Journey to glory
The sublime joy of the Raptors championship capped a 26-year project to build a winner from scratch—overcoming reluctant athletes, snarky purists and a market short on basketball tradition. Mission accomplished.
For the most drawn-out 0.9 seconds of basketball in Toronto Raptors history—as fans at every Jurassic Park party between St. John’s and Oakland, Calif., were bobbing and quaking with pent-up euphoria—Kawhi Leonard stood betraying no emotion.
The Raptors were ahead 112-110. Leonard was approaching the free throw line for two shots. Surely, he knew.
With less than a second to play in Game 6 of the NBA Finals, it would be impossible for the Warriors to grab a rebound and launch a desperation three-pointer to save their season. The Golden State Warriors fans knew it was over. The Warriors players were resigned to their fate. The Toronto Raptors were the 2019 NBA champions.
But Leonard still didn’t flinch or let out a smile. Not yet. After all, he still had two free throws to make. Only when the buzzer sounded—making everything about this devoutly awaited moment official—did Leonard let out a guttural roar, his arms extended skyward.
“I’m a guy who tries not to get too high or too low—and it worked out,” Leonard would later say, clutching the NBA Finals MVP trophy in his arms. “This is what I play basketball for. This is what I work out for all summer and during the season. I’m happy my hard work paid off.”
The trophies will certainly define Leonard’s career. He stands alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James as the only players in league history to have won finals MVP with two different teams. But it pales in comparison to how this NBA title has united and mobilized a nation. As the Raptor players gathered for the presentation of the Larry O’Brien trophy, a sea of red—mixed with purple—flowed down from the upper bowl toward court level, an impromptu ensemble for the singing of O Canada. Back in Toronto, tens of thousands filled downtown streets, while ecstatic fans across the country partied in places where anything connected to Canada’s largest city is normally anathema—Montreal, Regina, Halifax. (The merrymakers were generally well-behaved: damage appeared limited to a bashed-up bus and vandalized police cruiser in Toronto.)
“I can’t believe it’s real,” says Sameer Mawani, a Raptors season ticket holder since 1999 who saved up years of loyalty points so he could fly to Oakland and back—twice—to make all six games of the finals. “I can’t wait to go outside and lose it.” Only he wasn’t in a hurry; nor were the thousands of other expat Canadians whooping it up inside Oakland’s Oracle Arena, turning the Warriors’ longtime home into their own semi-private party venue.
A full hour after the game ended, after Raptors players had left the court to douse themselves in Cuvée 89 sparkling wine in the visiting team locker room, security pleaded with Raptors fans to head for the exits—to little avail. There were too many strangers still to hug. Still more high-fives to give. Too much emotion to savour to simply pack it in and say good night.
The tears of joy—on the court and in Jurassic Park—stemmed from the culmination of an agonizing 24-year love affair for a fan base determined to show that basketball was no longer exclusively America’s game. “This is a city that’s had its heart broken many times, in many sports,” says Rowan Barrett, the Scarborough, Ont.-born GM of Canada’s senior men’s national basketball team. “The decisions Masai Ujiri made need to be applauded. He took risks. He was unabashedly moving toward winning, whatever was needed.”
It was an audacity and sure-footedness Toronto sports fans hadn’t seen since the hallowed days when Pat Gillick was running the Blue Jays, or Conn Smythe called the shots for the Maple Leafs. Ujiri was willing to part ways with the reigning coach of the year, fan-favourite players, draft picks and an all-star in his prime—someone who should someday see his name and jersey hung in the rafters of the Raptors’ arena—all for a one-year window to win an NBA championship. But by sacrificing everything, he opened that window all the way, and damned if his players didn’t scramble right through, with a few million ecstatic fans in their wake.
To understand the scale and difficulty of this achievement is to know the foundation of an improbable dream: an ownership group that brought a pro basketball team to a country that hardly showed the sport on television; a series of NBA stars making it known they wouldn’t join a team north of the border, because of the cold or the taxes or whatever excuse they could summon; a franchise player in Vince Carter, who became an NBA dunk champion, only to later say he didn’t want to dunk anymore; a superstar in Chris Bosh, who never had a supporting cast, then left to join a team of other superstars and win multiple championships; another superstar in DeMar DeRozan, who made known his desires to stay a Raptor forever—only to get traded against his will.
Then, at last, a generational talent in Kawhi Leonard, who immediately became the greatest player to ever wear a Raptors uniform, yet was assumed to be around only for the one season left on his contract. Everyone better make the most of this, it was said last fall when Leonard arrived. Championships don’t come to Canada very often anymore.
Canadian sports fans were rightfully full of themselves in 1993. It was a hubris born of winning, and the results were plain enough to fit on gimmicky T-shirts sold at the time:
Stanley Cup Champions: Montreal Canadiens
World Series Champions: Toronto Blue Jays
NBA Champions: Who Cares?
