Love and Raptors: An anniversary road trip

This is a guest post from RR reader Peter Mendelsohn.

Most married guys get their wife something special for their first anniversary.  Earrings.  A necklace.  Maybe even a weekend getaway. On our one-year anniversary, I surprised Blaire with a trip to one of North America’s most exotic destinations: Detroit.

We spent our romantic day watching the Raptors mount a late 4th quarter comeback to beat the Pistons at the Palace of Auburn Hills. Now, I know what you’re thinking.  ‘This guy is a real piece of work, taking his wife to a Raptors game for their anniversary.  What a jerk.’ But the thing is, Blaire’s even more obsessed with the Raptors than I am.  It turned out there was no better way to celebrate our first year of marriage than a Raptors road trip. This year, being the hopeless romantic that I am, I had to top it.

Raptors Road trip round 2….

The Trip
We had secured tickets to Game 3 of the Raptors-Cavaliers series on Saturday in Cleveland. But first, we’d be spending three days in the Windy City where we’d catch Games 1 and 2. We arrived in Chicago on Tuesday morning, with the Raptors set to begin their series with Cleveland that evening. Our Architecture River Cruise was booked for 2 pm, but we first had to stop at our hotel to make an important inquiry.

“Hi there, I know I can’t check in yet, but I need to confirm something,” I said.

“Sure, what can I help you with?” said the nice lady behind the desk.

“Do you guys have TNT and ESPN?”

She was confused.  Clearly, this wasn’t the question she was expecting.

“Umm, I think so.”

I didn’t accept that answer.  Game 1 of the Raptors-Cavs series would be on TNT. Game 2 would be on ESPN. ‘I think so’ wasn’t good enough.

“I’m really sorry, but is there any way you could check?”

It was obvious she had more important things to do.  But after I made it clear that I wasn’t leaving, she eventually clarified that yes, the cable package at the Whitehall Hotel included both TNT and ESPN.

Off to the boat tour. On board, Blaire and I made small talk with a nice woman sitting by herself.  It turned out that she was from Lithuania. Like any obsessed Raptors fan, my first thoughts turned to lightning.  Lithuanian lightning.  Jonas Valanciunas. Blaire knew what I was thinking, and quickly caught my eye.

“You don’t have to ask her about JV,” she whispered.

I laughed.  She knows me too well.

Our tour guide was a loquacious old woman who spoke too loud as if to compensate for her own hearing loss. But honestly, it didn’t matter.  She could’ve been the best guide in the Windy City. Nothing was going to take my thoughts away from Game 1.

The King is tired, I thought. We’ve had three days of rest. We got over the Game 1 curse against Washington. We’re going to win Game 1.  We HAVE to win Game 1.

We arrived back at the hotel shortly before tip-off. While Blaire found a comfortable position for herself, I started pacing around the room. As any obsessed fan can attest, watching the Raptors in the playoffs isn’t exactly a relaxing experience. In general, I think I’m a pretty nice guy.  But I’m not exactly sane watching my team play. To the extreme annoyance of my better half, I’m way too anxious to sit still.  I swear intermittently when a call doesn’t go the Raptors way, or when I disagree with the substitution pattern. I usually warn friends about my behaviour before making plans to watch a game with them.

But it was too late for Blaire.  She’d already said ‘I do’.

The Horrible Game
Game 1 began, and the Raptors started well, taking a 14-point first quarter lead. The game tightened up after that, with the Cavs cutting the lead to just three at the half. In the 4th quarter, Toronto reverted to the type of stagnant offence that fans of the team know all too well. Still, with 30 seconds left, the Raptors had possession of the ball with the game tied. As long as they somehow pulled out the victory, none of their ugly late game play would matter.

You all know what happened next: Freddy missed a potential game winning three-pointer at the end of regulation. DeMar missed the tip.  CJ missed the tip.  JV missed the tip. Freddy missed another game winning three in overtime.

Just like that, it was over. The Raptors only faced a 1-0 series deficit.  But it felt a lot more deflating than that. We had choked away home court advantage against arguably the greatest player of all time. Blaire was crushed and didn’t want to leave the hotel room after Game 1.

