy to be the global team that represents the NBA.”

Amen. He was right.

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