In a television era when a single dedicated sports channel in Canada filled the demand, NBA playoff games were hardly a runaway winner for prime time, even in the era of Michael Jordan. Yet less than two weeks after Joe Carter hit his Game 6 World Series-winning home run—as Toronto sports fans were still reliving radio announcer Tom Cheek shouting, “Touch ’em all, Joe!”—the NBA announced its expansion into Toronto, with a franchise led by then-food-and-beverage kingpin John Bitove Jr. as co-owner.
In search of a team name, the owners turned to a newspaper contest, which came back with a list of finalists. The Toronto T. Rex was a personal favourite for Bitove; Jurassic Park was the 1993 summer movie blockbuster. His young son, Brett, preferred the Toronto Raptors. The T. Rexes in the movie were big, but slow. The velociraptors, on the other hand, were fast, ferocious and worked in packs, much like a basketball team.
If the franchise wanted to cultivate its own fan base, it would have to look beyond middle-age white guys already invested in Maple Leafs hockey or Blue Jays baseball. They needed to appeal to the kids, the next generation of sports fans. So the Toronto Raptors were born.
The team announced its first big-name signing in May 1994: the recently retired superstar player (and soon-to-be Hall of Famer) Isiah Thomas came aboard as executive vice-president and part owner. But reminders that this was not a basketball country were everywhere. Thomas’s public introduction was held at Wayne Gretzky’s Toronto restaurant. And until they had a proper basketball arena, the Raptors would play on a makeshift court at the SkyDome, home of the Jays.
Yet Toronto was never out of place in the eyes of NBA owners. During the 1994 season, before the Raptors’ debut, Thomas toured NBA games to scout potential expansion draft picks. On one trip to Ohio, with a Sports Illustrated reporter in tow, the former owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers Ted Stepien approached Thomas to tell him, “I tried to move the Cavaliers to Toronto in ’83. It’ll be a gold mine. You’re going to need a shovel to shovel it all out of there.”
But before there was gold, there was laughter—much of it at the Raptors’ expense. In the summer of 1995, then-NBA commissioner David Stern welcomed the crowd gathered at the SkyDome for the NBA college draft. He made a point of welcoming the Canadian TV audience watching on, of all channels, YTV. The mass snicker rising from the crowd was audible to those at home: what is a kids’ channel whose big draw is Mighty Morphin Power Rangers doing broadcasting a pro basketball draft? But the Raptors front office didn’t care what the sports purists thought. They weren’t after sports purists.
“We always felt that, long-term, investing with children and families was the best way to build the brand,” says Glen Grunwald, the team’s first assistant general manager. “That’s why we had the dinosaur as the logo and did things like the draft on YTV. Most people weren’t NBA fans so we needed to build a fan base.”
The mood soon turned to excitement as the Raptors prepared to make their first-ever draft pick. “We want Ed! We want Ed,” fans chanted in unison—a plea to pick Ed O’Bannon, the six-foot-eight college star who’d just led UCLA to the NCAA championship. Instead, the Raptors selected Damon Stoudamire, a high-scoring point guard out of Arizona, but tiny by NBA standards at five foot ten. Thomas, recalls Bob Zuffelato, the Raptors first director of scouting, “really wanted a point guard, like himself.”
And so the first player in Raptors history, someone who would be indelibly linked to the franchise, was welcomed by a chorus of boos. “I promise you it didn’t bother me one bit. I just figured they weren’t educated on the game,” Stoudamire now laughs to Maclean’s. “I’d overcome this stuff my whole life, so a couple boos weren’t going to affect my day. Nobody was going to take my shine away from me.”
How long did it take until the boos turned to cheers? “The first exhibition game. It wasn’t even a real game,” Stoudamire says. “As soon as that happened, it was all good.” After all, as fans soon learned, the man dubbed “Mighty Mouse” could play.
There were questions about how the players would band together on such short notice. “We’ll probably have 12 strangers on the floor with no chemistry,” said Brendan Malone, the Raptors’ first-ever head coach, in a Sports Illustrated interview mere weeks prior to their inaugural game. “But in my mind’s eye, I know how I would like to play, and that’s to push the ball up the court and get the easy basket and, if there’s no shot, flow into some sort of passing game.”
As Malone spent his days trying to develop some team cohesion on the court, his spare time was needed off the court to educate local sportswriters. “I was asked to go to a local high school, where all the members of the local media were in the stands, and I had to explain to them the rules of NBA basketball,” Malone says in an interview. “Because they really didn’t know anything.”
Looking back at the Raptors inaugural game, what Grunwald remembers most is the Canadian national anthem. “It was soon after the Quebec referendum, where the ‘No’ vote won by less than one per cent,” he says. “The Barenaked Ladies were singing the national anthem and when they switched to the French lyrics partway through O Canada, the crowd erupted [in cheers]. It was special to see people celebrating national unity.”
The fans went home happy: the Raptors beat the New Jersey Nets 94-79 in front of a crowd of 33,306. “When you looked up into the Dome, the place was packed, and it stayed that way the entire year,” Malone says. “Great fans were there from the beginning.”
