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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

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Is it nationalism? Patriotism? An excuse to scream and shout in public or private? What is it about coming this close to winning the NBA Finals that gets a total sports illiterate such as myself into a We the North lather?

I watched the Raptor’s first game against the Golden State Warriors alone at my co-parent’s house. I can’t get the game on my basic cable package, so I came here. He’s gone to sleep. Zero interest in sports. And to be honest, up until recently, I didn’t have much either. I can count on less than two hands the pro athletes whose names rolled off my tongue before last week, and most of them aren’t even playing any more: Tim Horton, Bobby Orr, Tom Brady, Allen Iverson, Wayne Gretzky and LeBron James.

But this was my third basketball game in the past two weeks. I am clearing my schedule and tuning in for all of them. I got together with my sports-fan friends (they’ll watch anything – soccer, hockey, baseball, curling, all Olympic sports, except maybe not rhythmic gymnastics). We watched the final two matches (do they even call them matches?) against the Milwaukee Bucks. The stress of the last game nearly killed me. It’s bizarre how quickly I mustered up such extreme feelings of caring, concern, frustration or disappointment. I seem to be taking this sport I know virtually nothing about very personally. When we walked in to watch Game 6, one of my friends was wearing a green sweatshirt. “What are you thinking?” I cried. “Go put on red!” Because we all know that our individual actions will propel this team forward or cause them to lose. The last time I got this excited about a sport was 26 and 27 years ago, when the Blue Jays won the World Series. So I’m due.

I’m almost a superfan (well, as super as I’m ever going to get). I walk around giving the thumbs up to strangers wearing “We the North” gear or anything with a dinosaur on it. I’m moved to almost tears by all the people gathered across the country and around the world to watch Canada (not just the Raptors, but Canada) play Golden State. It’s a historic event. The first time our national anthem has been sung at the NBA Finals. I stood up alone in front of the TV and sang along: all by myself, with millions of other Canadians.

I have gleaned some basketball basics. The ball goes in the hoop and swinging off the hoop is allowed. You can’t just run down the court carrying the ball. If it’s shot from far away it counts for three points. Penalty shots are worth one. You can wear any colour shoes you want. The game can turn on a dime. Stephen Curry is the best three-point guy in the league and his dad played for the Raptors, so he has a soft spot for Toronto but not soft enough to throw the game, so who cares. That’s where my understanding ends. Every time a player receives a foul I think, “Wait, what?” I have no idea which team did the bad thing or what the bad thing was.

People pay thousands of dollars for tickets to these final games, even the nosebleed seats cost a fortune. (Frankly, I’d choose a new dishwasher.) Fans wait 15 hours just to stand outside the arena at Jurassic Park in Toronto. (I prefer a couch from which to jump up and clap.) They even get tattoos. Like, permanent ones that some artists do for free. Because “We the North” is forever. All this is totally excessive and, yet, I kind of get it. Two weeks ago, I couldn’t have named a single Raptor. Suddenly I know not only their actual names but their nicknames and I’m cheering away for Spicy P and hoping that Kawhi (the Klaw) Leonard stays in Toronto.

I feel a giddy sense of pride in my country. And yet there’s always something potentially scary about crowds being whooped up into a proud fervour. Like the game of basketball, things can turn (ugly) on a dime. I’m queer, but I know that pride often equals exclusion. Nationalism is and always has been a dangerous ideology upon which a country or people can build a sense of nationhood.

But other times nationalism is simply a beautiful thing. It’s not about exclusion or division or who belongs and who doesn’t. It’s a million points of connection across differences. It’s shared joy. Sometimes fleeting (such as my passion for the Raptors, I fear), but always a place to begin. Where sports are concerned, I’m as ignorant as they come, but I do know that sport brings people together and creates some of the earliest opportunities for social integration for new immigrants and refugees. When your whole life has been upended and thrown into chaos, running around together on a field or a court or watching a game that requires no language must feel so normal and good. When the FIFA World Cup is on, people from more than 30 countries drive around honking horns and flying their motherland flags. The noise can be a little annoying, but it gives me that same overwhelming feeling of happiness. Celebrating your country of origin is a proud Canadian thing, too. Come on “We the North,” let’s stand up for what this country looks like at its best – like that sea of diversity at Jurassic Park.

Aviva Rubin lives in Toronto.