Basketball fans in Canada are about to witness history — again.
After beating the Milwaukee Bucks to win the Eastern Conference Finals, the Toronto Raptors are heading to the NBA Finals for the first time in the franchise’s 24-year history. The Golden State Warriors are headed north for Game 1 on Thursday, and the country is buzzing with excitement.
Whether in Vancouver, where the local NBA franchise is long gone, or Montreal, a sworn rival of Toronto’s when it comes to hockey, fans from coast-to-coast are getting their fix.
Versions of Jurassic Park — the area outside the Raptors’ home arena where fans gather to watch games — are even cropping up in neighbouring cities including Mississauga and Brampton.
‘King of the North’
Perhaps no Raptor has done more to get fans fired up through the playoffs than Kawhi Leonard.
One of the most electrifying players in the NBA, Leonard’s likeness has popped up in murals on Toronto’s fashionable Queen Street West., and in the Regent Park neighbourhood.
“He’s the King of the North,'” said Toronto resident Naheed Dosani of the L.A.-born ball player, who is depicted in the latter mural wearing a gold crown.
The Regent Park mural is the handiwork of artists Javid Jah and Moises Frank, better known as Luvsumone.
“I think one of the most interesting parts of creating this work was being able to have conversations with people that walked by,” Frank said on CBC’s Here and Now.
“The unity that basketball has brought within all diverse people and all types of people,” makes the attention that the mural is getting particularly special, he said.
In the short time CBC News hung out around the mural at 50 Pembroke St. on Wednesday, fans of all stripes came to pay homage.
Marvin Cargill said he’s especially pleased that the piece went up in the neighbourhood.
“Everybody is trying to see what he’s going to do for the finals,” Cargill said of Leonard. “Being around here in this area, for people to come and look at it, it’s really kind of nice.”
Leonard “has been really good for the city,” said Greg Stacey, another Toronto resident checking out the mural. “I hope … he wins the championship and that we go all the way against the Golden State Warriors.”
And of course the team can count on some major support from Toronto’s students. Several schools around the city will turn game days into “spirit days,” when kids will be encouraged to dress in Raptors colours. Or as actual dinosaurs.
Raptors sportscaster Jack Armstrong, who has been working with the Raptors for 21 of their 24 years in the NBA, says he’s never seen anything like the last few weeks.
“It’s an amazing buzz, and not just in the city of Toronto — across the province, across the country. People are just so excited about the Raptors being in the NBA Finals,” he said.
“The joy, the exhilaration, the jubilation and enthusiasm is just off the charts. People are all in.”
That might in part be by design. The Raptors have held training camps, exhibition games and clinics around B.C., for example, which might have helped maintain excitement there about the game after the loss of the Vancouver Grizzlies, which moved to Memphis, Tenn., nearly two decades ago.
“I think we’re going to see a big uptick,” said former star player Pasha Bains, also co-owner of Drive Basketball Academy in Richmond.
There’s been so much Raptors buzz out west that efforts were underway in Vancouver to set up a Jurassic Park outside the city’s art gallery, dubbed “Jurassic West.” Sadly, those plans were scrapped, with the city saying it wasn’t able to secure a space in time for the playoffs.
The Raps’ success is also responsible for some complicated feelings in Montreal, where the usual hockey rivalry with Toronto is giving way to some newfound love for the home of the Maple Leafs.
You just need to walk by Dror Benezra’s Montreal restaurant, Pizza Prima, to see the Raptors love. Though, to be clear, Benezra maintains his love for the Raptors has “nothing to do with Toronto.”
Wear your fandom, forever
Either way, there are fans, and then there are fans.
And if you include yourself among the die-hards, you might just want to wear your fandom — permanently.
In Toronto’s Little Italy, Freedom Ink is offering free Raptors-themed tattoos for the truly obsessed until June 1.
Canadian hip-hop artist Peter Jackson is one surefire Raptors super-fan. In 2016, when the team made it to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jackson released his song Rap City.
That series didn’t end in Toronto’s favour.
But when the Raptors beat the Bucks in Game 6 this year, Jackson was inspired to write a new hype track. He stayed up late into the night, and came out with Toronto Raptors – 2019 NBA Finals Anthem.
Jackson says he’s “emotionally invested” in this year’s stunning playoff run.
“I care about it that much … It makes me feel like I’m apart about what’s going on,” Jackson said.
He hopes the track will just add to the excitement and help unite fans across the country.
“That’s what I like the most about this stuff. Everybody is coming together, everybody is paying attention to the same thing, they want the same outcome for the same team.”