Road trips brought more laughs, though, at a team wearing purple uniforms emblazoned with a dinosaur. Host arenas would play the Barney & Friends theme during team introductions, recalls Grunwald. And back in Toronto, Raptors fans were on a steeper learning curve than the media: those behind the net needed reminders that waving their thundersticks on free throws should be exclusive to distracting opponents, not Raptors who were shooting. Herbie Kuhn, the Raptors in-game announcer since Day 1, would politely shush them at such times by declaring over the PA system that the Raptors were “shhhhhhh-ooting two.”
They lost plenty, which was to be expected. But Malone recalls with a laugh: “A gambler down in New York told me we were doing a great job, because we covering all the spreads.” Still, as the season was coming to a close, Malone tells Maclean’s, management encouraged him to play his bench players more often—even in close games; he understood that to mean they wanted a lower overall place in the standings to get a better draft pick in the off-season. He wasn’t impressed. “In retrospect, if I was them I’d probably do the same thing,” he says. “But you can’t tell a coach not to win.”
Stoudamire says he felt like the team played to win every game, “but at the same time, if I wasn’t in the game, I felt like that wasn’t giving us the best chance to win.” Grunwald says there was concern at the time about Stoudamire being overplayed; Stoudamire missed the last few games of the season with knee tendinitis. “We knew we weren’t going to win a playoff spot that year, so we were more interested in developing players and building for the longer term,” the former assistant GM said. (Isiah Thomas did not return a request for comment.)
With a month to go in the season, the Raptors had their biggest margin of victory yet—an 18-point win against the Charlotte Hornets; Malone soon got a tip from a journalist who’d heard the front office planned to fire him at the end of the year. The next night, Malone prepared his team for their biggest game of the year as 36,000 fans came to see Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. And the Raptors, in their first season, beat a team that is now remembered as perhaps the greatest ever.
“My daughter was maybe four years old, and asked me if I could get her Jordan’s autograph,” recalls veteran shooting guard Doug Christie with a laugh. “I was thinking: ‘Girl, we just beat them. I don’t know if he’ll be happy about signing anything.’ ” But, for his little girl, Christie went across the hall for an autograph—and Jordan happily obliged.
Christie went back to his hotel room that night and there was a bottle of champagne on ice waiting for him. Coach Malone walked with his wife and son along College Street to his favourite restaurant, Grappa, “and people were out celebrating that win like a championship,” he says.
Toronto had its first signature win. Stoudamire went on to win Rookie of the Year. But the good times didn’t last.
Malone was fired at the end of the season, his boss citing “philosophical differences,” and Malone convinced he was paying a price for his reluctance to lose. Stoudamire stayed less than three years in Toronto before the Raptors acquiesced to his trade demands. In exchange for a slew of players and draft picks, one of those Raptors acquisitions, recent NBA All-Star Kenny Anderson, didn’t report to Toronto. He refused to play in Canada.
“I remember the comments early on were comical: we don’t have ESPN and everything is done in the metric system, so why would you want to come to Canada?” says Jim Kelly, a longtime Raptors scout. “It was a cultural battle.”
Toronto had a basketball team, sure. But it didn’t yet belong.
The Raptors management and scouting staff all pretended they didn’t care much for Vince Carter. Yes, the star from the University of North Carolina was always their first choice in the 1999 NBA Draft; they had the fourth pick, but they knew that the Golden State Warriors were desperate to get Antawn Jamison, Carter’s UNC teammate, with pick No. 5.
As Zuffelato, the scouting director, remembers it: “The Warriors said, ‘How about you pick Antawn, we pick Vince, but then we’ll trade players plus give you a $1 million?’ ” Grunwald says the Raptors’ net haul on this manoeuvre was more like $300,000. Either way, the team not only had the superstar it desired all along, but some bonus cash for their new ownership group Maple Leaf Gardens Ltd., soon to be renamed Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment.
Extra funds were welcome: the Air Canada Centre, the new arena for the Raptors and Leafs set to open in 1999, would use the money to help pay for an expensive in-house practice court so the Raptors wouldn’t have to travel to nearby Glendon College. “We had a weight room outside the locker room, and all these hot tubs,” remembers Christie. “We were a professional NBA organization and this solidified it. I was proud.”
Carter soon brought the franchise to the forefront of every sports highlight reel by winning the 2000 NBA dunk contest. There was the reverse 360-degree windmill dunk—for a moment called the greatest ever by the event’s TV colour commentators—followed by his third slam of the night, when he caught a bounce pass while airborne and dunked it after first taking the ball through his legs. “It’s over!” two-time NBA champion Kenny Smith famously shouted into everyone’s TV set (as Carter mouthed the same words to the camera). Judges jumped out of their seats to shake Carter’s hand. Canada had its basketball breakthrough.
