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Sports The rarest of Canadian nights: Raptors’ Eastern Conference win unites a city, at least for one moment

Fans react at Jurassic Park as the Toronto Raptors advance to the NBA finals after defeating the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 in game six of the NBA Eastern Conference finals in Toronto on May 25, 2019.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

About 90 minutes after the Toronto Raptors had won the biggest game in recent (and not very recent) memory, there was no hubbub outside the Scotiabank Arena.

As you wandered up into the downtown proper, that’s where it started. You could hear the screaming from a good distance. And it did not stop for a long way.

It was well past midnight, but the streets were thronged with thousands of people doing jumping jacks up and down the sidewalk. Strangers spontaneously hugged other strangers. Cars were honking like the tsunami was coming in any minute and they needed to get uphill.

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The intersection of King and John Streets had been taken over by an impromptu dance party. Streetcars were backed up a block. Drivers were making three-point turns. The two cops managing the intersection were trying very hard not to see the hundreds of dancers 10 feet away. Sometimes, the little laws don’t apply.

The Raptors had beaten the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 in Game 6 of the NBA’s Eastern Conference final on Saturday night to advance to the league championship for the first time in franchise history. Game 1 of that best-of-seven series is Thursday in Toronto against the Golden State Warriors.

It was that rarest of Canadian nights, and possibly the best – a spontaneous sports eruption.

Raptors players appear at Jurassic Park to celebrate with fans.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

In normal cities, these are reserved for the winning of championships. Toronto is not normal in this regard and therefore can’t be picky.

The Toronto Raptors are going to the NBA final. What an unusual sentence. It’s good enough for this town. They got there in the Secretariat fashion – allowing their opponent a sizable lead, then winking as they lapped them.

Really, this should not have happened. Not in this world. Toronto teams are known for a few things – big talk, profitability and that they are manufactured to be self-folding. Milwaukee had heat-pressed everyone it had played all year. The Raptors had more than a few chances to give up and pushed through each time.

Near the end of the third quarter of Game 6, they were down 15 points. I was in the midst of booking a flight back to Milwaukee for the deciding game. That’s when a voice spoke to me: “If you build it, he will come. Also, that flight is non-refundable, stupid.”

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That’s when Kawhi Leonard showed up. After going once more unto the breach on the Bucks, the rest of Raptors piled through. The gang of them put Milwaukee down during eight remarkable minutes.

Afterward, Raptors president Masai Ujiri called Mr. Leonard “the best player in the league.” Mr. Leonard – a man so stoic Zeno would have found him dry – stood beside Mr. Ujiri with an expression that said, "Did I leave the stove on?"

A month ago, that kind of “best of” talk is pure advertising. Right now, it’s the result of a weeks-long scientific study. Mr. Leonard is, just in this moment, when it actually matters, the best basketball player alive. He might be the best player at anything anywhere.

Next up – Golden State. Though it is impossible, it just might be possible. This guy can do anything. If Mr. Leonard told me he’d never flown the Space Shuttle but wanted to try, I’d be all, “Does it have keys or is it a push-button start? For stealing purposes.”

The history of Toronto (26 years since an appearance by a local team in a major-league final); the unlikeliness of the win; Mr. Leonard’s divine appearance in our midst; the fact that it was Saturday night and lovely outside – all of this combined to pop off an hours-long, multiblock party.

As a culture, we no longer do what you would call festivals. Not big ones.

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What we have now are holidays, which are quiet times with family and friends. We don’t pour out into the streets to dance with strangers. It’s too pagan for us civilized people.

There are a couple of holidays meant to provide this option, but they are either oversold (New Year’s) or goofy (St. Paddy’s) and always contrived. Sensible people avoid them.

Because it cannot be scheduled and there is no guarantee it will be repeated, a great sports win fulfills this necessary societal function. It is the release valve on our tight, puritan hearts.

The Toronto Raptors celebrate defeating the Milwaukee Bucks, receiving their first Eastern Conference Finals trophy.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

It’s the only reason a city dweller can be up on his roof howling at the moon past midnight and not expect his neighbours to call the cops. Or pop over to hit him with a golf club.

As I walked the long way home, a great many drivers were caught in the snarl caused by all this frivolity. Not a one looked put out. Most were sitting there by themselves, smiling foolishly.

The last time the city proper had experienced something this momentous was the Blue Jays winning the World Series in 1992 and 1993. Sidney Crosby winning a men’s hockey gold for Canada at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics had the same effect on the country. Which is to say, this stuff is a once-or-twice-in-a-generation occurrence hereabouts. Comets come by more often.

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For most of the harmless lunatics running up and down the street, this was a moment in time. For some, it was an indelible first. They’d tell their kids about it.

Despite the thousands of celebrating fans careening onto the streets, Toronto police said it’s “impressive” that they didn’t have to arrest anyone after the Raptors’ historic win on Saturday night.

When I got home – it was now past 1 a.m. – my next-door neighbour, Pedro, was out on his stoop digesting the night’s events. Usually, we’d have traded a few blandishments and gone to bed.

Instead, I went in, pulled out my best jumbo vintage from The Wine Rack and we sat out there for the next two hours talking about the game. Pedro and me, re-enacting the Kawhi dunk and the Kyle Lowry hustle plays, middle-aged men magically made young in our oldness.

In the distance, the horns were still going. Although the street is a quiet one, no one came out to give us the “time to take it indoors, guys” death stare. Around 2 a.m., someone nearby started lighting off fireworks. It was glorious and, for me, far more likely to be recalled at the distance of 20 years than whatever happened in the game. It felt like belonging.

Reasonable people do not see eye to eye on many things. Maybe most things. The tolerance of that disagreement is what underpins a civil society. Thus, our normal state is one of benign distance from one another.

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But for one night, in downtown Toronto at least, we were all together in something.

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