The year 2005 was when I first fell in love with the sport of basketball. Like many Canadian kids, I had been enthralled by the game of hockey. Each morning I would wake up early to catch the NHL highlights from the night before, playing mini sticks was a regular dose of my recess breaks at school, and most of my friends played for the local hockey team, the Ennismore Eagles. This year I had finally convinced my parents to sign me up for hockey too. While I cherished these practices and games at the rink, I quickly realized that I was years behind most of my peers who had been on skates since the time they could walk. Not to mention, around the same time some friends and I began playing more basketball and less mini sticks at reccess.
This shift was inspired by the rise of Steve Nash. The Canadian point guard had been acquired by the Phoenix Suns in the 2004/2005 off-season. He joined a group of talented young players that included Amare Stoudamire and Shawn Marion; and Nash ultimately helped turn their franchise around. The Suns went from a 29-53 losing season to an NBA-best 62-20 record. Beyond just the statistical leap, Nash quarterbacked one of the most exciting basketball teams I think I've ever seen. The Suns filled the highlight reel each night as they would quickly convert the opposing team's turnovers into slam dunks, and three-pointers on the fast break. The Phoenix Suns would go on to make it to the Western Conference Finals, and Nash would be named the first-ever Canadian NBA MVP (an honour he would reclaim again the following season).
Meanwhile, these years weren't too friendly to the Toronto Raptors. Just before Christmas in 2004, their disgruntled all-star Vince Carter was traded to the New Jersey Nets. Carter's departure marked that the Raptors were now sophomore Chris Bosh's team, but it also signified that Toronto was once again many years removed from having a legitimate championship contender. While I never watched closely enough before to see the impact Carter had on the Raptors, I was quickly reminded of the sour taste his exit left for fans whenever his Nets visited Toronto. The 'boos' and vulgar chants dominated the then-Air Canada Centre each time Carter touched the ball. Even watching these games televised, profanities from the resentful Raptors fans could not be all bleeped out.
The next few losing seasons made cheering for Toronto a challenge. For new basketball fans like me, Steve Nash's Suns definitely rivalled the Raptors for popularity. It was more difficult to follow the west coast American team, but it was one that gave you hope when your own regional team did not.
From 2005 to 2012 I lived and breathed basketball; I played in the Peterborough youth house league, was a member of the Peterborough Power travel team, and proudly captained our high school's squad, the Adam Scott Lions. If I wasn't at a practice or game, you could usually find me with a basketball either putting up jump shots on the basket in our driveway or enjoying a game of drop-in at a public gymnasium in town. For me, keeping tabs on the NBA only fed my passion. I studied tape, and watched games closely with hopes to model my game after point guards like Derrick Rose, and Chris Paul.
In 2012 I headed off to University in London, and was limited to playing basketball through intramural leagues and open gym times. Still my excitement for the game never dwindled as I spent the next four years as a play-by-play and colour commentator for the Western Mustangs women's and men's basketball teams.
Even as I've transitioned to full-time work since 2016, I realize how basketball has left a lasting impact of my life. It taught me the importance of discipline and hard work, it showed me the value of teamwork and camaraderie, and it inspired me to dream.
If I were to guess I've been to about 15 Raptors games over the years. Some have had special significance. There was the time one of my high school teammates landed us box seats to see Miami Heat's Big Three come to Toronto for the first time: LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and former Raptor Chris Bosh in 2011. There was the visit of Jeremy Lin (current Raptor) and the New York Knicks at the height of Linsanity in 2012. I can even recall watching Steve Nash's Toronto debut with the Los Angeles Lakers in 2013.
This list of Raptors game firsts could only be topped by my trip to the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016. My friend Jordan and I made a last-minute decision and splurged on tickets to game 4 of the Eastern Conference Finals. We saw the Raptors beat LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers in their historic second-ever Conference finals victory. The atmosphere was electrifying from the second we hopped on the GO train in Oshawa to when we finally took our seats at the top of the arena. There were times in that game where some fans remained standing for 10-minute stretches. As a long-time Raptors supporter you savoured these moments of success because you just never knew if it would last.
In 2016 this pair of Toronto victories proved too good to be true as the Cavaliers would win the next two games decisively and eliminate the Raptors from playoff contention. For the next two seasons it seemed as if this narrative would only repeat itself. The Raptors fate was to draw a series with Cleveland in the playoffs and to lose badly.
The 2018/2019 season as we all know has been a different story. The Toronto Raptors have just won their first-ever NBA championship! It gives me goose bumps that I'm even writing this. Is this real? I still feel leery. Has Kawhi Leonard not abandoned ship yet? Has he not booked his ticket to leave Canada's only NBA team like other former Raptors stars: Tracy McGrady, Vince Carter, and Chris Bosh?
Not yet, it appears. His future with the team still remains a mystery. For now, soak it in. Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors have just awoken a sleeping giant: a city...a country long overdue for a basketball championship.