Grange: Can’t lose for winning

Steve Russell/Toronto Star/Getty

The Raptors exceeded everyone’s expectations this season. But what needs to come next?

To appreciate the ending you have to go back to the beginning. The Toronto Raptors started their season at home against the Boston Celtics on Oct. 30. They were a team in flux, and their fan base knew it. And even if they didn’t know it, those in charge couldn’t wait to tell them.

A day earlier, new MLSE boss Tim Leiweke had given a speech at Toronto’s tony Empire Club, a kind of pep rally for corporate types. It wasn’t very peppy. After explaining to the lunchtime crowd the importance of building NBA teams through the draft—he cited the San Antonio Spurs and the Oklahoma City Thunder as examples—he summed up where his basketball team was and where it was headed by mocking where it had recently been.

“You need to be in a position where you get lucky in the draft,” he said. “If there was ever a team that wanted a draft pick . . . it would have been the [2013] Toronto Raptors, especially with the Canadian kids that came out this year into the NBA from the draft. And we had no draft picks. None. Now think about this for a second: We haven’t been in the playoffs in forever. We weren’t in the playoffs this year and yet we had zero draft picks.

“That is hard to do,” he added, backing the bus up over former GM Bryan Colangelo. “That is really good work right there.”

Leiweke went on to predict the Raptors would work hard and play together and blah, blah, blah, but the bar had been set—the future was not now.

Accordingly, interest in the Raptors was almost non-existent. Just 54,000 people tuned in to watch the Celtics game on television, a number that darts or poker could draw in the right time slot. The Raptors were most likely tanking—positioning to get lucky, in Leiweke-speak—for a draft pick, maybe uber-Canadian prospect Andrew Wiggins. There was no need to tune in to watch a slow-motion train wreck.

Instead, a season heading for the draft lottery ended up a scratch-and-win bonus. Who needs Wiggins when you have DeMar DeRozan? That pick the Raptors didn’t have in 2013? That was the price the Raptors paid to get Kyle Lowry, the heart-and-soul point guard whose sky-high compete level Leiweke was holding out as an example for MLSE’s hockey team by the end of the season. Up was down, and it was fun as hell.

Sure, the Raptors lost, finally, on their home court, with Lowry’s desperate drive to the basket snuffed out by Paul Pierce’s long, outstretched arm, but what they won, what they had earned for themselves and their adopted home city, was evident in the tumult afterwards.

There was Nets head coach Jason Kidd, a veteran of 1,549 NBA games and an NBA champion in 2011, storming the floor, looking for someone to hug, finally connecting with Deron Williams, his equally ecstatic $100-million point guard. Pierce, a sure Hall of Famer who has played more game sevens than the whole Raptors roster combined, stalked off the court like he’d just won his second NBA title, defiantly flinging his wrist bands and head band into the unruly mob at the ACC, the crowd flinging them back as he raised both hands in the air, index fingers raised, as if signalling triumph over some kind of Goliath.

“I want to give a shout-out to Toronto the city,” Kevin Garnett, the 19-year NBA veteran, said in the Nets dressing room afterwards. “This has got to be one of the best places and the best atmospheres I have played in, in a long time. Paul and I were talking about different places we have played and the passion, but this place was rocking. D-Will was shooting free throws and our ears were ringing.”

But it’s quiet now and will be for months, and we won’t know for months more if this marks the beginning of something or just a moment in time. The onus is on Raptors GM Masai Ujiri not to fumble his unexpected fortune. In the past, modest success seemed to create an urgency to capitalize on it before it slipped away, which is how you end up spending $100 million on Jerome Williams, Alvin Williams and Hakeem Olajuwon in the summer of 2001; or bringing in Jason Kapono and then Jermaine O’Neal and then Hedo Turkoglu in an effort to leverage the positive early returns of the Chris Bosh era.

Following the first spending spree, the team set its season attendance record and sold out every game at the ACC in 2001–02, riding a wave of Vinsanity that broke not long after. The fans came back again in 2007–08, following the team’s equally surprising 2006–07 season when they won their first Atlantic Division title, learning only after the fact that the high point had already passed.

Having been through other Raptors highs and subsequent lows, this does feel different. Basketball in Canada feels different. The kids who were inspired by Vince Carter are now stars in the making. The NCAA tournament was a month-long coming-out party for Canadian basketball, with Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis and Nik Stauskas—Toronto-area kids expected to be lottery picks in the June NBA draft—as lithe, lanky advertisements for a sport finding its voice.

An average of 912,000 people watched game seven on a sunny Sunday afternoon, making it the third-most-watched Raptors game ever. The team was leading the NBA in new season-ticket sales in the days following its playoff appearance, selling them at a pace unseen since Carter left. On, Raptors video content was the most popular in the league, ahead of LeBron James and the Miami Heat.

The anecdotal evidence of this team and its sport’s newfound reach in this country is in some ways even more telling: A friend tweeting that his end-of-season bonspiel had come to a standstill so the curlers could watch game seven, brooms in hand; the referees at my son’s hockey tournament asking for updates from the crowd during stoppages in play; my 77-year-old mother sending me an email to tell me how excited she was about “the Raptures.”

But perhaps the truest test of whether the Raptors’ surprise rise will last is if Ujiri is confident enough to allow things to mature organically. That seemed to be the direction he was moving toward in the aftermath of game seven—continuity was the message. No time was wasted announcing a three-year extension for Dwane Casey; there was no tip-toeing around plans to re-sign Lowry, who will be back barring the Lakers throwing crazy money around. Similarly, restricted free agents Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez figure in the Raptors’ future plans, but Ujiri doesn’t sound desperate. “If someone doesn’t want to be here, I’m not going to crawl under my desk and cry,” he said.

Funny, because tears and the Raptors have so often gone together. It’s almost frightening to imagine there could someday be tears of joy. The past few weeks proved that even through all the pain the team’s congregation has always been there—they simply needed a place to sing. This spring the ACC became its raucous cathedral. And Maple Leaf Square, dubbed Jurassic Park, became the gathering place of the balls-out chorus, the place that ABC had to take their cameras in the moments before game seven to capture for an American audience what basketball looked like in a northern land.

They saw something true and beautiful—rapturous even. In the end there was heartbreak, eased by the realization that the team and its fans were heard and the hope—fingers crossed—they’ll be heard from again.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.

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