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Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry holds the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy up for the fans during the NBA basketball championship team's victory parade on June 17, 2019. With the pandemic cancelling live events, sports networks have been replaying the Raptors’ playoff run.Frank Gunn/The Associated Press

Akash Pasricha is the host of Spotlight on the Six, a podcast celebrating the work of outstanding Torontonians.

For a few short weeks in Toronto, time stood still.

During the Raptors’ historic championship run exactly one year ago, no one seemed to care about the day, or the week, or the month. There were only game days and the days in between. Nothing else seemed to matter.

On game days, the city fell into a rhythm. Co-workers were a little more giddy. Meetings were a little more fun. We were all living the same story. Game days felt a bit like the Friday buzz before high-school prom – only this time, the entire city was going to the dance.

As the afternoon turned to evening, sidewalks got busier. Flashes of Raptors logos become seas of red, white and purple. People steadily charged south, many to their own viewing parties, but most toward Jurassic Park – the area that formed the epicentre of fans’ Raptors rapture, outside Scotiabank Arena.

Tip-off coincided almost perfectly with nightfall. Shops were closed. Roads were empty. Bars were packed to the brim. Fans peered through restaurant windows trying to find a view of a screen. Matt Devlin’s in-game commentary became a hum that consumed the city. Around every corner, Toronto echoed in unison: cheers, gasps and cries were all part of an ensemble.

Night by night, the Raptors marched toward the finish line. After every victory came shock, relief, wonder and pride. The city found its routine, huddling in city squares and dancing on buses into the night – but few people could process what was happening in real time.

When the final buzzer sounded and Toronto became NBA champions, I was standing in a park at the foot of the CN Tower, where they’d extended Jurassic Park with a fourth screen. Some people jumped; others stood still with their hands on their heads. Some dropped to their knees, while others wept in joyous disbelief. Cell service went down, so we had no choice but to live in the moment. We made eye contact with each other. We high-fived. We hugged. There was a lull between the moment the final buzzer rang and the hours in which the masses climbed traffic poles and filled the streets, chanting long into the night. In that lull: a city overcome with emotion, in joyful paralysis.

With the pandemic cancelling live events, sports networks have been replaying the Raptors’ playoff run. And as I’ve watched, I’ve found myself reminiscing and missing the physical energy of the experience. Watching it on TV is hardly comparable. So, last week, I decided to take a stroll through the newly minted Raptors Way in Jurassic Park, hoping to – at least figuratively – feel some of the magic once again.

Toronto Mayor John Tory (gold jacket) looks up at the screen as Toronto Raptors fans cheer as they gather to watch Game Six of the NBA Finals outside of Scotiabank Arena on June 13, 2019 in Toronto. In the span of a few short months, we’ve gone from a city that came together as close as humanly possible, to a place where we stay as far apart as we can.Cole Burston/Getty Images

Many memories did come rushing back: weaving through crowds and balancing tiptoed on curbs to get the best view possible. But the street’s emptiness still made the place practically unrecognizable. Sure, there were no barricades, no screens and no people. But most potently: the people that were there were systematically avoiding each other, as we’ve all now learned to do.

In the span of a few short months, we’ve gone from a city that came together as close as humanly possible, to a place where we stay as far apart as we can. And while the circumstances have understandably changed and there’s nothing we can do about it, this puts many of our community’s most beautiful moments in jeopardy.

The magic of those memories was not just the scale at which celebrations and viewing parties unfolded; it was also the intimacy of it all. It was exhilarating to be packed into a park with strangers, to feel the heat of the person next to you, and to be able to trust them based on nothing more than our common purpose. The spontaneous fist pumps, the impromptu dance circles and the random feats of collaboration were all a testament to the relationships we all built in the moment, and so much of that energy and trust relies on proximity alone.

The question now is not whether Toronto will ever get to live those kinds of moments again. Rather, we’re asking a much bigger question: will anyone?

I choose to be optimistic, to believe there will come a time when sports can safely bring together fans again. When the pandemic ends and when we’re healthy – not if, but when – we’ll again crave the warmth of strangers in our community. After all, if there’s one thing Canadian sports fans know how to do well, it’s finding the heart to show up full-force after long periods of hopelessness.

And just as with sports, we should know that we’re still united for a common goal. Just like one year ago, the roads are a little emptier, the days blend together and time is standing relatively still. Once again, we’re in sync, playing for the same team, sharing this experience.

We may not be playing for the Larry O’Brien Trophy, but this summer, we’re playing for something much bigger: the day Canada reaches zero new cases, when we can mingle again freely and fearlessly.

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