RAP­TORS MA­NIA

AN ES­TI­MATED TWO MIL­LION FANS CEL­E­BRATE ON THE STREETS FOR THE CHAM­PI­ONS’ HOME­COM­ING

National Post (National Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - in Toronto SCOTT STIN­SON

It is en­tirely fit­ting that the over­whelm­ing re­sponse to the first cham­pi­onship pa­rade for the Toronto Rap­tors was a bunch of peo­ple shak­ing their heads and say­ing: “Wow.”

This has been the gen­eral sense of things in this city, this prov­ince, even this coun­try, for the bet­ter part of a month now, since right about the time that Kawhi Leonard’s last-sec­ond shot against the Six­ers bounce­bounce-bounced off the iron and hung around for a life­time be­fore fall­ing through the hoop, send­ing Sco­tia­bank Arena into a eupho­ria that still has not stopped.

No one could be­lieve it when the Rap­tors won that Game 7 in such an in­cred­i­ble fash­ion. No one could be­lieve it when they reeled off four straight wins in the East­ern Con­fer­ence Fi­nals. No one could be­lieve it when they beat the Golden State War­riors, in­clud­ing three vic­to­ries at Fortress Or­a­cle, to win their first NBA ti­tle. Wow, wow and wow.

And now, this. It was ev­i­dent that there was go­ing to be tremen­dous in­ter­est in the cel­e­bra­tion of this ti­tle, the first of its or­der for Toronto sports since the last Blue Jays cham­pi­onship of 1993. The way the sup­port for the Rap­tors has bal­looned in re­cent weeks, with the out­door view­ing out­side the arena be­com­ing a true na­tional phe­nom­e­non that was repli­cated through­out the coun­try, has been plain for all to see. The team has been em­braced in a way never be­fore seen in its 24 years of ex­is­tence, and look­ing at the pho­tos of the huge crowds that cel­e­brate the Rap­tors is to see Canada re­flected back at the viewer. It’s a mix of all the iden­ti­ties that shape the coun­try, all wear­ing black and red and the odd splash of pur­ple.

But even for all of that out­pour­ing of Rap­tors love, the dis­play that it led to on Mon­day could not have been an­tic­i­pated. Mas­sive throngs crowded the pa­rade route from the Canada Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion grounds to city hall at Nathan Phillips Square, block­ing the main roads and spilling out all over the down­town core. The play­ers, a cou­ple of whom had won ti­tles be­fore, all said they had never seen any­thing like it.

The crowds were so big — tele­vi­sion broad­cast­ers kept say­ing it was es­ti­mated at two mil­lion peo­ple, but there was no in­di­ca­tion how any­one ar­rived at that num­ber — that au­thor­i­ties closed sub­way sta­tions, shut off ac­cess to the city hall square it­self, and es­sen­tially started beg­ging fans still head­ing down­town on Mon­day morn­ing to please stay away. Cell­phone net­works were over­loaded be­yond ca­pac­ity, and the glacial pace of the pa­rade took hours longer than an­tic­i­pated due to the choked roads, with the five-kilo­me­tre trip last­ing longer than the flights home from North­ern Cal­i­for­nia. Some mem­bers of the Rap­tors front of­fice prob­a­bly started to worry that Leonard, a pend­ing free agent, would leave Toronto be­cause of the damn traf­fic.

Amaz­ingly, though, through all the de­lays and the hours spent in the bright early-sum­mer sun, the party at­mos­phere re­mained. When it takes 24 years for a fran­chise to win a ti­tle, you don’t mind the ex­tra cou­ple of hours it might take to fi­nally salute the win­ners.

Af­ter the for­mal speeches fi­nally be­gan, the party was mo­men­tar­ily halted as re­ports cir­cu­lated of a shoot­ing nearby, and Rap­tors broad­caster Matt Devlin urged the crowd to stay calm and not panic.

Af­ter a brief pause, the cel­e­bra­tion re­sumed. Mayor John Tory, ever the sales­man, gave Leonard a key to the city and urged him to come back. Var­i­ous Rap­tors saluted each other and the mas­sive crowd. Kyle Lowry said he and his “broth­ers” were all champs now, Fred Vanvleet urged ev­ery­one to cel­e­brate all sum­mer and Leonard him­self, a man of pre­cious few words, told the crowd to “En­joy this mo­ment.” He ended his mo­ment on stage with a the­atri­cal laugh, mim­ick­ing the awk­ward chuckle that had been part of his in­tro­duc­tion to the Rap­tors eight months ago. His team­mates loved that Leonard had taken the mo­ment to tweak his crit­ics and Lowry started an M-V-P chant for his friend.

Af­ter that, and once global am­bas­sador Drake took to the stage to salute the team and also work in a plug for his mu­sic fes­ti­val, it was fi­nally over. Or, at least, this part of it was. What has unfolded around the city’s bas­ket­ball team over the past months has been some­thing to be­hold.

The at­mos­phere around the Rap­tors in Canada as a whole, and in Toronto in par­tic­u­lar, the fer­vent joy about a team of for­merly un­her­alded bas­ket­ball play­ers who were mostly Amer­i­can, but also of the world, re­mains a lit­tle hard to ex­plain. What was it about this run that turned a coun­try into hoops fans, what caused gi­ant masses to clog the Toronto core for hours on a hot Mon­day just to cheer on the Rap­tors for a last time un­til ban­ners are raised next fall?

There was the mo­men­tum of a play­off sea­son that was packed with drama. There was the re­al­ity of the Rap­tors as Canada’s only NBA team, a thing that has long been true, but which seemed to be­come much more ac­cepted over the past many weeks as a re­mark­able team melted the rest of the na­tion’s nat­u­ral anti-toronto de­fences. But there is mostly this: Win­ning is fun.

The scenes from Toronto on Mon­day were merely the lat­est ev­i­dence of that.

FRANK GUNN / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Rap­tors for­ward Kawhi Leonard holds his play­offs MVP tro­phy dur­ing the 2019 Toronto Rap­tors Cham­pi­onship pa­rade on Mon­day.

AN­DREW LAHODYNSKY­J / THE CANA­DIAN PRESS

Fans cheer as the Toronto Rap­tors Cham­pi­onship pa­rade passes by on Mon­day. It was a re­mark­able way to end a re­mark­able sea­son.

VERON­ICA HENRI / POST­MEDIA NEWS

Un­der the hot sun, Rap­tors fans didn’t mind the de­lay in the pa­rade’s ar­rival.

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