TORONTO – Hate to turn this column into a visitors bureau pitch, but you should know something: It has been amazing to experience the first NBA Finals in this pulsating city. Even after acknowledging that a championship opportunity is guaranteed to create a palpable fever anywhere, you can still say Toronto’s fire is burning hotter than the norm.
This place, this basketball province, has come to life and refreshed a Finals vibe that had gotten stale during four consecutive years of the same ol’ Golden State-Cleveland matchup. The Warriors are still here and still on their legacy quest, and even though they’re the NBA’s glamour team, they’re also a rare and seemingly indomitable beast. They’re pushing the league forward by creating a higher standard, and many teams try to copy their transformational basketball system. But Toronto and the Raptors are creating a blueprint that is easier to follow and more indicative of where the league can – and needs to – go.
The Raptors’ journey to a 1-0 lead as a Finals newbie has been full of disappointment and hardship. In this particular run, the franchise has been climbing for six seasons. It has had to balance patience and audacity in overcoming playoff sweeps and moments in which the team cowered at the sight of LeBron James. But despite the pain of pursuit, it feels like the Raptors have arrived right on time. With the NBA focused on global growth and equipped with a solid plan, the league’s only international team finally has made it onto the biggest stage, and the Raptors arrived with a multicultural team of players representing six countries and a coaching staff with the same flavor. Masai Ujiri, their charismatic team president, is Nigerian. And his front office celebrates a diversity of ethnicity and gender.
“It’s overwhelming because you think, when I look at all the international players we have on our team … it’s really brought us together, and I think it says so much because that’s how our city is,” Ujiri said. “That’s how the country is, that we can all relate to the multicultural or the diversity of Toronto and Canada, and that’s how our team is. They talk in different languages on defense. They talk in different languages in the locker room, and it’s like that in our organization. And being international myself and being from Africa, I’m proud of that.”
Like the other major sports leagues, the NBA has a long-term aspiration of being a true worldwide organization. It doesn’t necessarily mean having a team in every major city, but at the very least, it wants to cultivate a larger global audience as well as attract and develop players from all corners of the world. Since the Dream Team changed the game 27 years ago, the sport has shown consistent growth. Over the past 20 years, an influx of international talent has had a tremendous influence in elevating the quality of play in college and the NBA.
But despite the breakthroughs, the game had been missing one key thing: An elite team outside the United States.
The Raptors are providing that now, but of course, it’s complicated. Their greatness could be fleeting if Kawhi Leonard, the player that Ujiri boldly traded for, leaves as a free agent this summer. It’s the ultimate test for Toronto, a chance to change the old misguided perception that it’s not a good city for stars from the United States. If the Raptors can keep thriving, if they can keep Leonard, then perhaps the foolishness about the city being too north, too cold, too heavily taxed and too different will defer to the reality that it’s one of the greatest all-around cities in the NBA. And because the team represents Canada, a superstar can have an entire nation behind him instead of one city or part of a region.
Two local artists, Javid Jah and Luvsumone, unveiled a “King Of The North” mural featuring Leonard this week in Regent Park. Restaurants are offering Leonard free food for life if he re-signs in Toronto, even though he can afford any meal he wants. They love him already, and they accept him. He can remain soft-spoken here. There are no conditions on the icon. And it means something to Leonard.
“Everyone out here, they love,” Leonard said of Toronto fans. “Not just me. If you walk through the city, or if I’m with one of my teammates, they show them a lot of love as well. It’s a great support group out here with the fans and with everyone in Toronto.”
It has taken 24 years for basketball to catch fire like this in Canada. In 1995, the NBA added franchises in Toronto and Vancouver. The Grizzlies lasted six miserable seasons in which they never had a record better than 23-59, and then they fled Vancouver for Memphis. Toronto has survived, but along the way, it has watched stars such as Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and Tracy McGrady leave.
In 2012, just before the Raptors began this stretch of six straight playoff appearances and the six best records in franchise history, former Raptor Lamond Murray spoke frankly about what Toronto has had to contend with in establishing itself.
“There used to be a stigma similar to what went on with the Clippers,” said Murray, who played in Toronto from 2002-05. “If you are a veteran player and you get traded to Toronto, and you are on your last legs in the league, they basically sent you to Siberia to finish off your career.”
But Murray added a final thought that proved prophetic: “However, I think things are changing. The game has evolved, and people don’t look at the teams like that anymore.”
The NBA is in the middle of an interesting era. Right now, it’s not all about the biggest markets and the franchises with the most tradition. The rebirth of Golden State has been stunning. Cleveland changed its image and status during the return of James, its legendary basketball son. Toronto is here; Milwaukee is back. Denver is emerging. Portland just went to the conference finals for the first time in 19 years. This summer, the massive markets will have the opportunity in free agency to regain relevance, but if they do, they figure to balance out the league, not overtake it. There’s a lot of focus on the dominance of the peerless Warriors and concern about championship parity. But it’s a significant sign of health, just below the highest level, fresh teams are among the contenders.
Of those teams, few possess the potential impact of Toronto if it can have a sustained run as an elite team. To become a global league, the one team outside of the U.S. needed to became a real factor. The Raptors have, at last. And while their success seems fragile because of the uncertainty with Leonard, they still have a bold and creative team president who already has a contingency plan and a quick route toward the salary cap flexibility to make over the team if it comes to that.
Players need to recognize that, despite what they’ve heard in the past, Toronto isn’t Basketball Siberia. They need to start considering it a destination NBA city.
“When I first got traded here, I didn’t really know what to expect,” said guard Kyle Lowry, a five-time All-Star during his seven seasons in Toronto. “I thought I would be here a couple of years and be out of here. But the organization is unbelievable. The ownership is unbelievable. The management has been great. We have had great people come through here – players, coach – and it has just kind of grown for me.”
Said Ujiri: “We can reach the world easy from here, from Canada, and we’re happy to be the global team that represents the NBA.”
As Toronto quakes with excitement, you can feel the potential, for the Raptors, for the NBA and for the long-term inevitability of further international expansion. Success is not promised, however. And even when it occurs, longevity is a delicate notion. But the pursuit is so worth it.
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