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Raptors 2019: The Vanishing Year

It somehow feels like it never existed. That’s how fast the NBA moves. That’s how fast, and agonizingly slow, the NBA playoffs work. The Toronto Raptors championship run seemed to last forever, one day building on the next, the off days excruciatingly slow. Two months of incredible excitement and lows that scraped the earth. Those two months could have filled a year. Or perhaps two. And maybe they did.

And in the aftermath of Kawhi choosing to go back home to the Clippers, the euphoria over the championship and the parade and the millions suddenly tuning in to watch the country’s only NBA franchise achieve something historic, it now feels like its fading. Like the tide pulling back after a long day.

More than most leagues, the NBA knows how to script fifty two week excitement and chatter, like a Dickensian serial from the early part of the Twentieth Century. The playoff fires had barely cooled as we headed to the Summer League, where fringe players and hyped draft picks competed to sellout crowds. Zion versus RJ. Who will make a name for themselves? Who will emerge in an NBA rotation? Forget that the Summer League was barely a blip on the NBA radar, or of fans, even six years ago.

In today’s twenty four hour cycle of the NBA, Las Vegas arenas sell out, and the NBA takes advantage. The excitement of the playoffs are brushed aside. Too soon for memories. A few years from myth. For Raptor fans waiting a quarter of a century for that moment, this movement to “what’s next” has been tough. And as the tide has retreated, made heavier with the realization that the one on the great ship who brought the championship home is leaving, within the Raptor fanbase, certainly for me, there’s been a sense of questioning. A wondering that if what we just witnessed actually happened.

When I was a kid, one of my favourite movies was Swiss Family Robinson, a Disney film based on the 1812 novel written by a Swiss pastor about a family shipwrecked on an island in the East Indies. The Disney film added pirates (because of course they did) but the premise was that after ten years on the island, with a ship from England finally there and the pirates chased away, only a few members of the family wanted to leave. Some of the family members knew what they had on the island, recognized it, and believed it was worth more than going back to civilization.

The novel is an action packed metaphor for understanding what you have. And it goes without saying that every Raptors fan wishes Kawhi had chosen to stay on the island. But the hidden part about the book is not so much how it applies to a superstar, but how it applies to us.

The nature of the NBA is that they would prefer us, the average fan, to move on. There’s no time to reflect on last year. It’s time to look at new draft picks and unsigned free agents competing for a spot on the roster. Watch Summer League. Determine your playoff position for next year. Engage with friends.

It’s time to get on the ship and go back to the continent.

Now, this serves the NBA well, and has made them a social media powerhouse. (Along with bringing in billions of endorsements thanks to fan interest.)

For Raptor fans, however, this progression to “thank you, next” is not helpful. Not when you want to take the time to absorb what happened, relish it, cherish it. It is difficult to win a championship in any league, but that is especially true in the NBA. In the past twenty years, before 2019, there had been six franchises that had won the championship. Six. In twenty years.

And this was our first.

So while the NBA has done its usual push to continue to stay in the headlines, it makes sense for Raptor fans to stop for a minute. To reflect. To embrace what has been achieved, because there is no guarantee it will ever happen again.

I remember last July, when the franchise’s most popular player, Demar Derozan, was traded for Kawhi Leonard, the enigmatic and injured superstar from the San Antonio Spurs. I understood the trade, but Derozan was my favourite player, and he meant more to the city (and even the reporters who covered him) than any player in franchise history.

Basketball wise, the trade made sense, providing Kawhi was healthy. But no one knew for sure. Masai gambled.

And it paid off in a way no one expected. Some people said Conference Finals. A few dared whisper NBA Finals. But no one saw this island paradise.

Forget what the experts after the championship have said about “Kawhi and a bunch of role players.” The Raptors were the best defensive team in the post-season, elite at every position. They had multiple all-stars and a blossoming superstar in Siakam. But none of them were lottery picks. And playing in Canada is like playing on an island. Every player with a story as to how they arrived. The point guard who couldn’t get along with coaches. The “African” drafted as a defensive player with a motor. The undrafted free agent who bet on himself. The 47th pick in the draft, acquired by trade, who’d fallen out of the rotation earlier in the year. The center coming off the bench, when everyone thought his career was over. The coach who won G League titles.

Nothing but stories and an island of misfit toys. An island that forged something better in all of them, a togetherness that most critics missed, and led by perhaps the most stoic and silent assassin the NBA has ever known.
It happened so fast, and so slow, it almost feels as though the time on the island didn’t exist.

But the ship came. Kawhi returned home. And yet, most of the family remains.

And so the pulsating lifecycle of the NBA continues, as it does with the Raptors. Who they have signed? What they will be? Who they will keep? Next year promises to be fun, regardless, because when you win the way they did, the echoes remain. And they will remain a very long time.

I remember watching Swiss Family Robinson when that huge boat come into sight, watching the family and feeling their joy. Imagine being stranded for ten years on an island! For the Raptors, it was twenty four. And beyond TV games and Christmas Day, the island has made its presence felt.

All of that is gone now. But even as the push towards “next” continues, the memories remain vibrant. The shot against Philadelphia. The double overtime win against Milwaukee. The unflappable Siakam. The greatness of Lowry. The all-time performance of Kawhi. And of course, the smaller moments. VanVleet’s reaction after hitting his fourth three in the fourth quarter of Game Six in the Finals. Lowry’s unwillingness to let anyone else hold the trophy. Gasol’s joy at the parade.

The ship has come and gone. But the bonfires on the beach remain. One day we’ll get back to the continent, hurry back to what’s breaking and where we fit next year, but there’s no need to rush.

It’s fine to watch the tide and remember. And if necessary, watch it all again.

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