As the final seconds ticked down in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals, reality began to set in on what has been a whirlwind 26 months for the Toronto Raptors, 16 of which were spent at the top of the mountain as the defending NBA champions.
Seeing the Raptors walk off the floor at the end of a playoff series in a loss was a familiar sight in the first 24 years of the franchise’s existence, but over the last two years, the feeling that Toronto would find a way and overcome almost impossible obstacles left even the most pessimistic Raptor fan hopeful.
That’s what winning a championship means to a fanbase – it leaves you hopeful that no matter what, it can happen again.
When Masai Ujiri traded for Kawhi Leonard in the middle of July 2018, he did more than just try to improve his team. It was a message to the organization, the fanbase and ultimately the entire basketball world that he was in it to win it.
It’s easy to forget that trading for Leonard was a risk. While Kawhi was a phenomenal player and an upgrade from DeMar DeRozan, Leonard had spent much of the previous season on the sideline nursing an injury that he felt was more severe than the San Antonio Spurs were treating it. It led to Leonard reportedly asking for a trade and played out as a bad break up between him and one of the most respected organizations in sports.
On the other side, Ujiri was getting one of the best players in the league but he was giving up an All-Star who had become beloved in the city and country at large. Losing DeRozan was bigger than basketball. He embraced the country and team when every other All-Star before him had seemingly turned their backs on them. DeRozan and Lowry seemed to have an unbreakable bond that served as the springboard for the team’s regular-season success over the years.
It always felt like they were one step away from breaking through. Some of the fanbase felt it was the right move to swap DeRozan for Leonard, but there was a large portion that wanted to see how things would play out now that LeBron James was no longer going to be an obstacle in the East.
Coming off the back of firing Dwane Casey, who had just won Coach of the Year, Ujiri made two moves that left him open to criticism from the masses: Giving an unknown coach named Nick Nurse a shot at trying to get the Raptors to the next level and bringing in a disgruntled superstar who reportedly had no interest in playing in Toronto and was only under contract for one season – two moves that at the time were going to define his legacy for better or worse.
We know how the story ends now, but the journey was full of ups and downs along the way. The country came together and supported a basketball team – something many thought would never happen – on their dramatic march towards a first-ever title.
Last summer the weeks of “Kawhi Watch” coverage saw fans gather outside of restaurants and hotels whenever word made the rounds that Leonard was in the building. Private planes were tracked, 24-hour news channels broke their regular coverage to update the latest on the Klaw – it was all-out madness.
While Kawhi ultimately chose to leave the country, it shined a spotlight on something that’s been brewing for a while: Canada is a basketball country, and the Raptors are the heartbeat.
For the last 16 months or so, as the rest of the basketball world has had to address the Raptors as defending champs, they’ve also had to acknowledge that within the great white north lives arguably the best fanbase in the NBA. It hasn’t been exclusive to outsiders; in fact, many in Canada itself have had to acknowledge Raptor fever.
And Raptors fever is starting to trickle over to the many Canadians who are in the league. According to Forbes, playoff ratings were up 41 percent from last year’s first-round series that didn’t include Toronto. It’s long been said that Canadian hoop fans only care about the Raptors, but that’s starting to change.
So while many Raptor fans come to terms with the fact that Toronto’s title defence came to an abrupt end in Game 7, maybe the end should be looked at as a beginning.
A beginning to a new era in Raptors fandom. The expectation that the front office will do everything they can to once again bring home a winner. The expectation that players no longer look at Toronto as a second-class NBA market.
Over the last 24 months, the Raptors and Canada have finally become a big part of the NBA conversation, and a 2020 playoff exit isn’t going to change that.
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