There are times when even the most cynical among us [raises hand] can’t help but recognize and appreciate when a town and a team are having a special moment. It happened in Cleveland in 2016 when the Cavaliers won the NBA championship and delivered the city’s first parade in more than 50 long years. It happened in Philadelphia in 2018 when the ne’er-do-well Eagles did well and beat the Patriots to win the organization’s first Super Bowl. And it’s happening right now in Toronto, where the Raptors are hosting the NBA Finals for the first time in the history of the franchise and the country.
It’s been wild here. After the Raptors beat the Bucks to win the Eastern Conference finals, fans blocked traffic and set off fireworks and climbed on top of trucks. But as my server informed me at lunch on Thursday before Game 1, “No one got arrested. Because it’s Canada. We’re nice here.” Since landing in Toronto, I’ve had conversations like that about the Raptors with a customs official, my cab driver, the hotel clerk, the bartender in the hotel, two random fans seated next to me at dinner, and a very drunk guy who got on the elevator with me who was wearing all the Raptors gear that has ever existed. That might explain why the team store at Scotiabank Arena looked like it had been looted after an apocalypse when I popped in there the other day.
Some 33 theaters across the country offered Raptors fans a place to watch Game 1 for free. And more than 12 hours before tip-off, franchise favorite Chris Bosh was outside Scotiabank Arena glad-handing a large crowd that had already gathered.
I get it. Sometimes you get so excited for your team that you just want to run into a subway pole. Good on Toronto for finally getting to experience the euphoria. Raptors fans waited a long time for this. On NBA Finals media day, Raptors president Masai Ujiri called it “a blessing to have the opportunity for our team, our city, [our] country.” He also predicted it would be “crazy” in Toronto on Thursday for Game 1 and “crazy” on Sunday for Game 2. “It’s going to be crazy here for a few days,” he continued, “because that’s the mentality of our fan base.”
That was especially true in Jurassic Park, the holding pen where superfans gather outside Scotiabank Arena to watch games on a giant video screen. During the Eastern Conference playoffs, that area was consistently packed with people wearing red and black and classic purple—even when it rained (which it tends to do in Toronto) and even when it was cold (which it tends to be in Toronto). They’re a lovable bunch of fanatics, and I decided to embed with them and watch the country’s long-awaited first NBA Finals game in their company. Ujiri was right. It was crazy.
8 p.m.: Jurassic Park is at capacity. The secondary overflow area on Bremner Boulevard is also at capacity. In fact, Bremner is overrun with Raptors fans from Scotiabank Arena all the way to the Rogers Centre, several blocks away.
I talk to three 20-something fans. Two of them are holding signs, one of which says, “Curry is not worth,” and then underneath that there’s a 75 cent jar of … curry. They’re excited. I tell them it seems like all of Toronto is.
“Not just Toronto—Canada,” Clint, a 28-year-old from Toronto, corrects. “We want to prove to the U.S. that we can play basketball. This is going to give us the respect we deserve.” I did not realize that international relations are riding on this, but here we are.
8:15: I take a picture of someone wearing an inflatable dinosaur costume and holding a sign of a dinosaur eating a Golden State Warriors logo. This is not the weirdest encounter I will have tonight.
8:25: There’s a roped-off, elevated platform inside Jurassic Park overlooking the main stage. Only a handful of fans are up there. It’s called the Coors Light Mobile Mountain. Because sure. They have couches and beer and a good view. I scale the mobile mountain to get a better look. I meet an older fan named Ajay. He and his wife, Chitra, won a local TV contest earlier that morning. The station, CP24, asked viewers to send in one of the catchphrases of a broadcaster named Jack Armstrong. He’s an area institution. Ajay knew the answer right away: “Get that garbage outta here.” Jack likes to say that when one of the Raptors blocks a shot. Ajay won. Six years ago he won another contest. That time it was a 60-inch TV. He’s not sure which prize is better.
“It’s close,” Ajay says. “I’m very lucky.”
