A night at the carnival sends Toronto to the NBA Finals

The Raptors win. They’re going to the NBA Finals, I should start with that before I get lost. I’m going to get lost.   This game was always going to be frantic; it’s clear even before the game starts, hours before the game starts. Jurassic Park is full early. Raptors’ fans proudly drown out the…

The Raptors win. They’re going to the NBA Finals, I should start with that before I get lost. I’m going to get lost.


This game was always going to be frantic; it’s clear even before the game starts, hours before the game starts. Jurassic Park is full early. Raptors’ fans proudly drown out the rain and thunder with ‘let’s go Raptors’ chants more than four hours before tip-off. The line stretches from Jurassic Park around the entire stadium to Union Station and beyond. It’s maybe a kilometer of bodies all come to watch history. Neither thunder, nor lightning, nor flooding stop Toronto from pouring downtown, filling the cracks and empty spaces like wet concrete pouring over gravel. Not even a brief closure from the Ontario Police Service can keep the people of Toronto from coming to watch history. The buzzword, the magnet that draws so many thousands in their raincoats, panchos, and garbage bags, is history.


“History. First time. Gotta show our support,” says Mark.  


“It’s a big day,” says Diane. “It’s kind of history.”


“Why am I here?” asks Sonny. “Man, we’re one game away from the finals. If we can’t be inside, listen… It’s finals. History is about to go down.”


Actions speak louder than words, and Toronto is shouting at the top of its lungs with both. Screaming in the pouring rain leaves no room for doubt about a city’s level of dedication. The cheers outside the stadium match the volume inside. The place is deafening before the game even begins. The crowd drowns out the pre-game instructions for how to cheer. The constant wall of asynchronous noise is wild and off-putting.


The Raptors actually let the crowd grow quiet for much of the game. The Raptors can’t stay out of their own way. They trail for the vast majority of the game, are down by double-digits with only a few minutes left in the third. It feels in the building like the game is over, like the series will go to seven games. It feels like the Raptors will do as they have always done, by losing of course, but more painfully than ever. Of course, joy wouldn’t be so sweet if it wasn’t for pain. In that sense, that the game’s miserable beginning is eventually cloaked in triumph, the series-clinching win mirrors the Raptors’ own history.


The Raptors close the gap quick. Down 14, Kawhi Leonard scores, finds Ibaka for a dunk, and draws a foul for three free throws. He misses the last but gets his own rebound to draw more free throws. The crowd swells, realizing winning the game is maybe even possible. The Raptors tie the game only moments into the fourth. Fred VanVleet makes a layup, and Norman Powell hits a corner 3. Then Ibaka dunks again, and the thing is truly over, but also has only just begun.


The crowd starts frothing, exploding, and they are standing with maybe 11 minutes left in the fourth. They stand through a long timeout, and they’re still standing when play resumes.


Giannis Antetokounmpo misses a jumper, and his misses have always given the crowd life. Siakam hits a floater on the other end. The crowd is louder, maybe, than it has ever been.


Lowry takes a change, and the crowd is definitely louder than it has ever been. They are chanting, and Ibaka gets an offensive rebound, and they are screaming, and it isn’t just a game, but a celebration, a jubilant exorcism of two decades of failure.


Fred VanVleet hits a stepback, and this fucking place, man. Can it get even louder? What is loudness? My brain is buzzing, surely in sync with 20 000 other drugged brains, and the Raptors lead by five now. Is this what cocaine is like? I know it is. Should I be saying that? It doesn’t matter, this place is fucking exploding. Antetokounmpo misses a free throw, and it’s another wave crashing down, pushing us under the frenetic currents again, without even a gap for air.


Ibaka gets a layup. They’re all still standing. Have they sat down? I don’t think so, not at any point. The Bucks are melting down, but the Raptors are composed. The Raptors are the composed ones, which is crazy, and unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a sports fan. Toronto is patient. The players, not the crowd. The crowd is a pack of dogs, but not the cute ones, the feral ones. Kyle Lowry steals the ball and dishes it back to Kawhi, who cocks back and dunks on Giannis, and the buzz is incomparable, the noise before was surely just whispers in comparison. This is pure delirium jolting through our brains. It isn’t just a dunk, I should say, it’s physical fire, like a star melting, or some other cosmic force. There’s a timeout, or everyone just stops playing, it’s hard to tell, the crowd is too loud to hear any announcements. Announcements are human things, and this place has become inhuman.


“It’s a 26-3 run,” somebody shouts beside me. It’s a media member, but there’s no real separation between media and the crowd at the moment, it’s just utter jubilation everywhere. The crowd’s been standing for 10 straight minutes, which reminds me of how long everyone has been standing outside in puddles, screaming and celebrating. It’s been hours for them.


Milwaukee counter-punches, and the game slows a little, and everyone sits down for a moment.