“Having that replayed over and over and over on every network,” says Kuhn, “and all of sudden the spotlight is on Toronto.” Carter became the reason kids watched sports-highlights shows a little longer each morning, waiting through hockey and baseball recaps to see the latest feat of the man called “Air Canada” and “Half-Man, Half-Amazing.”
That summer, Carter played for Team USA at the Olympics, and leapfrogged a standing seven-foot opponent, barely touching him. He made the cover of Sports Illustrated in a Raptors uniform behind the headline “Posterboy.” In 2001, he led the Raptors to a then-franchise record 47 regular season wins, and followed that up with their first-ever playoff series victory, against the New York Knicks.
But then came graduation day—and the fall. Carter had earned a degree at UNC in his spare time, and his college graduation ceremony landed on the same day the Raptors hosted Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers. Carter went to both, controversially, flying back to Toronto for tipoff, and with two seconds to play, the Raptors down a single point, he had the ball.
“I was sitting on the baseline when Carter took that final shot,” Zuffelato says. “If it goes in, we go to the East finals. If it misses, we lose.” As the shot went up, Zuffelato had a great sightline. “I said: ‘That thing’s in!’ ” he remembers. “But it bounced off the rim. It was a sad day.”
After an off-season of criticism for his graduation manoeuvre, Carter had a couple of injury-plagued seasons that kicked off a streak of the Raptors missing the playoffs altogether. Amid constant management changes, Carter asked to be traded. Fans said he quit on the team. In exchange for his departure to the New Jersey Nets, the Raptors received draft picks, a few bench players and the slowing seven-time all-star Alonzo Mourning, who never reported to Toronto—a too-familiar end to a promising moment for the team.
As Raptors basketball went through a slump, Canadians were making a dent in the NBA. Jamaal Magloire, the “Big Cat” from Toronto, made the NBA All-Star Game in 2004. Then Victoria-native Steve Nash won back-to-back league MVP awards, a feat achieved at that point by only nine players. Not only that, but Jay Triano took the helm of the Raptors, becoming the first Canadian to land a head coaching job in the NBA. “They were homegrown and made it to the highest level,” says Barrett, GM for the senior men’s national team. “The feeling now was that we could not only play in the NBA, but we could become the best. Whatever mental barriers there were, they were stripped away.”
The Raptors and the now-defunct Vancouver Grizzlies played no small part in this flourish of talent, stirring interest among players who would enter the NBA pipeline. “Our national team players once consisted of guys that could find jobs in Europe,” says Triano, a former head coach for Team Canada. “Now there are NBA players like Tristan Thompson and Kelly Olynyk, who grew up fans of the NBA because it was in the cities they lived in.”
Then came Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, who would go first overall in back-to-back years of the NBA Draft. Kia Nurse became a top 10 draft pick in the WNBA. And Chris Boucher would play off the bench for the current Raptors championship team.
After Carter left, the most talked-about Raptors game in the 2000s was the humiliating day Kobe Bryant, the Los Angeles Lakers legend, scored 81 points in a single game against Toronto, the second-highest total in league history. The Raptors’ only superstar at the time, Chris Bosh, spent seven seasons on a team that made risky draft picks that failed over and over, until he too opted to leave in 2010, joining fellow future Hall of Famers LeBron James and Dwyane Wade in Miami to form a multi-title-winning super-team.
But just before Bosh left, the Raptors made the most vital draft selection for future success in franchise history: they selected DeMar DeRozan in 2009, a teenager from Compton, Calif. “He grew up in the worst neighbourhood, and he came out smelling like an angel,” says Raptors scout Kelly. “In terms of character and ability to play, he was a pleasure to have on the team.” And after Kyle Lowry joined the Raptors from the Houston Rockets, the two became fast friends: Toronto’s all-star duo.
But it was a front office move in 2014 that put Toronto on a championship path. The Raptors hired Masai Ujiri—the reigning NBA executive of the year—as their new general manager. Ujiri’s first move as GM involved trading away forward Andrea Bargnani, a draft bust, for a No.1 overall pick, in exchange for a handful of bench players and a draft pick that would later be used to select Jakob Poeltl.
Ujiri wanted to instill a new culture into Toronto basketball and was unreserved about his desire to win—at times to a fault. Prior to the Raptors first playoff game of Ujiri’s tenure, against the Brooklyn Nets, he stirred up a Raptors fan event by shouting, “F--k Brooklyn!” While he was fined for the profanity, and the Raptors lost to Brooklyn that year, Ujiri’s rallying cry revealed, to his city and his players, the single-mindedness of the man at the helm.
The following year, the Raptors lost in four straight to the Washington Wizards in the opening round of the playoffs. A year later, they lost to LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers in the third round. A year later, they were swept in four games by James in the second round. A year later, the Raptors set a franchise record in wins and went into the playoffs as the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but in the second round of playoffs they were swept by—yes, again—King James. “Yep, it’s a wasted year for me,” Raptors all-star Kyle Lowry said at season’s end. “For me, it was championship or bust.”
