SIMMONS: 2019 — the year sports changed forever in Toronto


We The North and She The North: There has never been a sporting year quite like this one before.

Not in this city or this country — and not in this manner.

Of champions who came from almost nowhere. Of a historically disregarded basketball team and a tennis player whose name wasn’t known to most of us 12 months ago. Of Canadians captivated by sports we don’t normally call our own.

If I heard anything on a regular basis on the Raptors’ run to the NBA championship and the amazing two-week U.S. Open run of Bianca Andreescu it was this: I’ve never watched so much basketball in my life. I’ve never watched so much tennis.

This is what sports at its best can do. It pulls in the uninitiated. It makes those who don’t care, care. Along the way, it creates community.

Every sport has a following of sorts, some more rabid than others, but when there are viewing parties across the country, and parades and keys to the city being presented, the daily conversation switches from the weather or Mitch Marner to something else, and that changes the landscape and creates that impossible-to-define rare element called buzz.

Andreescu was asked numerous times over the past weeks about her ascension to Grand Slam champion. Would she have believed it a year ago, she was asked in different ways and in different interviews?

She always smiled and said she wouldn’t have believed. It was all a dream come true.

Only it wasn’t a dream. She didn’t win in Indian Wells because of any dream. She didn’t win at Rogers Cup because of any dream. And you don’t beat Serena Williams twice, even this older-mom version of Serena Williams, because of any dream. She did it because she has that much talent, that much composure.

If Andreescu was a hockey player she would be somewhere between Gary Roberts and Cam Neely. She plays with power. She plays with immense skill. She has soft hands. She plays with emotion. She knows how to finish. She never, ever quits.

Two different broadcasters said what they’re not supposed to say during the ESPN coverage: She’s the only woman on the tour who plays a man’s game.

And that’s not sexist — that’s a compliment, the kind of thing that has been said about the best of all time, Serena, over the years.

Who picked the Raptors to win the NBA championship a year ago? Try nobody.

Even after the deal was made for Kawhi Leonard, they were going to be just fine, and with a new coach, we didn’t know just how fine they would be. And that was if Kawhi bothered to show up.

The Raptors had been the team that was almost good enough until it ran into the wall that was LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They became known for being playoff failures rather than for all the regular-season success they had. They were the team ignored at Christmas. They were a prototype pseudo-contender. They looked good from far, but far from good.

Kawhi Leonard holds up his MVP trophy during the Raptors’ celebration parade in Toronto in June. GETTY IMAGES

Then Leonard bounced a Game 7 fall-away jumper off the rim and it bounced and bounced and bounced — seemingly forever — until it changed history. Kawhi was watching from a squat position already off the court when the game-winner against the Philadelphia 76ers fell. The Raptors were a bad bounce and an overtime away from elimination in Round 2. I happened to watch Game 7 recently and had forgotten how close they really were to being out.

That seems more of a hockey story than a basketball one: The story of the champion who almost lost early. It’s happened in so many Stanley Cup seasons. It doesn’t happen nearly as often in the NBA.

And then more of that. They lost the first two games to the Milwaukee Bucks, the best team in the East, with the best player, it was thought, in the league. But then the incredible and the improbable and almost-the-impossible happened. They beat Milwaukee four straight to win the East. They went 6-2 against the Bucks and what was left of the Golden State Warriors in the Finals. They shocked America. Kawhi won the MVP award for the NBA Finals, but the truth was he was the MVP of the playoffs, start to finish.

He came, he won, he left for Los Angeles. And now the Raptors return to being what they once were — good, just not good enough. And we won’t know for a while what they are or who they are.

This is where the roads vary for We The North and She The North. You don’t win in the NBA without a mega-star. The Raptors don’t have one any more. Will we ever recapture that playoff excitement again? In this case, once was enough, once was amazing, yet you still want more.

And, really, this is just a beginning for Andreescu. We haven’t seen her at Wimbledon, at the French Open. Suddenly, Australia holds a certain fascination it didn’t before. But understand this: She’s the sixth different U.S. Open women’s champion of the past six years. Serena Williams has dominated; few of the others have.

Andreescu has the talent, but there is still so much to learn about her sustainability. She’s only 19. This is her amazing beginning.

But I have this feeling: We’re going to be watching a lot of tennis in the coming years. The way we watch basketball now.

Championships and champions do that: They pull us in, change our habits. For now. Maybe forever.