But we had to eat something. As we walked into Southern Cut BBQ, televisions above the bar showed LeBron James’s postgame press conference.  I quickly averted my eyes to the ground. We tried to avoid discussing the game.  We agreed to work on repressing the collapse we’d just witnessed and make the best of Chicago the following day.

No Raptors Republic.

When I woke up on Wednesday morning, I was able to enjoy a few seconds of serenity before remembering what I’d witnessed the night before. At least sleep had been a temporary reprieve for me.  The same couldn’t be said for my wife. Blaire woke up 20 minutes later looking disheveled.  She has a tendency to dream about things she may have experienced that day.

“How’d you sleep?”  I asked, fearing that I already knew the answer.

“Bad.  I was having Raptors nightmares.”

“I’m sorry babes,” I said consolingly.

We headed out for our 11 AM food tour.  We devoured deep-dish pizza.  We tried Chicago style hot-dogs for the first time.

“Wow, I’ve never seen this type of hot dog before,” I said.

An older Southern woman turned to me.

“Do you not have hot dogs in Canada?” she asked with genuine curiosity.

Her question was well-intended, and as I turned to face her, I tried to keep a straight face and give her an honest answer. But the moment I caught the bewildered look in her eye, fascinated to learn more about our hot-dog free country, I started cracking up.  I laughed so hard, I couldn’t even answer her question. That was a rare moment when I was able to be present and enjoy the moment.

But my thoughts kept drifting.

‘If only Fred hadn’t separated his shoulder,’ I thought, ‘He definitely would’ve hit one of those two game winners.’

‘JV, you have great touch.  How did you not make that tip-in!’

I kept these thoughts to myself. My wife seemed to be enjoying the tour, and I didn’t want to bring her down with my dark Raptors thoughts. So I put on a brave face while we learned about the great food and history of Chicago. Towards the end of the tour, Blaire asked the question we’d both been avoiding asking each other.

“Have you been thinking about the Raptors?”

“Yeah,” I admitted.  “It’s hard to get over.”

“Me too,” she said.

I hadn’t been the only one putting on a brave face. Later that day, I spoke to my brother in New York.  He doesn’t care about the Raptors and was curious about our trip. I told him about the cool things we’d experienced but explained how the Game 1 loss had pale a dark cloud over everything we had done. He laughed at our grief-filled voices.

“It’s like someone died,” he said.

To non-sports-fans, being deeply affected by whether a team wins or loses may seem inherently irrational. But all die-hards can empathize with the pain that Blaire and I were feeling that day.

Two days later, LeBron James scored 43 points as the Cavs whipped the Raptors in Game 2. Over the course of two and a half days, we enjoyed many of the great things that Chicago has to offer. We had an unbelievable tour of Wrigley Field. We saw one of the world’s great art museums (so I’m told, I don’t know anything about art). I even saw my doppelganger at the Bean. But all of these activities were sandwiched in between Games 1 and 2. Chicago is a pretty cool city, but I can’t say that I’ll look back on it with the most fond memories. Thanks a lot, LeBron.

We thought about selling our tickets for Game 3.  But we’d already booked a hotel for two nights, and it was too late to get a refund. We decided that we weren’t going to Cleveland for a basketball game. We were going to have the best time that anyone who’s spent a day and a half in Cleveland has ever had. We looked at Game 3 as a two and a half hour nighttime activity, just like going to a movie. If the movie was terrible, as we expected it to be, it didn’t have to derail the rest of our day.

 We arrived in Cleveland on Friday evening.  We had dinner at Mabel’s BBQ, where I spotted The Athletic’s Raptors writer Eric Koreen.  I’m not sure if Koreen was more shocked to be recognized by a fan or by the fact that we’d actually traveled to Cleveland for Game 3. After dinner, we stumbled upon a hilarious Tom Green show right across the street.

Green hilariously mimicked Dan Gilbert’s angry letter to LeBron James the night of “The Decision”.

“You’re a jerk!  You’re a jerk!  You’re a jerk,” Green furiously scribbled on fake paper, with the whiny pouting of pre-pubescent teenager.

On Saturday, we went on a beautiful hike. We relaxed inside the glorious comforts of the Comfort Inn. But at 7 pm on Saturday night, we could avoid it no longer.  We were here for a reason.