With far too many busts, something had to change. Ujiri fired coach Dwane Casey, a move that shocked the Raptors fan base. A week later, as many predicted, Casey won the NBA’s Coach of the Year award. Fans questioned Ujiri’s judgment—but he wasn’t done. He and the rest of the Raptors were tired of being looked down upon by the NBA’s elite. They would no longer be pretenders.
Herbie Kuhn was on the verge of tears. The Raptors in-game announcer wasn’t in front of a microphone, but rather a screen—staring at his Twitter account. The Raptors had traded DeMar DeRozan.
DeRozan was a Toronto all-star anomaly: he wanted to stay a Raptor, even as the team kept coming up short in the playoffs and his hometown L.A. Lakers made it known they wanted to sign him in free agency. “I am Toronto,” he pronounced, as he signed a new five-year deal with the Raptors in 2016. But in the summer of 2018, the Raptors’ four-time all-star and franchise leader in points and games played was gone. He was shipped to the San Antonio Spurs, along with Jakob Poeltl and a future first-round draft pick. Kuhn teared up as he started to type: “Thank you DeMar DeRozan for the privilege of announcing your name, thousands of times,” he wrote. “You always gave your all and T.O. fans appreciate it. Respect.”
But on the other side of Toronto’s tearful goodbye lay a new hope. The Raptors had given away a king’s ransom, but in return they got Danny Green, a three-point specialist with a championship ring with the Spurs, as well as the man who would come to be dubbed the “King of the North”: Kawhi Leonard.
“If you take a moment to step back and think about what DeMar has meant—not only to Toronto Raptors basketball but also to Toronto as a city—I don’t know another Raptor who’s worked so hard and given so much to wanting the team to be successful,” Kuhn says. But for the team to reach the pinnacle, DeRozan needed to be “the sacrificial lamb,” as he later called himself. “If it weren’t for all the years and groundwork that I did before, none of this would’ve been possible,” DeRozan told Bleacher Report. “To their credit, they probably felt like it was time to see what we could get to make that next jump.”
Toronto’s now-savvy basketball crowd understood Leonard was a generational talent, if not someone coming to the Raptors of his own free will. He had won a championship, the finals MVP award and had twice been named defensive player of the year. But he was also coming off an injury-plagued season in San Antonio, had a single year left on his contract and a known desire to sign his next deal with a team in his hometown of Los Angeles. Did he even want to be here?
At his introductory press conference, Leonard said he had come with “an open mind,” adding: “As long as I have on a jersey, I want to play basketball.” Hardly a ringing endorsement, especially for the fans unfamiliar with Leonard’s demeanour with the media. But, while Leonard came across as a robot at times, the Raptors faithful were soon embracing his comically monotonous self-description as a “fun guy.”
As journalists at that first presser had follow-up questions on his desire to stay, Ujiri interjected, declaring: “The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone. Believe in this city, believe in yourselves.”
Fans learned new basketball terms during the regular season—like “load management,” meaning the practice of giving Leonard nights off to avoid re-aggravating the quad injury that sidelined him for much of the previous season. “There’s 82 [regular season] games and for me these are just practices,” Leonard said matter-of-factly. “Playoffs is when it’s time to lace them up.”
What were regular-season ticket buyers paying for, then, if not to see their new star—a lion among humans? But Ujiri seemed on-board with the philosophy, moving on to roster tweaks aimed at assembling a champion. He already had enough talent coming off the bench, between Fred Van-Vleet, Norman Powell and Ogugua “OG” Anunoby. Pascal Siakam was having a breakout season as a starter. But there was one thing Ujiri almost certainly had to address. “He knew they’d have to go through Joel Embiid of the 76ers—an all-NBA player. Who’s going to guard that guy?” Barrett asks. “Why not go get a former defensive player of the year?”
At the trade deadline, Ujiri shipped away longtime Raptors fan-favourite Jonas Valanciunas, several bench players and a draft pick, in exchange for the seven-foot-one former all-star centre Marc Gasol; though in the latter stages of his career, he was still, statistically, the most effective player in the league at stopping the seven-foot Embiid.
Now, even with Leonard taking the occasional night off, the Raptors showed their depth, finishing with the second-best record in the NBA regular season behind the Milwaukee Bucks. Raptors starters led the league in plus-minus. And they had two NBA All-Stars in Leonard and Lowry. Practice was over.
The Raptors were always a franchise known for choking in the playoffs, and a sense of dread came in Game 1 of the first round: they lost to the Orlando Magic, a team that squeaked into the playoffs. Leonard, looking to tie the game with the last shot, tossed up an air ball.
It’s only one game in a best-of-seven series, fans reminded themselves—and the naysayers quickly fell silent thanks to the Raptors winning the next four straight.
Up next: the 76ers, and Embiid, the self-described “most unstoppable player in the game.” The 76ers front office had long asked the team’s fans to “trust the process,” a mantra understood to mean watching young players from the draft mature into a team of superstars. Some picks worked out, others didn’t. But, in 2019, the 76ers sped up “the process” by trading to acquire four-time NBA All-Star Jimmy Butler, and Tobias Harris, who was having a breakout season with the L.A. Clippers. Together with former No. 1 overall draft pick Ben Simmons and three-point specialist J.J. Reddick, the Sixers were judged by analysts as having the best starting lineup in the Eastern Conference.
