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Sports The Raptors have made Canada the home of triumph — but we’ll miss being losers

Toronto Raptors fans are seen camped out in Nathan Phillips Square ahead of tomorrow's Toronto Raptors Champions Parade and rally that will weave through downtown Toronto and end at City Hall. The three are wearing masks to conceal their identity so they can call in sick tomorrow from work.

Cole Burston//The Globe and Mail

When it was put to him that Monday’s victory parade for the NBA champion Toronto Raptors will draw between 1.5 million and two million spectators, Nick Nurse got a look.

“That’s it?” the Raptors coach said. “I’ll take the over on that.”

Ten years ago, if the Raptors had announced they were going to parade up to City Hall, you’d have assumed they were headed there to be put in stocks. Maybe a few dozen people would have lined the streets and thrown cabbage at them.

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Now, they’re bigger than the Beatles. We can assume that other Canadian teams will win other important trophies, but nobody’s going to be first again.

That’s why Monday will seem to be seismic. It’s not just the rediscovery of one tradition, but the death of another.

The vast majority of Monday’s attendees at the two-kilometre-long downtown Toronto parade and City Hall rally are losers. They’ve been losers most of their lives. Some of them like it that way. Now they have to figure out how to be winners. Like their grandparents were.

The last time Toronto held a traditional sports procession of this ambition was 1967, the Year of the Curse.

(The 1992 and ’93 Blue Jays didn’t visit City Hall, but instead kept the party on brand and went to the SkyDome, now known as Rogers Centre, for a rally instead).

Back in ’67, Toronto had grown weary of the Maple Leafs and of winning. Four Stanley Cups in six years was apparently too much bother.

The story about that year’s victory didn’t make the front page of this newspaper. Thirty thousand locals showed up at the parade. Leafs star Bobby Baun skipped it to go fishing with his kids. Team president Stafford Smythe swanned into Toronto’s City Hall and announced, “This is the one place I don’t get booed.”

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In sports terms, we think of ’67 as the good old days. They were instead the boring old days, because winning gets tired after a while. Victory only has flavour if it is spiced beforehand with years of losing.

That’s why it will never get any better than it is right now. It doesn’t matter if NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard stays with the Raptors or if the Leafs figure it out, you cannot replicate the feeling of doing something great that you had stopped believing was possible.

Because having seen, you now believe. Believing creates an expectation. That expectation begets disappointment if more of the feeling is not provided, and eventual apathy if it is. Speaking purely in terms of broad interest, winning can be a loser for sports teams. It puts them in an impossible bind.

Up until this point, modern Toronto (and Canadian, more generally) sports fandom was defined by emotional resilience. You didn’t have fun watching sports. You absorbed televisual punishment. Kind of like the eye-drop scene in A Clockwork Orange.

The rules went like this: You were born and inherited a team; that team is terrible; at some point, it dawns on you that it is terrible; you hate it for that; after a while, you grow to love it for its terribleness, because it allows you to have it both ways; which is good training for life.

Being a Raptors or Leafs (or Canucks or Jays or Flames) supporter was a mark of good character. It showed you weren’t a front-runner. You could be counted on in hard times.

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When you were being honest with yourself, what you really wanted to be was a fan of the powerhouse New England Patriots, but no one was offering you a green card and a job. So you stuck with what you had.

Eventually, you leaned in. Really went deep on the existentialist aspects of fandom. Know that you are doomed. Accept the pointlessness of existence. That was the Canadian Sports Way. After a while, it was oddly comforting.

Canadians won in one place – the Olympics. Everywhere else, it was proving that we were a good man to have backing you up in a fight.

So while it is great that the Raptors finally won, it’s also a little bit of a bummer.

All that work you put in proving to yourself that you knew how to fail with dignity – as well as your large collection of paper bags with eyeholes cut out of them – is useless now. You’re a champion. Accept it.

Now you may wonder if any future experience can match the past two months. It won’t.

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Mr. Nurse said he hadn’t yet been able to fully consider the passion of fans he still refers to as “the Canadians.”

He’s American. He’s born expecting to win. Seeing it flipped around confounded him. He took special note of the anthems and the way fans in Scotiabank Arena belted them out over the singers.

“You could almost see it on [the Golden State Warriors] faces, like ‘Oh, we got our hands full here,’ ” Mr. Nurse said.

You know why Canadians sing? It’s not because they think they’re better than other people. It’s because they know they aren’t, and this is their one chance during the game to win something.

The up-and-downness of the Raptors run was underpinned by the assumption this would end in tears, but people were determined to enjoy it anyway.

When Mr. Leonard sank the pivotal shot of the postseason in Game 7 in the Eastern Conference semi-final against Philadelphia, the sound in Scotiabank Arena wasn’t joy. It was catharsis. Those on hand had seen what amounted to a secular miracle worked in real time. They’d seen something metaphysical.

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Magic like that can’t be performed twice, or, at least, not for a long, long time.

Thanks to the Raptors, Canada is now the home of triumph. It’s quite right to celebrate that. But at the same time, I’ll miss the old, sad-sack version of us. Losing isn’t fun, but it has its charms.

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