To begin with, you have to remember where you were the night the Raptors won the 2019 NBA championship. Then you can recall how it felt, the emotions blooming within you. Then you can remind yourself of all the little details along the way, the players’ actions on and off the court, and the turn of events that got the city, the country, all of us there together. One year ago today. It feels so far away now.
There is no 2020 NBA champion yet, though it sounds like there will eventually be one. As many have noted, whoever does claim that title will be reminded of an asterisk next to the win for all time. That’s bound to happen when the championship in question is set to involve a pressurized and unprecedented tournament in Disney World after almost five months off. These are extreme circumstances, but it doesn’t take much for people to mention that dang asterisk. Some folks — not the smartest in the bunch — were quick to label the Raptors’ victory as one deserving of the same distinction.
Yes, the Raptors won the 2019 NBA title because everything eventually broke right for them. But to some of those aforementioned folks, Toronto’s luck began with Kevin Durant blowing out his Achilles in Game 5 or Klay Thompson tearing his ACL in Game 6 of the Finals. Some go back a little further to the trade deadline, the cratering Grizzlies, and their need to unload Marc Gasol. Still others delight in reminding Toronto that it really is all because of Kawhi Leonard, with the mystery surrounding his injury and unhappiness, that ultimately got the Raptors their golden moment. It was a fluke, they insist. All of it.
To remind myself of where I was one year ago today, I did what most do these days: I scrolled through my camera roll. A year ago today, I watched the Raptors play Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Oakland, I watched them win and claim the trophy, and I then I marched with friends into the streets of Toronto, almost subconsciously drawn to the city’s most obvious downtown gathering spot: the garrish neon and concrete block of Yonge and Dundas Square. Along the way, as my photos can attest, I saw people waving flags and holding signs, people honking car horns and people on top of cars; in fact, I saw people climbing onto everything they could find, Toronto’s ever-present scaffolding finally coming in handy.
Looking back through the grainy photos on my phone is akin to sorting through those memories from one year ago. I’m reminded of so much, even more events beyond the scope of that night — the collection of newspaper headlines the next morning, the wild and delayed victory parade, a celebratory late-night dinner at Rol San, the congratulations offered from everyone I know, as if I had a direct hand in the Raptors’ win. It all begins to blur together as time accumlates over top of it. But one year ago, it did happen.
Everyone reading this is likely searching through their own memories now too. You’re remembering where you were and how it felt to see your hometown Raptors do something that seemed unthinkable as recently as the year before. Time has a funny way of moving like that. A lot has happened over the past year — perhaps too much — and yet as the memories resolve here, their powered hasn’t quite lessened. That’s in part because a new NBA champion has yet to crowned, but also because it was just such a special moment in time. There’s no other way to say it.
In the dig through my phone, I also happened to land on the following paragraph from Albert Burneko, of which I’d taken a screenshot all those days ago:
That paragraph comes from here (from a seemingly unkillable site that was destroyed within the past year) and sums up so much of the Raptors’ operating ethos. In fact, the very next line in the piece could work as the championship team’s central guiding principle, the concept that governed not only its moves in the micro — the on-court hustle that got them through the playoffs to the title — but also the grander macro plans that were put in place by the team’s management. As Burneko says: “So yes, the Raptors got lucky, but it was luck born out of effort.”
By eventual contrast, the Raptors’ 2019 title win won’t seem so weird after the league names its 2020 champion. That winner will need to deal with the same volley of attacks, but amped to a degree we’ve literally never seen before. As I’ve made clear in the recent past, I’m not fully supportive of the league’s return, but I will applaud whichever team — maybe the Raptors? — wins the coming summer playoffs. However it happens, the team that wins is the team that won. If Toronto’s victory taught us anything, it’s that. You play with the players you have, you compete against the team in front of you, and whatever luck comes your way will be born from the effort put in. Asterisks need not apply.
That’s ultimately how Toronto will remember their 2019 championship Raptors. We’ll remember the “We the North” sentiment and its attendant failures; we’ll remember the faulty management regimes that led the team astray over the decades; we’ll remember hundreds of different players who came and went, some making an impact, many not; we’ll remember the false starts and hopes, the times when it looked like it was going to work before reality came crashing back in. All of these moments blend together now too, weaving together a rich history for the Raptors, something else we can hold onto and cherish.
In that sense, sure, put an asterisk in there. Why not? When we look back at the basketball history books, we’ll see all those teams and all those seasons, and we’ll be able to note exactly when it all came together for Toronto — right there, 2019, you remember right? If it signifies a fluke, well then: it was our fluke. We didn’t know how it would go at the time, and we can’t now see the deeply uncertain future before us, but we can remember where we were right then and there.
It’s one year later and the Raptors are still NBA champions.