After miserably losing the second of four straight to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers a bit more than a year ago, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri was standing in his office looking out over downtown.
Someone texted him a picture. It was a stylized version of the ‘Toronto’ sign in front of City Hall, rewritten to read “LeBronto.” The joke was running wild on social media.
“Nothing in my life has ever stung me like that,” Ujiri said a few days ago, jabbing at his own chest. “I decided right then that I was not going to end my career this way. I didn’t care if it got me fired, I was not going out like that.”
In those comments, he also used a few other words that cannot be printed in this newspaper.
That moment led directly to the decision to fire his coach, trade his best player and put all his professional capital at risk in order to take one big chance.
On Thursday night, it paid off.
Given their sadsack track record, this is going to be the unlikeliest sentence I’ve ever written: The Toronto Raptors are NBA champions. They are the first non-American team to claim the title. They’re the first Canadian team of any sort to win a major championship since 1993.
Thursday’s Game 6 was an instant classic, an up-and-down bucket festival featuring lead changes, momentum changes and cast changes. Kyle Lowry may have put in the best shift of his career. Fred VanVleet was a government bond – guaranteed. Toronto pulled away very late in the fourth quarter. Steph Curry had his chance and missed it. The Raptors won 114-110.
That’s not what matters. The Warriors were chopped down last week in Oakland. It took them this long to hit the ground. Their era is done.
What does matter is that now – as long as they can keep the band together – is that the Leonard era has just begun. Toronto didn’t rob the Warriors of the title. They stole Golden State’s identity.
It’s been a while coming. Some teams have tragic backstories. For most of a quarter century, the Raptors’ were the league’s longest running sitcom.
They started out playing in a baseball stadium because there was nowhere else to house them. Their first star bolted after three years. Their next defining player decided that attending his college graduation was more important than the playoffs, and the club’s first real chance at doing anything faded. Then he quit on the team until they agreed to trade him. Their next one … well, you get the gist.
People weren’t forever leaving this team. They fled it like the arena was on fire.
For 20 years, the Raptors chewed through presidents, general managers and coaches. They drafted like they did it with a dartboard and steak knives. Their incompetence was so fully realized it was nearly artistic.
They weren’t a sports franchise. They were The Producers come to life, only the role played by Mel Brooks rotated every couple of years.
Three personnel choices changed that – Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment hired Tim Leiweke to run the corporation; Leiweke hired Ujiri to run the Raptors; Ujiri hired Kawhi Leonard to run the NBA.
And, really, that was it.
It would be wrong to say Leonard now takes his place in the roll call of Toronto sports greats, because no one in living memory can match what he’s managed over the last two months.
It wasn’t the numbers, though those were staggering. It was the implacability, the stubborn refusal to admit what every other team in this country has known for an entire generation – that if you give up, Canadians will forgive you.
Leonard wouldn’t let them. Through force of will, he dragged everyone through the first three rounds of the playoffs. In terms of Canadian heroes, Leonard isn’t Dave Keon-good. He’s Dudley Do-Right good. He’s so good he is essentially imaginary.
If Leonard was extraterrestrial, everyone else was a hero. Kyle Lowry was first amongst equals in that regard. His arc through this organization – from back-up to tradebait to malcontent to honorary Canadian tough guy to champion – is just narrowly overshadowed by Leonard’s brilliance.
Everywhere you look, there’s a storyline that deserves its own book – Nick Nurse falling backward into his first NBA head coaching job at age 50; Pascal Siakam, a Cameroonian teenager studying for the priesthood, finding a very different sort of vocation; Fred VanVleet reconnecting with his game immediately after connecting with his newborn son. You could go on.
However grand the team’s journey, Canada’s was even more ambitious. When this playoffs started, this team was drawing TV viewership in the mid-six figures. By the end, that number had grown by more than 10 times.
Since the Raptors draw a much younger demographic than hockey or baseball – the cable-cutting generation not averse to, ahem, borrowing their entertainment – the actual audience is probably much larger. This is the beginning of a wave that may not break for years.
Over the course of two months, Canadians didn’t just discover Leonard or the Raptors or basketball, though all that happened.
They rediscovered a feeling they’d forgotten. This was what it’s like to root for a winner. This was what it’s like to be part of something that doesn’t end with Toronto/Montreal/Vancouver/Ottawa/Calgary/Edmonton/Winnipeg losing, the team making promises it can’t keep, and then doing it all over again next year.
Based on a random sampling of thousands and thousands of shrieking weirdos who showed up each night, often in inclement weather, that was a welcome change. Other teams might want to give it a try.
Now the party, which is never quite as sweet as the anticipation. And then the waiting on Leonard to recommit, and Ujiri to definitively squelch rumours he is headed to the U.S., and all the other noise that trails championship teams.
So enjoy this while you can, and remember how it started – someone took a risk. Then a whole bunch of other people took a risk in believing that risk might work out.
Since everyone took that risk together, everyone shares in the spoils.
The Globe and Mail, June 13, 2019