At The Raptors Parade
(TORONTO, ON) – A week ago, I was fortunate enough to trek to the GTA to attend the Toronto Raptors NBA Championship victory parade and celebration. Why wouldn’t I, as an avid Canadian sports fan within a few hours drive from my home town of Windsor, come to bear witness to history in the making?
Why wouldn’t I especially as a sports writer living in Alberta and who just happened to be in Hamilton last Monday? Why? Because, when a crowd of anywhere from 500,000 to a million people was being projected to crowd Toronto’s already notoriously crowded streets, bus routes, and subway system, it just might be a recipe for major discomfort if not disaster.
Oh well. The Raptors had just proven the axiom, “no guts no glory,” to be true by doing the highly improbable. They beat the No. 1 ranked Milwaukee Bucks in 4 straight games after being down 0-2 in the Eastern Conference finals.
Then, even more improbable, they knocked off the 2-time champion Golden State Warriors, also in 6 games, to avoid a second Game 7 showdown. A showdown they narrowly escaped in the conference semi- final at home against the gamely Philadelphia 76ers.
When, as we all know by now, Kawhi Leonard’s act of redemption lifted his team to victory with “the shot.” The only bouncing buzzer beater of it’s kind in NBA game seven history.
Canadian basketball fans became galvanized and somewhat satisfied by that shot which all but erased the sour memory of Vince Carter’s miss against Allen Iverson’s Philly squad 24 years earlier. However, the youthful and highly under-rated Raptors, and their upstart rookie coach Nick Nurse, had a much bigger goal on their mind.
So, too, did Toronto’s front office who had bravely traded away all-star Damar DeRozan and other franchise prospects, to acquire Leonard, a former Championship MVP, and Danny Green from San Antonio. No one was more disheartened and unnerved by the DeRozen trade than fellow guard Kyle Lowry; the longest standing Raptor, but who, like “DeRoz,” didn’t always show up when needed to produce decisive play.
This on top of releasing coach Dwayne Casey, who landed with the Detroit Pistons, was not only daring but very unpopular among Toronto fans who saw Casey take the Raptors to their highest plateau thus far; the 2018 Eastern Conference finals where only King (Lebron) James kept them from meeting the Warriors a year earlier.
They replaced Casey with his six-year under study, Nurse, who had never been a head coach at the NBA level, and the rest, as they say, is history.
So yes, all of this paradoxical energy and much more was plenty of reason for yours truly, and what turned out to be 2 million plus fans, to literally clog the expansive University Avenue corridor leading to Nathan Phillips Square.
The parade was scheduled to begin at 10am from the CNE fairgrounds on Lakeshore Drive, then make the 5km drive in 2.5 hours. With the team, coaches, and management held high aloft on an open-top, British-made, double decker bus, the party could scarcely leave the fairgrounds due to the throngs of red-clad well-wishers.
Meanwhile, I literally wiggled and squeezed my way into Nathan Phillips Square by taking a less congested Bay Street parallel to University Ave. Certainly not a task that could’ve happened without the notable kindness and generosity of fellow Canadians content to stay more in the periphery of city hall.
The iconic dual towers of Toronto’s city hall formed a secondary backdrop to the huge black clad stage flanked by 2019 NBA Champiosnhip banners. We North The North banners could be seen poking up throughout the crowd.
Prior to the Raptors arrival finally being announced at 4pm, it was mostly a sun-baked eerily near-silent chatter in the square. Juxtaposed to the relative calm, the crowd burst alive with roars of accolades as the MC announced management, coaching staff, and players.
I couldn’t hear myself scream as the starters names were respectively called out: Marc Gasol, Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowrey, and then Kawhi Leonard.
As the thunderous cheers rolled over head, at the mention and appearance of Leonard on the stage and on the massive video screens, an enormous rumbling also began to be heard and felt, with an epicentre at the southeast corner of the square.
Before I could turn around to assess what it was, people began screaming and shoving and I was pushed into a crush of people some thirty feet toward the stage. I could scarcely hear some folks shouting that someone had a gun or had been shot. Confusion reigned.
I may have heard shots but mistook them for just another of the many firecrackers hurled into the air to break the silence on occasion. Just as the things settled down, while the announcer pleaded for calm and I found my ball cap and jacket trampled along with everyone else’s loosely placed or held belongings, the rampage happened a second time.
Needless to say, when I noticed a column of police clearing a path toward the street I escaped the square behind them and veered off toward Union Station, via Bay Street again, as they got to ground zero of the calamity.
While it was unfortunate that someone lost control of their anger in such a violent manner, I and most fans felt fortunate that the overwhelming majority of revellers, before and after the brief, but albeit near fatal shooting of four victims, was one of civic and national peace and, I dare say, love and pride.
So, again, what would possess any right-minded person to subject themselves to such potential madness?
Call it temporary insanity and/or tom foolery. Or, perhaps, even latent childhood hoopla from a former Canadian collegiate player like myself, whose hoop dreams of making it to the big show died just before the Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies franchises surfaced on the basketball stage.
That same dream is seen first hand in the young eyes of male and female hoopsters today. Those who pretend to be Leonard or Lowry as they release their perimeter shots, when we once yelled Bird, or Magic, or Jordan.
I saw it in their eyes because I was there.