Game 3
As we waited in line to enter the arena, Blaire and I joined in with a rowdy group of Canadians, chanting “Let’s go Raptors” at the top of our lungs. We were vastly outnumbered and were soon drowned out by “Let’s go Cavs” chants. One particularly obnoxious Raptors fan started yelling, ‘He’s going to leave you’ to no one in particular. Blaire and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows.  We weren’t joining in on that one.  The fun back and forth atmosphere between the two fan bases immediately became tense, and one Cavs fan had to be physically restrained from attacking the Canadian agitator.

But as we walked into Quicken Loans arena, most Clevelanders were extremely hospitable. We spoke to them about our trip.  They complimented the City of Toronto. We laughed about the Cavs playoff slogan, “Whatever it takes”.

“We’ll kill our kids!  Whatever it takes,” joked one Ohio native.

As we took our seats in the nosebleed section, Blaire warned me.

“We’re not at home.  You can’t act the way you usually do.”

I knew what she was talking about. My worst moment was probably Game 5 of the Nets-Raptors series in 2014. Toronto had built a 25-point, 4th quarter lead.  But the Nets had gone small, and were quickly tightening the gap by hitting 3-pointer after 3-pointer.  Let’s just say I wasn’t thrilled with the personnel Toronto had in the game.

“Get Chuck Hayes out of the game!!!  What the F— is Chuck Hayes still doing in the game,” I yelled at the top of my lungs.

I knew that I seemed like a crazy person.  But my rage in that moment outweighed by inhibitions. Blaire was embarrassed.  My entire section despised me.  And that was at home! I knew that in Cleveland, I’d have to act a little bit differently.

I tried.  I really did. But when JV was called for an offensive foul after Kevin Love blatantly exaggerated physical contact, I couldn’t contain myself.

“That’s a flop!!!  That’s a flop,” I screamed.

When the Raptors willingly switched CJ Miles onto LeBron James over and over again, I had to advise my team of the error of their ways.

STOP SWITCHING!!!  STOP SWITCHING,” I screamed from the second last row of Quicken Loans arena.

I dealt with a lot of sideways glances and cold shoulders throughout the game.  But none worse than when Kyle Lowry flung LeBron to the ground.

“Yeah!  Get down LeBron!”

I immediately knew I’d gone too far. Multiple fans sitting in front of me did complete 180’s, and looked as if they wanted to fight me. At that point, I did the only thing that a nice Canadian can do.

“Sorry, sorry sorry!  That was too far.  I’m sorry.”

My pathetic groveling worked.  No punches were thrown. With the Raptors trailing by 14 to start the 4th quarter, things did not look promising. We made plans for an early escape to avoid the crowds. But the Raptors kept battling, and tied the game with an OG Anunoby 3-pointer with eight seconds left. At that point, I just wanted to force LeBron into a difficult shot.  If he hit a contested jumper, I could live with it. I can’t even say I was that devastated by what happened next.

My mourning period had been after Games 1 and 2. I was already in the acceptance phase of grieving before James’ buzzer-beating banker. Besides, it was kind of cool to see 20,000 fans simultaneously lose their minds at the exact same time. As we quickly walked down the aisle to escape the crowd’s delirium, a woman tapped me on the back.  Had I forgotten something? She was holding out some tissue for me.  I was confused.

“Here, this is for your eyes,” she said with a mischievous smile.

Oh, I get it. The chirping continued as we walked in the street.  One particularly obnoxious fan got right up in my face.

“DeRozan didn’t show up.  Valanciunas didn’t show up!  Ibaka didn’t show up.”

“Actually, Ibaka finally did show up tonight!” I said.

“What?” he bellowed.

I quickly realized the pointlessness of arguing with this much larger, seemingly intoxicated human about Ibaka’s Game 3 efficiency.

“Never mind,” I said.

We escaped the throng of Cavs supporters by returning to Mabel’s BBQ, where we commiserated with fellow Raptors fans. But truthfully, Game 3 had widely surpassed our expectations.  We had attended Toronto’s best-ever playoff game in Cleveland.  The only game in Cleveland where they hadn’t been blown out. Our team, the #1 seed who won 59 games in the regular season, had almost won. And we were happy.

We listened to the Raptors Republic reaction podcast on our drive home the following day.  We no longer needed to repress our Raptors thoughts. At least until Game 4.

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