After splitting the first two games in Toronto, Embiid was flying in Game 3. The 76ers blew out the Raptors by 21 points, punctuated by Embiid’s windmill dunk and arms-out celebration like an airplane. It seemed like the 76ers could win on autopilot. But then the Raptors clawed back, winning a close game in Philly, followed by a 36-point beatdown of the 76ers back in Toronto. Sitting courtside, Drake—rap star, franchise “ambassador” and frequent troll of opposing players—had his arms stretched out. So did about 20,000 other Raptors fans: airplanes everywhere in the former Air Canada Centre.
Embiid caught the eye of Drake, telling the rapper: “I’ll be back. I’ll be back.” And he made good on that promise: the 76ers won at home to force a Game 7 in Toronto.
Kawhi Leonard couldn’t stand up. The buzzer sounded three-tenths of a second after the ball left his hand, and the shot hit iron. Not net.
As Leonard’s right arm remained fully extended, the momentum from his cross-court sprint to shake off two defenders pulled him three steps off the court. The ball bounced directly upwards off the front rim and now, from the far corner behind the backboard, Leonard didn’t have the best sightline at the net. He crouched.
Never in the NBA’s 72-year playoff history had anyone hit a buzzer-beating game-winner in a Game 7. And this was Game 7, against the Philadelphia 76ers, the score tied 90-90, the buzzer sounding, the ball suspended for a breathless moment three feet above the rim. The winners would advance to the NBA’s Eastern Conference Final. The losers would be left to second-guess everything—the draft picks, the contracts, the coaches, the strategy, the trade deals, the general manager, everything that got each franchise to these critical few seconds. The ball bounced again, off the front rim.
“At first a lot of us were like, ‘Ah, it doesn’t look too good,’ ” remembers Danny Green. “And then the second bounce it was, ‘Oh s--t, we might have a chance here.’ ”
Jordan Loyd, an inactive player for the Raptors these playoffs, dressed in a black blazer and gold chains, found himself next to Leonard. He squatted, too, instinctively putting a hand on Leonard’s shoulder. The ball floated across the basket and bounced—again!—off the back rim.
By then Embiid had re-entered the frame, the seven-foot 76ers superstar who had chased Leonard across the floor, jumping almost perfectly in sync with Leonard and using his entire frame and stretched-out arms to contest the shot. But the shot’s high arc went over his block. Now, the 76ers big man stepped back toward the court and leaned his neck over in time to catch the ball hitting the rim for the fourth time.
“It was just like a movie moment where you’re waiting for the ball to go down,” says Fred VanVleet, who watched from the Raptors bench. “Once it hit the rim once and twice, it was like, ‘This is Kawhi. This is gonna fall.’ ”
An eternity lasted less than four seconds.
“I had the microphone in my right hand, and the finger on the mic button with my left hand,” remembers Kuhn, the Raptors PA announcer. “I wanted to burst—but I couldn’t.”
Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce.
Kuhn burst out over the PA: “Oh my goodness! Kawhi Leonard! Oh my goodness! Kawhi Leonard!” He now laughs: “That’s all I yelled for 30 seconds.” Not that many people could hear him amidst the pandemonium.
The fans inside Scotiabank Arena roared. Jurassic Park erupted with joy. Even Leonard, by habit as composed as he is eminent, screamed as teammates mobbed him.
“I’m a guy that acts like I’ve been there before,” he would say later, having recovered his monotone. “So probably the last time you’ve seen me scream was when we won [an NBA championship with the San Antonio Spurs]. I’ve never been in that situation before—a [buzzer-beating] game-winner in a Game 7—so I just showed emotion.”
Toronto sports fans had to process what had just happened. “I sat back, turned my mic off and closed my eyes for a few seconds,” Kuhn says. “I soaked it up. That was a pivotal moment in Toronto Raptors franchise history. Pivotal is an understatement.”
With that shot, Leonard made good on his own words. He is a “fun guy.”
The mural of Leonard’s Game 7 shot was already up on Queen Street West—two storeys high outside a downtown Toronto shoe store—when Raptors fans figured their time had run out on these NBA playoffs. The team had lost its first two games of the conference final against the Milwaukee Bucks, who had the NBA’s best record and Giannis Antetokounmpo—the six-foot-eleven “Greek Freak,” as he is dubbed. Imagine a version of NBA Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal who was fast and able to shoot threes and you’d have Antetokounmpo, the league’s presumptive 2019 MVP.
The Raptors had their modern iconic moment—one to be remembered like Jose Bautista’s bat flip with the Blue Jays. The team’s most recent loss was a 22-point defeat. Some fans said they were satisfied with the season, and a lifetime of memories from The Shot, even if they didn’t win it all. But the Raptors weren’t satisfied.
