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Basketball Toronto Raptors fans risk ridicule to cheer team deep in Golden State Warriors territory

Raj Singh Ghuman (centre, white jersey) and other Toronto Raptors fans gather for a photo in San Francisco, Calif. on Thursday, June 6, 2019.

Raj Singh Guman/The Canadian Press

Toronto Raptors fan Raj Singh Ghuman can’t help but release a boisterous cheer as his car — bedecked with a Raptors flag — passes another vehicle with Ontario plates on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge, deep in Golden State Warriors territory.

The Brampton, Ont.-based NBA fanatic arrived in San Francisco on Wednesday to catch Games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals at the Oracle Arena in Oakland, and couldn’t help but crow after his team trounced the reigning champions 123 to 109.

The Raptors lead the series 2-1 going into Friday’s Game 4, and on Thursday morning Ghuman threw on his Kyle Lowry jersey and headed to a San Francisco park to celebrate with other Canadian Raptors fans at a meetup he organized through WhatsApp.

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“My wife is constantly calling and messaging me: Be careful not to carry my Canada flag around, take my jersey off after a game, but I don’t listen to her. I’m a proud fan,” chuckles Ghuman, who says he was among the dozens of boisterous fans who erupted into “O Canada” at the Oracle Arena following Wednesday’s win.

The spontaneous explosion of national pride was caught on video and made the rounds on social media Thursday.

“It was literally like about a hundred of us singing the national anthem and overpowering every single person locally in that arena,” he says.

“We are known in the NBA to be the best fans but we’re also known in the NBA to travel to the most away-games. There are times when you hear the Raptors fans out-cheering the local fans…. We’re doing our parts, you know. Every single time we cheer louder, especially at home, it pumps up the players and they know we’re the real 6.”

The 40-year-old Ghuman says he’s run into many Canadian devotees of the Raptors in the Bay Area, largely because of the WhatsApp group he created.

“It started off with like three four people; now, we’ve got like 50, 60 people,” says Ghuman. “It’s bringing people together.”

Nothing has made Toronto native Sara Chugh feel more patriotic than this Finals run.

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The expat proudly wears her Raptors gear amid a sea of yellow Warriors merchandise she sees everywhere she goes.

“It’s so funny because I became patriotic once I left Canada,” says Chugh, who moved to the Bay Area in 2010 to work as a lawyer.

“I mean, I always loved the country, but then you come to the U.S. and Americans are very proud. So I have started to buy my Roots (clothes) and Raptors and Olympic Canada gear and wear it out here.”

Tongue firmly in cheek, she’s even trolled her U.S. friends by texting pictures of cheering fans in Toronto’s Jurassic Park and forwarded those boisterous renditions of Canada’s national anthem.

It’s all in good fun, she says, noting she has not detected much animosity coming from Warrior fans, who include her Chicago-bred husband.

“They have a very fun attitude with Canadians. They tend to tease us a lot,” she says, admitting that might be because some Warriors fans don’t view Canada’s team as a real threat.

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“I do think that, but that might work in our favour because then we crush them.”

Lex Gopnik-Lewinski, owner Augie’s Montreal Smoke Meat, a Berkeley deli, also detects a lot of local affection for the Canadian team, which he attributes to general ideological sympathies in northern California.

“People here in the Bay Area want to be down with Canada — the amount of people I have asking me how they can get Canadian citizenship, or if they eat enough poutine can they get across the border, especially with the climate here in the United States has been pretty striking, even with the fact that we’re in Warriors territory and we’ve got a Raptors flag up and an autographed picture of Vince Carter.”

Since opening the deli 18 months ago, Gopnik-Lewinski says it’s become a friendly haven for expats wanting to cheer homegrown sports teams.

Meanwhile, Raptors owners Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment hosted a Game 3 viewing party at a San Francisco Bar dubbed “Canada House” for the evening (including a visit from the consul general of Canada in San Francisco), while HolyCraft Brewing Company has turned into an unofficial gathering place for 26-year-old expat Shan Kuang and her university friends from Ontario.

That’s where she’ll be Friday, and if the Raptors win she expects there’ll be a “huge” after-party hosted by another Canuck friend.

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“If we win Friday, the entire city is going to be wrecked in red,” says Kuang, originally from Saskatoon, who moved to work in the tech sector. “It’s going to be all the Canadians coming out of the woodwork on a weekend game, too. It’s going to be insane.”

Then there are the Facebook group “Raptors Fans of the San Francisco Bay Area” and the Slack group “RaptorsInTheBay,” which share photos and stories about expat fans celebrating in the area and make it easy to find like-minded fans.

Ghuman, who has relatives in the Bay area, says he’s been a season ticket holder for 14 years and travels to playoff games when he can. In recent years, that’s included jaunts to Miami, Indiana, Washington, Cleveland, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

“Some people buy fancy cars, some people buy shoes, purses, bags. I have a passion for the Toronto Raptors.”

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