What the Raptors’ historic run means to Canada

TORONTO — A great many things had to transpire for 19 percent of Canada (eight million people) to tune in at some point of Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday — an intrepid trade, a shot that bounced around the rim four times, four straight Conference Finals wins, as well as a factor that has nothing to do with the greatest run in Toronto Raptors history: the NHL’s utter lack of grip over Canada.

Per the NBA, the 2018 NBA Finals averaged 595,000 Canadian viewers per game. Game 1 of the 2019 NBA Finals averaged 3.3 million Canadian viewers, doubling the first two games of the 2019 Stanley Cup Finals, played between the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues.

Those numbers are a product of the fact that only three Canadian teams made the NHL playoffs, and none got past the first round. They won’t last, and anyway, they don’t need to. As commissioner Adam Silver put it, the NBA isn’t directly competing with the NHL so much as it’s competing in the attention economy. “The way we look at our programming is that we're competing against everything else on every other channel, every other form of entertainment. So we don't necessarily focus on where hockey stands vis-a-vis the NBA.”

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Kawhi Leonard has Raptors fans feeling pretty special. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press vía AP)
Kawhi Leonard has Raptors fans feeling pretty special. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press vía AP)

The NBA did need this particular moment to tilt interest, however, a time in which Canadian sports fans could no longer justify looking away. If you want to know why, look no further than No. 2 pick Steve Francis refusing to report to the Vancouver Grizzlies in 1999, the Vancouver Grizzlies subsequently turning into the Memphis Grizzlies, and Vince Carter demanding a trade from the Toronto Raptors in 2004 — a five-year span of hope churning out hurt.

I grew up in Edmonton, Alberta — smackdab in the middle: 3,300 kilometers from Toronto, 1,200 kilometers from Vancouver — and I’ve liked basketball since I was 10 years old, when a fusion of rebellion and rejection led me by happenstance to the court.

As far as I remember, I was never much for proselytizing. I was outnumbered and I didn’t want to get voted off the island. But I’m realizing now that what I heard as a dismissal of the sport, especially from a certain age group, usually my older cousin’s friends, was really a defense mechanism, a belief that no matter how much the Raptors won, at the end of the day, they would always be the losing little brother — a belief that most of the Kyle Lowry era, as critical as it has been to creating the conditions for this moment, could not shatter. The Raptors attracted 46 percent more viewers in first three rounds of the 2019 playoffs than they did in 2016, the first time the team made the Eastern Conference finals.

Sure, more people tuned in, but there was no groundswell, no real faith. That’s what Kawhi Leonard’s historic run has given fans: a belief that doesn’t feel forced. It’s a feeling, a silver bullet that can’t be replicated by even the savviest marketing promotions.

Even he knows it. “I appreciate them for their support,” Leonard said of Raptors fans after Game 1. “Coming in, I wanted to be able to contribute to the team and be able to get them to this point, and we're doing it so far. I just feel like I did something special for them, just this group, just being able to be the first team to get to the NBA Finals for Toronto. That's how fans are — everyone out here they love, not just me.”

As an admitted loser, basketball checked off a lot of boxes for me: it looked cool, and it allowed for individual expression while being rooted in a team setting. You could play, for hours, alone. And you could play, for hours, with other people.

I tended to get lost in things, only to get bored and drop them for something else. Basketball was the only thing that held, and because of some, err … national constraints, it often remained an isolated experience. A few days ago, my mom reminded me that I used to dribble around in the basement and garage when it snowed and shoot in the rain until my fingers froze. I was just being enterprising in the way kids are: I wanted to do the thing, so I found a way to do it. I guess that instinct stayed with me, because 12 years later, I moved across the country to cover basketball — a decision made with, really, if you’ll believe it, very little self-reflection until now. I guess I had to turn inward, had to write. If I was going to have a deeper relationship with the game, it was going to have to come from conversations I had with myself.

Needless to say, basketball changed my life, and what I’ve been thinking about more and more is how unlikely my first foray into the sport was — after a particularly charged incident on the soccer field, it might have been the only thing left — and how many more Canadian lives it might change if it stops becoming an act of transgression and enters the mainstream for good, if this momentum carries over to the next year and then the next. One can only hope.

Even when the Raptors made the playoffs, basketball was isolating. The game would be over, and even if they won, it’s not like anybody would be celebrating outside where I lived. I used to sit at home and read about Jurassic Park, about president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri dropping F-bombs in the middle of the crowd, and yearn to be a part of the collective experience.

As I write this from my apartment in downtown Toronto, I can hear a wave of “Let’s go Raptors!” chants coming from Jurassic Park. Game 2 doesn’t start for another eight hours. Nowadays, I’m reading about Raptors fever at local Edmonton schools and watch parties across the country, while doing hits for radio stations in Alberta.

After big games, I used to wish I was in Toronto. Today, part of me wonders what it’s all like in Edmonton.

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