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Basketball Holy jumping Jurassic joy: Devoted Raptors fans wanted to ‘be there’ to see history made

MELISSA TAIT/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

Jumping. At Jurassic Park, the outdoor corral in downtown Toronto where 20,000 people watched, on giant screens, the Toronto Raptors, Canada’s only basketball team, defeat the Golden State Warriors and win the country’s first NBA championship on Thursday night, it was all about jumping up and down. Once you started jumping, you couldn’t really stop, to judge from the evidence. When the Raptors finally claimed the game and the championship and a place in the history books, the jumping didn’t stop for 10 minutes straight. There was also kissing, screaming, hugging, spinning, high-fiving, face-covering and body slamming, but all of it was accomplished while or in between jump jump jumping, up and down and up and down and up and down, non-stop, as though everyone had somehow linked their bodies to an alternating magnetic pulse. Which, in a way, they had.

So jumping, but also rain. The rain stopped, officially, at 5:48 p.m., but it had been torrential. The streets were still wet and reflected the red Raptor lighting of the nearby CN Tower like some faint inner fire.

Natasha Scotland had been standing in the rain since 4:30 in the morning with her 13-year-old daughter Loghan and her 73-year-old mother Loma because – well, because she has been a fan of the Raptors since 1995, when she was 5, and she wanted to get into Zone 1 of Jurassic Park, to celebrate with everyone else. “Nobody wants to be alone,” Natasha said, “especially if they lose.” If the Raptors lost, “it means I’ll cry.”

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“She cries if they win. And she cries a lot if they lose,” Loma said.

Natasha ignored her. “I want it to be over,” she said. "I can’t concentrate on anything except this. I can’t do my work.” But she wanted to be there anyway. “I wanted to be part of the experience. I wanted the memory.”

That was what most people said they wanted: to “be there,” to be a part of “history,” even to be vindicated for their loyalty to a team that was once considered the squad on which aging players saw out the last seasons of their careers – the basketball equivalent of the mythological ice floe where elders were left to die. But it wasn’t only the whiff of victory that brought people out to watch. It was also pride, in their team and their city. For once, it might have been deserved.

Its cameras love closeups

This is the thing about watching basketball that makes it different from baseball and football and hockey: its cameras love closeups. The game is played fast on a short court and lets you see more shoulder and arm and leg and face than other sports, which use pads and protection. Basketball’s more personal and intimate than Canada’s dominant sport, hockey. Spectators love this, people want to emote more than they think they are allowed to. Even the way the announcers speak about the players is more aspirational, the way you would speak to a graduating class: For the last game of the series the Raptors’ Fred VanVleet was introduced as “the man who taught us all to believe in ourselves.” Pascal Siakam is rarely mentioned without reference to his “soul.” The entire team sometimes seems to serve as a self-realization guide for its fans. It’s modern.

It felt strangely comforting not to have a mind of one’s own

It was desirable, watching the last game of the series, to display as much Raptor as you could. Jerseys were preferred – Kawhi Leonard’s, No. 2, was the most common, followed by Kyle Lowry (7), DeMar DeRozan (10), Pascal Siakam (43) and Fred VanVleet (23). Jerseys from the 1990s exhibiting the original cartoon Raptor displayed the longevity of one’s servitude. Leather Raptor jackets were rare, ditto scarves; socks were more common, mid-calf and worn over black exercise leggings. Raptor hats were going for $38.99. More than 250 Torontonians had reportedly submitted to having Raptor logos tattooed on their skin, but you could pick up a packet of wash-off tattoos (duration 2 weeks) for $20. Jerseys, $140 each, were sold out.

Standing in Jurassic Park proper, in Zone 1, hard against Scotiabank Arena where the Raptors’ home games are played, was like watching every channel on TV at once. Basketball fans like action. There was a stage (Drake showed up) and also an expansive screen that displayed what was happening on the stage and on the court; there was a red-and-black pixel screen that displayed the word “North” in multiple languages, loud and whumping music, dancers, Canadian flags, Raptors logos, smoke machines, advertisements, and the interwaftings of weed, rum and hot dogs. The skyline of the sleek city rose above it all like a giant crown. This was where you stood if you had no money. Courtside seats, meanwhile, ran around $30,000.

All this changed as you moved further back in the fan zone, out of the section where you could buy beer and into zones 2 and 4 and 6. By the time you reached Zone 8, the metal barriers penning people in had disappeared. The crowd spilled out over the sidewalks. The smell of weed got stronger.

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Back there, the big screen was hard to see. People downloaded the NBA app to know the score and the clock. (I know a man who lost his cable and watched the entire series that way, the numbers ticking up and down. He said the suspense was unbearable.) Out there in the suburbs of Jurassic Park, people were on their phones a lot, trying to find each other. They clapped politely after a deft basket and danced to the Tim Hortons and Uber Eats jingles when they came on the screen. Out there, you became part of the communal spirit watching the game: roaring when a point was scored, chastened when a point was lost, blown this way and that by the collective mob’s reaction. All in all it was like being in a strong tide in a deep sea. It felt strangely comforting not to have a mind of one’s own.

