Basketball is a touchy subject when you’re a Toronto Raptors fan in Golden State Warriors territory. Just ask Susan Prasher and Veet Misra, Canadian expats who have lived in San Francisco for the past 14 years.
The couple’s son Rishi, 15, was born in Toronto, and remains loyal to his hometown Raptors. Shaan, 11, was born in San Francisco and is dedicated to the Warriors.
With the two teams facing off in the NBA Finals for the first time, even the parents are taking opposing sides. Prasher, a former teacher from Toronto, is rooting for the Raptors. Misra, a banker who grew up in Atlantic Canada, backs the Warriors.
That makes game nights for the family just a little bit uncomfortable. “It’s so awkward, because these are both great cities and this is a lovely place to be,” Prasher says.
She has been gently toning down the basketball debates between the boys, while nudging Shaan to give Toronto a chance. “I reminded him that the entire United States is not, in fact, rooting for the Warriors anymore.”
The San Francisco Bay Area is home to an estimated 35,000 Canadians, many of them drawn there after going to university in Ontario for jobs in tech and finance. Until this week, however, being a Raptors fan was a largely thankless task in a region that boasts one of the most successful basketball teams in recent NBA history.
There wasn’t even much of a rivalry between the teams before the Finals. The Raptors were barely on the radar in California. Most Warrior supporters looked at the match-up with Toronto with a mix of surprise and compassion. “Anybody before this year’s playoff, if they said they were a Raptors fan, then I took them at face value,” says Amar Singh, who played competitive basketball at the University of Waterloo. “Being a Raptors fan here, you didn’t advertise that in public.”
As recently as last summer, Daniel Wiser, a Toronto-born marketing consultant in San Francisco, had trouble finding enough loyal Raptors fans to get a group together to watch a game, let alone recreate the sense of community he felt back home. “That’s a really important part of being a fan that’s really hard to replicate when you’re living in a different city,” he says, “particularly when you’re living in the belly of the beast.”
But after the Raptors beat the Warriors 118-109 in Game 1 on Thursday night, things have started to change.
Canadians are coming out of the woodwork in droves in the Bay Area to organize dozens of viewing parties at bars and homes, scrambling to buy game tickets that start at US$750 each and asking family back home to send them Raptors gear.
“In my time being here and going to bars for Warriors playoff games, I’ve never seen a group of opposing fans of that size,” said Kiva Dickinson, a Torontonian working in venture capital in San Francisco. ”Any Canadian that I know down here is getting really, really excited about it.”
Dickinson is even debating whether to fly home to Toronto if the series makes it to Game 7. He’s not alone. Air Canada is offering 15-per-cent discount on its San Francisco-Toronto route, though round-trip economy prices home for Game 2 on Sunday now top $3,000 Canadian.
The Canadian consulate in San Francisco is helping to organize a “We the North” watch party for Game 3 after hearing from Canadians planning to travel to the region. Canadian brands, including Raptors owners Maple Leafs Sports and Entertainment, are also planning to hold events in the Bay Area.
“This is the largest bilateral public diplomatic event we’re likely to see in a while,” consul-general Rana Sarkar says.
Sarkar was in Ottawa for trade talks earlier this week, where he mentioned the NBA Finals to U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence. The Raptors “are a metaphor for Canada," Sarkar says, “underdogs, whose fan base is rooted in the irrepressible, inclusive hopefulness of the multiethnic outer suburbs.”
With the Raptors prevailing over the Warriors in Game 1, team rivalries are just now starting to heat up around the Bay Area.
New Balance put up a billboard in Oakland of Toronto star Kawhi Leonard, which says “The King of the North is Coming.”
San Francisco radio station 102.9 KBLX announced it was banning Drake from its airwaves during the Finals.
Technology advocacy groups in Toronto and San Francisco have bet each other on the finals, with the money raised going to charity.
In the past colleagues at his San Francisco venture capital firm joked that Edmonton-native Vivek Ramaswami only supported the Raptors because he was Canadian. “Now it’s like: ‘Oh, this is like a legitimate team that made it to the Finals,’ ” he said.
“One of my co-workers won’t talk about it with us,” Aysha Nesbitt says. The daughter of Canadian diplomats, she grew up watching Raptors games with other Canadian expat families over morning pancakes in India and Singapore before moving to Oakland – ground zero for Warriors fans – last fall.
Toronto-native Lex Gopnik-Lewinksi decided to take a gamble and host a Game 2 watch party at his Canadian-themed restaurant, Augie’s Montreal Deli and Tap Room, in Berkeley, Calif., on Sunday. He said that may upset "all of our Warriors fans. But as a Canadian I feel this loyalty to Canada, and the Raptors are Canada’s team.” The move is particularly dicey given that one of the investors in Gopnik-Lewinski’s restaurant is a Warriors co-owner.
Many Raptors fans in the Bay Area quietly say they still expect the Warriors ultimately to win the series. But they believe the match-up offers a chance to put Toronto on the NBA map and show Silicon Valley the passion and diversity of fans across Canada.
“It’s kind of become the water-cooler conversation: ‘Oh my gosh, do you see all those people lining up 14 hours before a game in a thunderstorm to watch on a screen outside the stadium?’ ” Dickinson says. “People are in awe of that down here.”