It took two overtime periods in Game 3 for them to get their first win over the Bucks. A 120-102 beatdown in Game 4 that put Milwaukee in new territory: it was the first time they had lost back-to-back games all year.
In Game 5, the Bucks came out charging, building a solid 14-point lead less than five minutes into the game. With the Raptors down by 10 midway through the fourth quarter, in the most important game in franchise history, Leonard, evidently sensing the tension, had a few words for his teammates. “I told them to enjoy the moment and embrace it,” he said. “Let’s have fun and love it. This is why we’re here.” The ensuing comeback was fun for everyone but the Bucks and their fans: Fred VanVleet—sleep deprived since the birth days earlier of his second child, Fred Jr.—came off the bench to shoot seven-for-nine from the three-point range, to go along with a plus-28 point differential when he was on the court, spurring the Raptors to a 105-99 win.
Heading back to Toronto for Game 6, one win away from the finals, NBA Hall of Fame player-turned-analyst Charles Barkley said the Raptors should treat the match like Game 7 because there was no chance the Bucks would lose again at home. Once again, the Raptors needed a comeback. Trailing by 15 with two minutes to play in the third quarter, they went on a 26-3 run—no basket more damaging than one sunk with seven minutes to play. “Kyle got the steal and was coming down the court,” Kuhn remembers. “I saw two Bucks players closing in on him.” And while Lowry is the type of player who normally embraces contact and attacks the net, notes Kuhn, “he hits the brakes, turns and here is a freight train coming named Kawhi Leonard.”
Leonard received the pass and jumped while Antetokounmpo went up for the block. “Leonard moves the ball to his left hand, his ‘Klaw,’ and throws down this ridiculous dunk,” Kuhn says. “I yelled into the mic, ‘J-J-J-J-Jammin!’ I went nuts.”
The Raptors closed out the series, winning 100-94, the team Instagram account posting a photo of Leonard’s dunk with the caption: “Hang this in the Louvre.” Days later, a Raptors fan visiting the famous art gallery in Paris did just that, stealthily hanging a printout of the photo in one of the exhibit rooms, not far from the Mona Lisa. Another work of art.
One hour before tipoff on the first NBA Finals game held outside U.S. soil, NBA commissioner Adam Silver declared “a homecoming” for the sport. Basketball was invented by a Canadian, Dr. James Naismith, who was looking for ways to keep young men fit during winter. The first-ever NBA game was held in Toronto in 1946, the hometown Huskies losing to the New York Knickerbockers at Maple Leaf Gardens.
Naismith foresaw basketball as an international game and, 128 years after he invented it, the game’s global popularity was on display in Toronto. Led by Masai Ujiri, a Nigerian, in the front office, was a Raptors lineup as diverse as its city: Pascal Siakam of Cameroon; Marc Gasol of Spain; Serge Ibaka, a Spanish international player born in Congo; Chris Boucher, a Canadian born in St. Lucia; and Jeremy Lin, the first East Asian-American player in an NBA Final.
But they were up against quality and class. The Warriors had won three of the last four NBA championships and added superstar centre DeMarcus Cousins in the off-season. It was arguably the most dangerous roster in league history: two-time league MVP Steph Curry; two-time NBA Finals MVP Kevin Durant; five-time all-star Klay Thompson; four-time NBA All-Star Cousins; 2015 NBA Finals MVP Andre Iguodala and former defensive player of the year Draymond Green, who would happily remind everyone that he thought himself the best defender to step on an NBA court.
The Warriors’ problem in 2019 was injuries—the bane of many a would-be champion. There were no bestselling books written about the 2015 runner-up Cleveland Cavaliers, who had LeBron James but played without two of its other all-stars. What people remember is the dawn of a dynasty that Cleveland’s loss ushered in: the Golden State Warriors. Four years on, the fly in Golden State’s ointment was described as a calf injury suffered in the second round of the playoffs by Durant; he’d miss the first few games of the series.
Whatever the outcome, getting to the final was a watershed moment for the Raptors. And Ujiri, now president of the team, was feeling reflective. “Give Dwane Casey credit. He prepared us for this,” he said of his previous season’s coach. “This is not something that started in one year. I don’t know that a team can just start in one year. So I want to say that Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan are a part of this.” Ujiri went on: “There’s no knock here on the past, because we were part of the past. We just had to learn from it. That’s what I think good organizations should do.”
Certainly the Raptors lineup for the team’s first NBA Final showed the depth that critics long complained they lacked. Pascal Siakam proved he was, indeed, “a guy”—as Warriors superstar defender Draymond Green graciously put it—with a Raptors-high 32 points in Game 1. “We did a good job of limiting Kawhi, but it’s not Kawhi Leonard [we’re up against],” added Klay Thompson. “It’s the Raptors.”
