The hardest thing about a moment is realizing you’re in the middle of one. History is retrospection and concerned with putting all the disparate pieces together to make a linear path that eventually points to: Hey, this happened. It works best with some distance, with a separation of time and events to properly take stock and, hopefully, learn from.
A person’s history, individually, can be harder to pin down when you consider how changeable and how rapidly moments and the time that make them up will shift. A collective history tends to come across more stable. Easier to trace. But what if a collective history, like that a country, or a city, or a sports franchise, say, is so intrinsically tied to one collective mood that the swing of feelings felt throughout it has always oscillated quickly, ping-ponging from hope to crushing defeat to dread to existential doubt, that it has never really had the chance to settle. How do you trace that kind of collective history back to try and explain it or land on solid reasoning for it being that way? As Raptors fans the answer, I think, has finally arrived. It’s what this current team and the history of this franchise has been building toward for so long. It is precisely this exact moment, this time spent hanging in the balance between the Toronto Raptors being named Eastern Conference Champions and the NBA Finals. The precipice, basically, of 24 years of climbing, where the next thing, what comes after this, becomes an entirely new start—a brand new history.
But really, no pressure. Honestly, that’s the beauty of it, there isn’t. What people outside of the city or the fandom can’t truly grasp is that to get to this point was never preordained, never anticipated, not really expected, but always believed in. Throughout every iteration of the Toronto Raptors—the scorched earth Bryan Colangelo years; the heartbreak of Vince Carter and the collective grief and head-trip that followed, for so long; the many false franchise re-starts in guys like Andrea Bargnani and Rudy Gay—it was that belief, that little hope, that carried fans forward to the next season.
Certainly all sports franchises have this but the thing about Toronto is that it is still considered an outpost. A place where guys are shipwrecked and forgotten about in the greater collective minds of NBA fans, for how little they will appear on American national broadcasts. Hope is the thing that sprung up when players like Amir Johnson, or Patrick Patterson, came to the city and embraced it, grew into it, came to love it. Hope was, many times, Terrence Ross. Hope is the thing that had Toronto fans crossing their fingers when Bruno Caboclo was five years away, and then five years after that, and now heaving a huge sigh of relief that it looks like he has finally made it, even if it is happening somewhere that isn’t here.
Hope is what formed the kind of resiliency and doggedness that the DeMar DeRozan-Kyle Lowry Raptors were made of. All those years of getting almost there, eking out every single ugly win by literal skins of knuckles and gut-driven determination. That same determination and buoyancy that became character traits of the franchise, its fans, when Paul Pierce told us our team didn’t have it. When Lowry’s last shot in Game 7 against the Nets didn’t land and he crumpled to the floor and we all did with him, watching the wish of making it further evaporate. Hope was DeRozan going over to Lowry and putting his body between Lowry and that crushing defeat, the reality that would hit any minute along with the lights glaring overhead beside the final score and the blaring buzzer, but forcing it out a little longer. And hope should have honestly been snuffed out in the losses and sweeps to follow; the Wizards, the Cavs, the Cavs, the Cavs (I honestly blurred these three into two—selective memory is sometimes fundamental to hope).
But something had happened. Because hope was ground so deeply into the fabric of the team from all those crushing blows it was further embedded in the fibre, becoming connective tissue. When Toronto’s bench, a group of rookies and young players like Fred VanVleet who had gone undrafted and Pascal Siakam who had only really started to snarl it out in Summer League, started doling out really very gleeful defeats to really very good teams and their starters without it looking like work, there it was again. That old hope held across brand new shoulders and suddenly looking like another chance.
Because hope has done that for this team. When the Raptors were, repeatedly (yearly, monthly, daily) written off, hope has been the one sure thing to weasel its way into new and unexpected ways forward or boldly kick down the door for a team that first couldn’t, then shouldn’t, then wouldn’t, but ultimately did.
And when the coach who had brought fans their first taste of what becoming contenders could feel like was abruptly fired, and our biggest and most closely and longest held out hope was shipped off to San Antonio for some guy who was said to have no interest nor desire in playing here, it sprang up again in a wilder, mildly delusional way. The Raptors were in it then, whether they or Kawhi Leonard liked it or not. Some fans took it and ran while others slowly came around (I admit it) but because that longevity and determination and character of the team had already been built through so many hard years, it turned out to be easy for a good team to shift into a great one. The ceiling had been lifting all along with the force of how suddenly not just permissible, but practical and realistic hope as Toronto Raptors fan could be.
Whether Toronto wins or loses their first game of their first ever NBA Finals doesn’t matter right now. Whether Toronto wins or loses this series doesn’t matter right now. Whether Kawhi Leonard stays or goes doesn’t matter right now. What matters now is right now. The perception and reality of living in a moment as it happens, the swell of a city in the throes of it, and stretching it alongside everyone else embodying the hope it took to get here. Because after this Toronto as a franchise, a team, and a destination for its next players, has markedly changed.
The team has been exorcised of whatever post-season demons hung around its neck by winning the East. And not by accident, but with precisely dispatched skill and a new level of staying power. It wasn’t even ugly basketball, it was beautiful, stressful, high-calibre basketball that had the look of a team evolved, a team that is going to stay hungry no matter what happens to make it back to this place now that they know what it feels like. It brought out the best we’d ever seen in Kyle Lowry, it brought back playoff Norman Powell, it showed entirely new dimension to Serge Ibaka and VanVleet and we got to see the depth and drive of Kawhi Leonard playing playoff basketball. Because of all that, the appetite of fans has grown larger—you can shut the door but you won’t ever forget what was on the other side.
Toronto as a basketball destination is going to change too, if it hasn’t already. The city isn’t a shipwreck anymore. Instead, it’s where superstars land by surprise and take a team that had been ready already so many times but finally, through the perfect alchemy of so much culmination really, truly was, to the NBA Finals. And the city, the fans, are ready to be centred in the spotlight. You can feel it practically anywhere within the GTA, horns honking, chants starting up out of nowhere, fans lining up at 3am to stand outside for 18 hours to stand outside, completely surrounded, by people doing the same thing. There is no shrinking back from this and who would want to? Now more than ever we are right where we belong.