Toronto Raptors, NBA champions. Sounds nice, doesn't it? Get used to hearing it a lot more.
It’s a moniker the Raptors have never had in their 24-year history, until Thursday night, when they beat the Golden State Warriors 114-110 in Game 6 of an emotionally charged finals series. For Torontonians, and Canadian fans who rallied behind the team, Thursday was a night of raucous celebration in cities across the country. For Almonte, Ont., it was a symbolic homecoming for the sport invented by its most famous native son, educator James Naismith. And in Oakland, Calif., it was a bitter farewell to the Warriors’ old home court, Oracle Arena, and a moment of doubt for the team’s future in a changing National Basketball Association.
Here are some of the highlights from Thursday night’s drama and the day that followed.
How the Raptors celebrated
Raptors president Masai Ujiri took some ambitious gambles over the past year to bring the team to another level, such as replacing head coach Dwane Casey with Nick Nurse, a lead assistant who had never been an NBA head coach before. But one of the biggest risks was trading veteran DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for forward Kawhi Leonard, who quickly became the team’s superstar player.
After Thursday's game, Leonard recalled the days after the trade and how he built a bond with teammates who missed their friend DeRozan:
I wanted to make history here and that’s all I did. I texted Kyle probably a day later – or the day that I got traded and told him I said let’s go out and do something special. I know your best friend left, I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out. And we are here today.
As for Ujiri, local law enforcement in Oakland allegedly gave him some trouble reaching the court to celebrate with his team. Just after the game ended, Ujiri tried to go to the trophy presentation but was stopped by a deputy who asked him for his credentials: The men pushed each other, during which Ujiri’s arm struck the deputy in the jaw, Sergeant Ray Kelly of the Alameda County Sheriff’s office alleged Friday. Neither the Alameda County district attorney nor the Raptors’ parent company, MLSE, immediately responded to The Canadian Press’s requests for comment.
How Toronto celebrated
The Raptors’ downtown Toronto arena was empty Thursday as the team played in Oakland, but the streets were full to bursting with fans after the game. The crowd sang Queen’s We Are the Champions as they streamed out of the Jurassic Park fan zone. Yonge-Dundas Square was a scene of pandemonium: By 12:30 a.m., fans began filling and climbing on top of a bus near Queen Street, and police didn’t clear it out until 3 a.m.
During the celebrations, fan Tim Simpson gestured to the diversity of the faces around him to illustrate why the Raptors' win is so meaningful:
This win means everything. More people, more diversity, that’s why basketball is so popular. Look at all of these different faces. All of these different cultures.
But wait, there’s more...
On Monday morning the city will host a parade in honour of the team and its championship, beginning at Exhibition Place and ending at Nathan Phillips Square with a noon-hour rally.
How the rest of Canada celebrated
Toronto wasn't the only city celebrating on Thursday night: Montreal shut down two city blocks to allow the improbable: Thousands of people cheering a team from Toronto. One man was booed when he arrived in a blue Warriors T-shirt. But he ripped it off to reveal a Raptors jersey. The Warriors shirt was set on fire, burning until police doused it.
Fans in Regina, as they did on Monday, watched on the massive screen at the Roughriders’ home stadium, while Edmontonians headed to the Expo Centre. Cineplex theatres screened the game at locations across the country, as they had for other games in the finals.
How politicians celebrated
Toronto Mayor John Tory spent Thursday night whooping it up with fans, and promised a “best parade ever” to celebrate after the win. Across Canada, leaders of all political stripes, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and several provincial premiers, got on the Raptors bandwagon and tweeted their congratulations after the game’s end.
THE TORONTO @RAPTORS ARE NBA CHAMPIONS!!!— Doug Ford (@fordnation) June 14, 2019
Congratulations to all the players and organization for bringing basketball fans across Canada on this incredible journey to a historic #NBAFinals victory!
What a glorious day for Canada, and therefore of course, the world! #WeTheNorth https://t.co/TaR2fGONwm
Bravo aux Raptors!— François Legault (@francoislegault) June 14, 2019
Champions de la NBA!
Quelle fin de match stressante!
How the cradle of basketball celebrated
The Raptors’ win had special significance in Almonte, Ont., a small town west of Ottawa. That’s the hometown of James Naismith, whose career as a physical educator in the United States led him to invent basketball in Springfield, Mass., in 1891.
Dr. Naismith’s grandson, retired engineer Jim Naismith of Texas, wrote for The Globe and Mail about his famous ancestor and what it means for the NBA championship trophy to finally fall into Canadian hands:
Basketball may have been invented by a Canadian, but it touched lives around the world as much and as soon as it left that Canadian’s mind. And now, with the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy in Canada, where the Toronto Raptors have galvanized a country and inspired a generation of young Canadians, it’s finally home. I think if he were around today to hear that, he’d smile and say, “Well, how about that.”
How the Warriors fared
For the Warriors, who won the NBA finals the previous two years, Thursday night showed a still-ambitious but weary team. They arrived at Oracle Arena without star player Kevin Durant and left without Klay Thompson, two players who might not play at all next season. Durant had surgery to replace an Achilles tendon that ruptured during Game 5, while Thompson reportedly tore his ACL.
No team has ever had a five-year run like the one the Warriors put together since the hiring of coach Steve Kerr in 2014. They’ve won 77 per cent of their games, including playoffs, and went to the NBA Finals five straight years, the second-longest streak in NBA history. Now, they face an offseason of uncertainty due to the players' injuries; the possibility that, when Durant becomes a free agent, the Warriors might have to compete for him against other teams; and the looming move from Oracle Arena to the new Chase Center in San Francisco, which has left a bitter taste in the mouths of some diehard fans who prefer rugged Oakland to the ritzy city across the bay.
Kerr, for his part, emphasized the positives on Thursday, focusing on the team's sterling record:
What I’ve witnessed as their coach over the last five years is just an incredible combination of talent and character and commitment to each other. This just doesn’t happen. A group of guys like this doesn’t come around together and do what they did over the last five years.
What will Leonard do next?
After the post-game elation wears off, the next big question for the Raptors is whether Leonard will stay with the team. He becomes a free agent next summer, and hasn’t given any hints if he’ll re-sign; asked about it Thursday, he said “I’m going to enjoy this with my teammates and coaches and I’ll think about that later.”
Whatever the outcome, Leonard has earned the respect of fans for a phenomenal season, columnist Cathal Kelly writes from Oakland:
It would be wrong to say Leonard now takes his place in the roll call of Toronto sports greats, because no one in living memory can match what he’s managed over the last two months.
It wasn’t the numbers, though those were staggering. It was the implacability, the stubborn refusal to admit what every other team in this country has known for an entire generation – that if you give up, Canadians will forgive you. Leonard wouldn’t let them. Through force of will, he dragged everyone through the first three rounds of the playoffs. In terms of Canadian heroes, Leonard isn’t Dave Keon-good. He’s Dudley Do-Right good. He’s so good he is essentially imaginary.
Required Raptors reading: More from our archives
Relive the other games in the finals
The Raptors’ transformation in 2018
Meet the superfans
Compiled by Globe staff
With reports from Rachel Brady, Cathal Kelly, Maria Iqbal, Matthew Lapierre, The Canadian Press, Associated Press and Reuters
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