AN ESTIMATED TWO MILLION FANS CELEBRATE ON THE STREETS FOR THE CHAMPIONS’ HOMECOMING
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.
Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard holds his playoffs MVP trophy during the 2019 Toronto Raptors Championship parade on Monday.
Fans cheer as the Toronto Raptors Championship parade passes by on Monday. It was a remarkable way to end a remarkable season.
Under the hot sun, Raptors fans didn’t mind the delay in the parade’s arrival.