Come Game 2, the Warriors failed to limit Leonard, who had a game-high 34 points and 14 rebounds. But they did a good enough job stopping his teammates. What head coach Nick Nurse described as a “quarter from hell” coming out of the half saw the Warriors score 18 straight, and the lead proved insurmountable. Heading to Oakland with the series tied, Nurse challenged his team to win one of those two games on the Warriors’ home court. Leonard piped in: “F--k that. Let’s go get them both.”
Serge Ibaka had six blocks in Game 3, an NBA Finals record, while Danny Green and Kyle Lowry combined for 11 three-pointers. In Game 4, VanVleet shadowed Curry on defence—an unenviable job he performed with high efficiency, limiting the greatest long-range shooter of all time to two three-pointers in nine attempts. And Leonard, as had become his custom, led the way, scoring 30-plus points in Games 3 and 4 while adding a game-high in rebounds for Game 4, making good on his catchphrase from college: “The board man gets paid.” The Raptors answered Leonard’s challenge, outscoring the Warriors by a total of 27 points on the road.
But the Warriors acted like the reigning back-to-back champions they were. Durant returned from his calf injury for Game 5 in Toronto, only to crumple with a career-altering Achilles injury in the second quarter. His departure on the arms of teammates drew an unseemly deluge of cheers from the Scotia-bank Arena crowd, and the Warriors responded with a 7-1 run. When a fourth-quarter comeback led by Leonard put Toronto on the brink of a championship, the Warriors answered with three straight three-pointers. Kyle Lowry had a shot at the buzzer to win it all back—could he replicate Leonard’s magic? But Draymond Green partially blocked it, and with that, a raucous city fell silent.
Oracle Arena was always going to be loud. It would be the 2,070th Warriors game at the famous venue—home of the franchise for 47 seasons—and its last before the team moves next season to a new arena in San Francisco.
So what if Lowry scored the first 11 Raptors points of the game, opening an early nine-point margin? The crowd would not be quieted. Even the loss of the deadly Klay Thompson, who went out in the third quarter with a torn ACL, only muted the Warriors faithful for a few minutes: they roared their approval when he returned to sink his two free throws, and maintained the din after he left the game for good. Then in the fourth, with the clock ticking down and the Warriors trailing by one, the deafening crowd and smothering Warriors defence forced a Raptors turnover. Less than 10 seconds left and the Raptors challenge was clear: to win an NBA championship, they’d have to stop one of the greatest teams in pro basketball history just one more time.
For a moment their fate appeared sealed: as he’d done so often throughout the series, Curry used a screen to get an open three-point shot. But the greatest shooter of all time—his 470 career three-pointers in the playoffs are an NBA record—misfired. And still it wasn’t over. Leonard was able only to bat the ball down the court as the seconds ticked away, leaving Draymond Green to dive for the loose ball and call timeout as he hugged it. Time left: 0.9 seconds.
There was only one problem for the Warriors: they didn’t have any timeouts left. As the officials talked over the penalty, which would be a Golden State technical foul, resulting in one Raptors free throw plus possession of the ball, Serge Ibaka put his hands over his mouth. Then he put his hands on his head. Soon, he would go down to one knee. This was it.
Leonard knocked down the free throw, plus two more when the Warriors fouled him on the inbound pass, putting the Raptors ahead 114-110. A meaningless three-point heave by Curry landed in Lowry’s welcome arms and cued the celebration. As the Raptors put on NBA Champions hats and received the congratulations from the defeated Warriors, Ujiri had to force his way onto the court: a sheriff’s deputy failed to recognize the man who helped build this moment. There was an altercation, but Ujiri got past him.
Down came the Raptors fans from all corners of the arena to gather behind their team, chanting “We the North.” The names on the backs of their jerseys reminded everyone of the triumphs and disappointments they had shared: Carter, McGrady, Bosh, Joseph, Valanciunas, DeRozan, Lowry, Leonard. Each represented a stride forward for a franchise that learned every lesson the hard way; that had to fight for the affections of every one of those fans. With this moment, the Raptors went from being an “entertainment option” to part of the fabric of their community and their country—a source of pride and joy.
Also: vindication. Many in the joyous throng, after all, were the kids who a quarter-century ago opened their hearts to a silly dinosaur and a point guard named Mighty Mouse, starting a movement in a basketball desert that survived and somehow flourished. Now they were receiving their reward, because if the sports gods have any sense of justice, the Toronto Raptors will bring joy to their kids, and their kids after that.
“We’ve been growing and trying to prove to the world that there’s a meaning to having one NBA team outside the U.S.,” Ujiri said, having finally reached the podium. “But we wanted to win in Toronto. And we won in Toronto.”
As the Raptors walked off toward an awaiting champagne shower, Siakam was wrapped in a Cameroonian flag. Ibaka had the flag of Congo draped over himself. Ujiri walked out proudly clutching the flag of Nigeria. And Boucher, born 26 years ago—the same year the NBA announced its expansion north of the border—held up the flag of Canada.
This article was originally published on June 17, 2019, in the Maclean’s special commemorative issue celebrating the Toronto Raptors.