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What a Championship Means for Toronto, Canada, and the NBA

Somewhere in the midst of this Raptors playoff run a family friend of mine — one who admittedly didn’t pay much attention to sports previously — announced:

“Toronto is turning into a real sports city.”

It struck me as a statement that was both true in the big picture and also weird to hear because, for myself, sports have always been an integral part of Toronto life. Growing up in the city, I played organized sports throughout my childhood and grew up watching the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays religiously, turning to the Raptors in my teenage years. I wasn’t the only one, either: for as long as I can remember, Toronto’s sports teams were uniting factors that brought together family and friends.

In retrospect, the Toronto teams I grew up watching were never very good. They had power, but not enough to bring together the entire city (or country) like this Raptors team has. Instead, Toronto teams of the past brought together their own groups of fans. There were Maple Leafs fans, Blue Jays fans, and Raptors fans, each base as passionate as the next yet completely independent from the rest. The reason I always felt like Toronto was a real sports city was because I belonged to each of those groups in one way or another. To the outside eye — to someone who didn’t belong to any of those groups — I could see why Toronto never appeared to be a real sports city. Until now. 

Cole Burston / Getty Images

Cole Burston / Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors united a city and a country on route to their first NBA championship in franchise history and Toronto’s first major championship since 1993. That isn’t hyperbole either: You can look at TV ratings and see that 44 percent of Canada’s population watched game 6 at some point, but you don’t need to. Just look at the streets of downtown Toronto in aftermath of the win or listen to your friend who has never talked about sports before say they have a crush on Kawhi Leonard. You’re not the only one, sister, but the point is everyone in Toronto has come together around this team.

Basketball was a subculture in Toronto and Canada not so long ago; an act of rebellion against traditional hockey fandom. When the Raptors arrived in 1995 attendance was so hard to come by they actually made Maple Leafs season ticket holders purchase Raptors tickets. Basketball in Canada has been building up to this moment for decades, moved along with the help of people like Raptors president Masai Ujiri and former star DeMar DeRozan. Now, with a championship won by Nick Nurse, Kyle Lowry, and Kawhi Leonard, basketball is coming into the mainstream. It genuinely has the potential to one day become the biggest sport in Canada.

As for the Raptors — a franchise that was once irrelevant and incompetent — they have set a new gold standard for sports franchises not only in Toronto or Canada, but in all of North America. From Ujiri’s ability to win while developing young talent to the hiring of Nick Nurse to the medical staff’s unique supervision of Leonard’s injury and “load management,” the Raptors did everything right this year.

The team that was considered a joke for most of its existence has become the center of attention within the NBA; a team that will be remembered for stopping a Golden State three-peat and potentially ending a dynasty. Furthermore, the people who discredited the Raptors every step of the way — the media who said Embiid was sick and the Raptors got lucky on that four-bounce buzzer-beater, Giannis and the Bucks were overrated, and the Warriors would have won if they had KD — have no choice but to acknowledge Toronto’s will to overcome all challenges and one of the toughest playoff schedules of the past decade. It’s time the league acknowledges that the Toronto Raptors were the best team in the NBA this season.

And finally, from a storytelling perspective, this Raptors run has been like a movie. A team that couldn’t get over the hump that was LeBron James never gave up but restructured itself instead of blowing it up. They fired Dwane Casey, the winningest head coach in franchise history immediately after winning coach of the year, and replaced him with assistant coach Nick Nurse, an innovative risk-taker. They made a ballsy trade for Leonard despite him openly wanting to play in Los Angeles and he ended up having one of the best playoff runs in NBA history, becoming the first player ever to win two Finals MVPs while simultaneously stopping two different three-peats, all before age 28. They traded their depth and longtime starting center Jonas Valanciunas for Marc Gasol, who’s defense was ultimately a difference-maker. And they pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NBA history: the team from Canada in its first NBA Finals defeating the dynastic Golden State Warriors in six games.

The Raptors first ever championship has changed the city, the country, and the NBA for good. It’s time everybody pays attention.

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