The significance of Canada’s first NBA championship spans far beyond Toronto’s city limits
“Canada,” Matt Devlin, the TV voice of the Toronto Raptors, said after the final buzzer marked the end of Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals. “The NBA title is yours.”
Of course, euphoria had spread throughout the country by then. The longest 0.9 seconds in NBA Finals history was all that separated Toronto and the kind of certainty the city had been devoid of for more than a quarter-century. But around the world, closure had already come. It took the form of unabated uproar. On Thursday night, the Raptors won their first NBA championship, and Toronto took home its first major professional sports league title in 26 years.
I stood in the middle of Jurassic Park West in Mississauga’s Celebration Square (capacity: 30,000), roughly 16 miles west of Maple Leaf Square, where the original Jurassic Park (capacity: 5,000) was located for Game 6 of the NBA Finals. Like many of the cities and suburbs surrounding Toronto, the visible minority make up the majority of Mississauga, the sixth most populous city in Canada. The crowd at Celebration Square was a reflection of the team’s overall global reach, localized in a space that hosted thousands of fans—some driving five hours just to be with loved ones in the middle of it all and watch the two 28-by-18-foot screens on each side of the main stage. To the right of me was a middle-aged man on his phone, which had Raptors wallpaper, checking box scores during breaks and intermittently texting family in Cyrillic. To the left of me were two Senegalese hipsters expressing their disbelief in multiple languages. There were small children proudly waving We The North flags five times their size. There were large, adult children hanging from traffic-light posts, waving the same flags.
The win itself would have been enough to offer any city a new level of cultural cachet; civic pride never feels so apparent than when channeled into a single beacon of enthusiasm. Yet the significance of the Raptors’ win spanned much wider than the city limits. Jurassic Park started in 2014 as a massive viewing party in the public square outside Scotiabank Arena to drum up excitement for the team’s first postseason appearance in six years, and since has presented a template for how to mobilize a fan base and transform it into something like a cultural movement. During this postseason there were more than 37 different Jurassic Parks across Canada beyond the original one outside downtown Toronto, each organized at the municipal level with the blessing of Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment; there were official Jurassic Park–style communal Finals viewing parties as far as the Dominican Republic and Japan.
We The North, the geographically (and grammatically) incorrect but spiritually rousing and quasi-nationalistic battle cry, also arrived in 2014 as part of an overhaul in team identity. The Raptors are the only NBA team north of the U.S.-Canada border. That carries symbolic value. We The North, a branding initiative created by Sid Lee, a Canadian creative firm, sought to weaponize that otherness.
“We looked at commonalities between the club and the fans, and then the Raptors being the only Canadian NBA team—Canadians typically being not from here,” Tom Koukodimos, the co-managing partner of Sid Lee, told CBC News last month. “So, the idea of being an outsider, that feeling, and tapping into that bit of what it means to be an outsider, and the power that has—I think that’s when we started leaning into, ‘What can we say, as the outsiders, that can unite us?’”
Suddenly, the Raptors are a monolith in Toronto, something that could not have been possible until recently. A group of friends in Toronto have taken to calling themselves the Nursemaids, with a dedicated group chat to discuss all things Nick Nurse. A middle-aged woman at a Cantonese congee restaurant in Mississauga took my money and warmly offered a hearty exclamation as I headed out the door: “The Raptors will win! Hopefully!” It felt like a Waffle House experience I had in New Orleans last year, when our server waved us out after our meal with a “Go Saints!” The Raptors have officially reached sports-as-oxygen ubiquity.
The Raptors are their own language in the city, but the message has expanded. Sitting along press row for Game 5 of the Finals, it was hard to escape how much of the narrative had been shaped to become USA vs. the world. Roughly 90 minutes before the game, there was a video package of fan-submitted Raptors testimonials from around the globe; diehards from Wales to Brazil all voicing their support, all signing off by saying “We the North” in their native tongues. I spent hours after the series-clinching Game 6 in shock amid the cacophony in Greater Toronto and beyond. I watched Instagram Stories of Raptors fans in Kowloon, Hong Kong, acting a fool in a restaurant; I watched a huge celebration from a cafe on Siargao Island in the Philippines.
Immediately upon that final buzzer and Devlin’s pronouncement, there was a lightness in Toronto that I’d never seen before. I had been in the city five months prior, in January, and had observed a tenseness among fans that I found disconcerting, even when compared to typical levels of local sports fan anxiety. There was a burden of identity that didn’t need to be dissected—Canadians are way ahead of you there—as much as it needed to be dismantled.
“You’ve got that added layer of it’s more than just a team,” Julie Khaner, a local fan, said then. “It represents a cultural identity, which, even that, it’s not an identity so much, unless the identity is struggling against a behemoth bully right next door.”
So now that the behemoth has been slain, what happens to that identity, seemingly engraved in the hearts and minds of any Toronto sports fan who has lived long enough to feel the iniquities of tribalism? Does it ever go away? Does one have to start anew, or can something be built off this strange new feeling of actual success? Earlier in the week, I’d asked a local what a Raptors championship would mean to Canada. “The biggest win over the States since the War of 1812,” they told me. (They immediately followed that bold line with: “Wait, Canada won that, right?”) But how much longer does a high like that last?
Kawhi Leonard, imported into Toronto last summer in what may go down as one of the greatest trades in history, has given a country a gift that expands far beyond his own intent. He will be immortalized by the city for generations to come. He has already earned all the esteem and the histrionics that come with becoming a national hero. Kawhi’s focus has always been on basketball and maximizing the present, but the season is over now. He might leave in free agency, ending the Raptors’ title window just as quickly as it opened.
But Toronto might have already irrevocably changed. At Pearson International Airport last week, a frazzled old Irish couple stood in front of me at customs, and behind me was a bored Jamaican family that had clearly gone through the process dozens of times. There were NBA Finals hats all around me, and so many red Leonard jerseys. There are so many Torontonians who have moved abroad, for work or education or otherwise, and they’ve had to create semblances of their old lives in their new environs; maintaining Raptors fandom was just a way to tether oneself to home. As I stood in line, I realized I stood among those fortunate enough to come back to the city in time to watch something that might happen only once in a lifetime. I walked up to my customs officer, whose fatal uninterest would make Kawhi blush. She barely looked up at me after checking my clearance slip.
What are you going to do for a week?
I’m never good at questions like these. I hem and haw and stammer. But after a few seconds, I steeled myself and smiled. “I’m going to watch the Raptors make history.”
Her steely veneer chipped in that instant, revealing a curling of the lip pulling up toward her right cheek. I want to say it was a smile. Enjoy your stay, she said, returning to her monotone.
She was a fun girl. Toronto is a fun city. It’s Kawhi’s city should he want it. And four days after landing, I can officially say I wasn’t lying to my customs officer. Kawhi Leonard’s own words are inscrutable, except when they aren’t. “I wanted to make history here,” Leonard said during the championship press conference. “And that’s all I did.”