Toronto's downtown was packed with jubilant Raptors fans after the team won the NBA finals. Fireworks, cheering and chants filled the air. The Globe and Mail

Out in Zone 8, I started to understand why the championship meant so much to so many people. I mean, you could argue that it’s all an illusion, an entertainment designed to placate us and steal our money, but there’s more to the Raptor moment than that.

Let me put it this way: In the crowds I was part of, white people were in a distinct minority, maybe 25 per cent of the crowd. Older white men were almost non-existent. It was a bracing experience to find myself in a crowd mostly different from me. At first I felt self-conscious, even alert. Then: so this is a fraction of how I imagine people of colour felt for so long among all the white people they grew up with. And yet I find myself cheering for the same team. Half the population of Toronto identifies as a visible minority, a fact tacitly recognized at basketball games, where half the audience and most of the players are as well.

It was in Zone 8 that I met Adam Aclathan. He was 24 and had been born in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. He knew everything about basketball, and therefore worried about every move on the court: “My god, backcourt violation,” he’d say, and wring his hands. He lived in Brampton and worked for a marijuana company and had a crown-shaped afro. He looked around the crowd, at the range of colour in its faces, and said “people needed to know this, that immigrants could be in this championship.” (There is only one Canadian on the Raptors; other members of the team are from outside the United States as well.) “It’s about more than the Raptors. It’s about a split in the traditional culture, and about the level playing field of sports. It’s literally beyond basketball, too. It’s like you and I, you a white man and me an immigrant brown guy, and we’re all winning as the team wins. You know what I mean? It’s a great thing, and it’s not just for the average white guy.” The point, as someone once said, I can’t remember who now, is that you don’t have to be from here to represent here. That is what the Raptors and their fans taught tight old Toronto.

I realize this is not a new idea. It’s not even the only reason the Raptor win matters. Maybe the Raptor victory lets us, however politely, point out that we’re tired of being America’s frozen little joke of a neighbour, and reminds us, possibly foolishly, that the way we’re feeling after this basketball series is the way we should keep feeling. We should stop acting like we’re less than them, because we’re not. So the winning Raptors tell us. Maybe that’s an illusion too.

Toronto Raptors supporters celebrate in the streets after the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors during Game 6 NBA Finals to win the NBA Championship, in Toronto on Friday, June 14, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Tijana Martin

Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Then the win happened, and there was no riot

There were a lot of cops out that night. Some 350 police officers had been requested for crowd control. One of them estimated the swarm at 20,000. “Give or take,” he said. A regular Raptors game requires a police presence of eight officers. “But we don’t know what’s going to happen. This has never happened before.”

Everybody had the same question: was there going to be a riot? Everyone also had an opinion, except the officer, who said “I don’t know.” Lamar Maclean, 27, a long-time fan (80 per cent of the crowd was under 30), was convinced only a win would create chaos. “I think people will be too sad and upset if we lose,” he said. “But if we win, I don’t know what’s going to happen in this city.“ Flipped cars were only the beginning. “Definitely! I’m gonna flip one!” He’d parked his own car miles away for just that reason, but he understood the impulse. “Just to show strength, I guess. Strength and ambition.”

Whereupon the win happened, and there was no riot. The game ended, the jumping occurred, and then the immense crowd, growing bigger by the minute, simply oozed out of Jurassic Park and began to coagulate at intersections across downtown Toronto – even at Yonge and Bloor, where everyone rushed into the intersection when the All Walk signs flashed, and retreated to the sidewalks when the traffic lights turned green again. Two police cars, old model Crown Victorias, got a little stomped in a tunnel, but in the time I witnessed it, no police showed up: I wondered if the cars weren’t a decoy, placed by police and intended for destruction, a safety valve. At Front and Simcoe a drummer drew a huge crowd: a young shirtless guy danced for his girlfriend, his red silk boxers blooming out over his low-slung pants. Then he made a dash for a slow-moving truck that was swarmed with revellers. I have no idea how he attached himself and stayed on. It was as if the city had been turned into a jungle gym for the night.

I was leaving the spectator park to join the thick mob on their nocturnal prowl across downtown Toronto when a woman held her hand up for a high five. “Congratulations,” she said. “We did it!” I was so surprised to be included I almost forget to say, “Yes, we did!,” and gave her palm a limp patty-cake pat in reply. Her name was Poonia Ramanpreet. “What’s next?” I said, meaning, where to now, where was the biggest party? But she misunderstood me, and smiled anyway.

“It’s crazy,” she said, “what comes after this. Because we’ve waited so long and now we’ve got this championship.” She paused. “I just don’t know what comes next.”

It’s a good question. We can’t celebrate the win forever. But we might want to remember what it looked like when it was fresh and quite beautiful.

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