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ILLUSTRATION BY DREW SHANNON

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The Toronto Raptors start the new season as NBA champions. Four months after their historic win I should be used to it, but that sentence still seems unfathomable.

The Raptors stole my heart when I was five years old and have held on with an iron grip ever since. I’m confident the Raptors will have another strong year. The departures of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green will hurt, but a team returning with 10 NBA champions should never be underestimated.

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The Raptors have always meant a lot to me and my family. For most of the team’s early years, there wasn’t much to love, but that didn’t matter. When I was young, basketball was my everything. I devoured books about it and played the game with my brothers constantly. Our Little Tikes net was the scene of many battles. The two youngest going up against the oldest. When our aunts and uncles came over, we would create tickets to the game and hand them out during dinner. If we weren’t playing, you could find us busy with video games such as NBA Courtside 2 or NBA Showtime. At the age of 7, I started competing in organized leagues. Every day of my youth involved a heavy dose of basketball in some form. I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

The Raptors were at the center of this love affair, and when I think of them, I think of the people I care about the most. I had tethered myself to this team as a child, and in turn, it tied itself around my family.

From 2002 to 2010, my dad had three season tickets. If he wasn’t taking clients to a game, my brothers and I would take turns going. Those games are some of the most cherished memories of my childhood. I was so emotionally invested, it felt as though I was a member of the team. I would go crazy, cheering on my 30-win Raptors as if it were the World Cup final. Losing my voice was a constant problem.

My brothers, my dad and me are still die-hard fans. We’ve watched hundreds, maybe even thousands, of games together. My Dad gave up his season tickets when he retired, but he still watches every game; his blood pressure often rising to unsafe levels. Normally he is a calm, collected and disciplined man – but not when it comes to basketball. His spontaneous outbursts and body spasms are reserved solely for Raptors’ games. At times, he is so keyed up he can hardly watch. Few things come between him and the game. One time, my sister was studying for her MCAT (the biggest exam of her life) while we were watching a playoff game. She asked if we could turn down the volume since she couldn’t concentrate. My dad simply looked at her and said, “Quiet Laura.”

When Kawhi Leonard made the buzzer-beater in the semi-finals against Philadelphia, our living room erupted. I’m talking primal screams of ecstasy. Our terrified cat ran out of the room as if a bomb had exploded. I was jumping uncontrollably. We high-fived and cheered, my dad teared up. It was one of the happiest moments of my life, and I’m not ashamed to say that.

Sport is one of the most beautiful things in the world. Its power to transcend and connect people, to evoke moments of pure emotion, is unrivalled. It bothers me when some people stick up their noses at sports and its fans, as if we’re engaging in some sort of silly, simplistic and meaningless pursuit. It’s pretentious and cynical. There is more to sport than just the game. It forges bonds and fosters shared experiences that can always be cherished.

My family has experienced thousands of Raptors moments together, dating back 19 years. Watching that buzzer-beater will always bring a smile to my face and it has nothing to do with the Raptors winning the series. A few days later, I moved to the United States for the rest of the season. Watching that game together created special memories I could take with me.

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Sometimes I wonder why the Raptors have such a hold over me. Why does the team’s win/loss record affect my mood? Why do insults against them feel personal? Why are they so capable of hijacking my thoughts? It’s because they are home.

I know 30 years from now, when I watch my favourite team, I’ll think of my dad. No matter where in the world I am, when I tune into a game, I know exactly where he’s sitting in the living room. Depending on how it’s going, I can guess his mood. In my mind’s eye, I can deduce his body posture and predict likely comments. I can sense his frustration when free throws are missed or his anxiety whenever a commentator talks too confidently about a lead. Even if I’m a thousand miles away, it’s like I’m right there with him. There is nothing meaningless about that.

NBA players were my superheroes growing up. NBA seasons were my comic books. Basketball will always be a bridge to my childhood and you should never lose your inner child. The Raptors make me feel like a kid again.

Matthew Clademenos lives in Toronto.

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