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Basketball Canada’s team? Winning Raptors may fulfill a lofty ambition

In terms of ingredients, the Raptors are ready to make one hell of a cake. Now they just have to bake it.

Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

Not long ago, Game 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers was ‘the biggest win in Toronto Raptors history’. A lot of people said so. Kawhi Leonard came to work in a cape; Toronto avoided disaster; the series tide was turned.

People said the same thing about Game 7 against Philly. Biggest ever. And then Game 4 in this one against Milwaukee. And now Game 5.

That’s a lot of biggest-evers in three weeks, especially when you’ve been plugging away at it for a quarter-century.

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As good as that is, it is still only the microgoal of this franchise. It is currently living in another three-week window that might see it win a championship. Big, big ‘might’. Maybe the biggest ever.

The macrogoal – one that’s always superseded any one trophy – is making this club Canada’s unifying team.

The man who put current Raptors events in motion, former Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment president Tim Leiweke, talked about that all the time. He thought the hockey landscape too fractured to build something monolithic. Too many teams, too many loyalties, all of them too hard-wired. There was nowhere to grow.

When Sportsnet bought up the NHL’s national TV rights, Leiweke called that decision a dud the week it happened. Local rights was the smart play. Tribalism was the only thing you could count on when it comes to the national pastime.

“Basketball could be No. 1 in this country,” Leiweke once said. “It just takes the right team.”

And when I smirked and said, “But you know, hockey …” he looked over at me sadly. He wasn’t about to argue the point. He’d run a couple of multibillion-dollar corporations and I was running a crushing amount of household debt. He didn’t really have to bother.

What Leiweke had faith in was basketball’s universality and marketability. The sport is simple to understand, but the characters are complex. The drama produced by the combination is best-in-world. No league is more interesting than the NBA. And ‘interesting’ is a commodity unconstrained by borders.

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Since the Raptors would be staffed by an almost entirely non-Canadian group, no regional grudges or tall-poppyism could creep in. While Canadians are kind to everyone else, as with any big family that lives a distance apart, they are ruthless to one another.

Leiweke set about trying to make people forget the ‘Toronto’ part of the Toronto Raptors. That’s what “We the North” was about.

This city isn’t “the North.” It lies on the same line of latitude as Milwaukee. If we’re going to get technical about it, the tag line might be “We The Middle.”

But “the North” is how Canada sees itself. Every Canadian can be part of that idea. Which is why it has proved so infectious.

Up to that point, I didn’t know anybody outside Toronto who cared about the Raptors. I’m sure they were out there, but they were keeping it to themselves. Who could blame them? The team was atrocious and, more damning, boring.

The Raptors produced no characters, which is death to a team a couple of rungs down the ladder. The question people most want answered about sports stars is, “What is he like?” They’re not talking about his skating ability. They want to know what sort of person he is, so that they might make a better decision about whether to pull for him.

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Nobody ever asked me about any of the Raptors. They didn’t care.

“We the North” pushed interest in the Raptors outside city limits. Drake helped, too. The team won a few games and that’s the best sort of advertising.

But the tipping point to Leiweike’s vision – if that is indeed what this turns out to be – is Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard doesn’t say anything interesting. The most interesting thing he says is, “Ready, set, go” before he does scrums – meant to indicate that if the questions do not start rolling immediately, he’s leaving.

By being so relentlessly and humourlessly uninteresting, Leonard has made himself the most interesting athlete in the country. You don’t have to care about the team or the sport to want to know what this guy is like.

Leonard is a transcendent athlete in that he appeals to all people everywhere. He can be everyone’s favourite since, in liking Leonard, you are saying something about yourself – stoic, competent, not concerned with what others think of you.

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In New York or Los Angeles, Leonard is a curiosity. In this country, he’s an in-utero national icon. He’s the Canada Canada would like to be.

Kawhi Leonard gives a master’s showcase in playmaking

Of course, none of that works unless the Raptors win. It would be best if they win in a championship-less void. Canada’s got that part covered for them.

Hockey is the national sport and probably always will be, but it is also profoundly regional. Unless we are talking about the Olympics, no one team is going to pull us together from sea-to-sea-to-sea.

The Toronto Blue Jays are returning to their habitual state of somnolence, one that seems to be slowly taking over the entire sport. Baseball will always be a sport of the past, but it has rarely seemed more so than it does now.

But basketball has possibilities. It has the moment and it has the man. Even the timing – the first hint of summer – is perfect. In whatever city or town, it’s when people want to be out on the streets, being together. A winning team gives you the excuse.

In terms of ingredients, the Raptors are ready to make one hell of a cake. Now they just have to bake it.

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Maybe Saturday is the moment Leiweke was thinking of. The Raptors can clinch their NBA final berth with a win at home over Milwaukee.

If it happens, it will be a big deal in downtown Toronto. They’ll have the crash barriers and mounted police out to keep things fun rather than freaky. The streets will be humming till all hours. Those nights don’t happen often here, and they are always amazing.

But maybe it’s more than that. Maybe this is the win that breaks through and gets the whole country excited and on board. Maybe, for a few days at least, basketball becomes No. 1 in this country. After that, maybe a lot of things become possible.

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