Kawhi makes 3, but it somehow spills out, and that’s karmic justice for the Shot going in on the same rim, and then it’s 87-86, and the nerves are back. Will Toronto lose? Is it possible after everyone just experienced a collective Bacchanalian frenzy? The crowd’s still sitting. There’s almost no crowd noise now. It’s such an abrupt break. How can thousands of humans possibly transition together from such a frothing carnival to sitting quietly, anxiously? Sports are wild. This game is wild.


Marc Gasol hits a corner 3, and it’s madness again. The transition from 0-100, back from quiet to insanity, is stunning.


The rim even makes another play, the same rim, and this time a Kawhi 3 bounces in. The crowd is miserable as it bounces up, but then crazy again as it bounces in. The togetherness, the lock-step of reaction between 20 000 people, it’s amazing. Marvelous. Drugs can’t be like this. This is more.


The Raptors defense has been perfect this whole quarter. Have I mentioned that? They’ve been a polar opposite to the crowd, which is far past the boiling point, has been for hours. The Raptors are forceful but measured, closing out without overrunning their marks. It’s the peak defense that we’ve expected all season long.


The crowd is chanting ‘let’s go Raptors’ again, and they’ve probably never stopped, but now out of sync, like a round, like ‘row row row your boat’ in preschool. We’re infantile again in our collective bliss.


There’s 30 seconds now, and Gasol picks up his fifth foul. The refs are reviewing the call, and it makes no sense, but it just makes the last few seconds longer, ever longer.


There’s still 30 seconds left, of course. Time doesn’t pass during free throws.


Then there’s a timeout, but people don’t sit down. They just stand there in their red shirts, not really making noise, knowing they’re standing on the precipice of something, but not knowing what it is. Just standing there. They came here for history, and now they’re 30 seconds away and have been for minutes. It’s enough to drive you crazy. The refs review another play. So everyone’s still standing purposelessly, as if stricken with collective amnesia, milling around, not really cheering, just shifting weight from one leg to another, waiting for history. It has to happen now, Toronto’s up by 3 with the ball and only 8 seconds left. It’s almost guaranteed, right? But they’re not allowed to cheer yet.


Then the Raptors can’t inbound, so they take a timeout. It makes basketball sense, even if nothing makes any sense at all. The last 30 seconds have lasted at least 10 minutes, and I know time is a construct, but this has to be pushing it. They just want to celebrate, to cheer, to yell, to win, to win most of all. And they can’t do any of that yet, forced to wait and endure a weird anti-climax before the throes of ecstasy. It’s a contained carnival, like watching a movie you’ve seen before, but pretending it’s the first time, and holding your reaction until it’s deserved.


Toronto throws the ball into play, and it gets tipped out of bounds, so the refs review it again. Of course. It makes basketball sense again, but now time stops, people stand, and the waiting game returns. How long is this joke, anyway? We all know how it ends. The Raptors have to win. They have to. But we can’t cheer until then. So we’re all just still standing, shifting, waiting. Another inbounds. A foul. How long can 30 seconds be?


Then it’s Armaggeddon, but a good kind, like the Rapture, and we’re all swelling and lifting and rising up into something bigger than ourselves. Is it ok to invoke religion? Yeah, probably, in this circumstance. Because the Raptors are going to the finals. I can say that now. They win while time slips away, and no one notices the last seconds. The time, the score, it all stops mattering in comparison to the people, the emotions. Toronto is going to the finals. For the first time ever.


Kyle Lowry’s children mob him, but really he’s mobbing his children, because he’s sweet and pure. There’s silver confetti, and even after it’s fired it’s still swirling in the air, just kind of sitting there without falling to the ground. It looks like it’s snowing sparkly joy. They’re still celebrating in the stands, still standing, still cheering. There’s tears and awe and bliss on the court.


Ernie Johnson introduces Wayne Embry, who presents the Eastern Conference Champion Silver Ball to the Toronto Raptors, and everyone smiles with total glee. Then it’s raining confetti again, but red, even though all the silver confetti still hasn’t settled, and it’s gorgeous together. Red and white, hey, that’s the Raptors’ colours.


There’s speeches all around, but MVP chants and guttural screams and altogether mayhem keep interrupting the proceedings. The game ended 10, 15, 20 minutes ago, and everyone’s still here, standing in their matching red shirts, cheering every sentence. This is really the crowd’s night. That’s clear now, with all the cheering, with so many tens of thousands inside and outside of the building. This belongs to the players, but also the crowd, the city. They own it. We own it together. That’s what sports are. Toronto is filled with literal dancing in the streets, and this is something that Raptors’ fans have never experienced.


The players don’t go to the locker room or the podium after the game, not right away. They all go straight to Jurassic Park to be with the fans. They’d stood in the wet for almost seven straight hours celebrating, and the players go to them first. It’s worth it now, all of it. What’s seven hours to 24 years? The Toronto Raptors are going to the NBA Finals.




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