8:28: I’m talking to Sammy and Daniel, two friends from Toronto who are both 28 and are both psyched that they finally get to see a team from their hometown in the Finals. The last time it happened was back in ’93 with the Blue Jays. They were both young and don’t remember it. Just as they’re telling me about their childhood, Jack Armstrong of CP24 fame appears on the main Jurassic Park stage and the crowd goes nuts. So does Ajay.
“Get that garbage outta here,” he screams as he slaps me hard on the back. This is not the last time Raptors fans will lay hands on me this evening.
8:34: I meet Justin. He’s 37 and drove in from Hamilton. He tells me they call him the King of the North. I don’t ask who they are. He is wearing a crown and a tank top that says “Ka’wine & Dine, keep Kawhi in Toronto.” Everyone I talk to mentions the free food and penthouse that area businesses have offered as a bribe to keep Leonard in town.
They’re convinced he’s staying. Why would he leave? After all, Justin went to a lot of trouble to write “Let’s go Raptors” in marker on his own forehead.
8:37: I’m wandering around not paying attention when the hype men on the Jurassic Park main stage start throwing T-shirts into the crowd. Suddenly I’m knocked … not over ... but definitely sideways. I was between an overenthusiastic Raptors fan and a free shirt, which is a bad place to be. The fan apologizes profusely. His name is Steven. He’s 31 and from Toronto. Like almost everyone else in Jurassic Park, he’s been waiting nearly his whole life for this. He tells me it’s dynasty (the Warriors) versus destiny (the Raptors). Then he shows me a giant replica ring on his right hand that he says is from the Raptors G League championship in 2017 but actually has “D-League” and “2015” stamped on it pretty clearly. He’s been here since 3 o’clock. It’s gonna be a long night.
8:56: They’re playing the Canadian national anthem. It’s a beautiful song, though I don’t hear much of it. A man standing next to me sees me scribbling notes and grabs the credential hanging around my neck to take a look. His name is Thusy. He’s 35 and here with his wife, Arathy, his brother, Keeth, and Keeth’s girlfriend, Saghana. Thusy is very excited to learn that I work at The Ringer. He loves The Ringer. This will undoubtedly be the weirdest recurring encounter I have this evening. The best too.
“Bill Simmons!” he squeals. He doesn’t so much say it as vent it. “His hot takes are absurd! I would work for The Ringer but I live in Canada. Where are you from?”
“Oh! You’re the Philly guy! You took the four bounce from Kawhi!”
Thusy is laughing at me now and calls over his family so they can laugh too. He shoves me while he’s laughing.
“Don’t hurt him!” his wife yells.
9:12: The game is under way. Thusy is convinced the Raptors will win. Like the 20-somethings from earlier, he’s sure this will teach the Americans what the Canadians are all about.
“I know you guys think we live in fucking igloos and hunt whales and shit, but we can ball.”
9:15: Thusy is still talking to/at me. Simmons is “an evil genius,” Masai Ujiri “better win Executive of the Year or else,” and “beer is delicious.” He offers to buy me one. I decline. He offers to get me some poutine. I decline. He pulls out a tiny bottle of Crown Royal and, when I decline, downs it all in one gulp. I’m about to tell him how impressive that is, when Danny Green hits a shot and Thusy gets so excited he nearly shoves me to the ground.
“I told you he’s delicate!” Arathy scolds again.
I probably should not have worn a shirt and tie and a cardigan with elbow patches to Jurassic Park.
9:20: The score is tied in the first quarter when Steven wanders over. I introduce him to Thusy. Steven shows Thusy his not-2017 G League championship replica ring. Thusy offers many hot takes about the Raptors. They become fast friends.
“Fuck Golden State,” Steven says.
“Fuck Golden State,” Thusy agrees.
9:26: The Raptors are up six midway through the first quarter. Timeout and a commercial. Thusy takes this opportunity to tell me about a local steakhouse that has “the best porterhouse in Toronto.”
“Go expense that,” he encourages. “You’ll send Bill, like, a $400 bill.”
9:35: Golden State is on an 8-0 run. Everyone is very quiet. Even Thusy.
9:40: End of the first quarter. I see two guys in their mid-to-late 20s staring at the stats on the video screen and overhear their conversation:
Bro 1: “Bro, I don’t think KD has scored. That’s awesome!”
Bro 2: “KD isn’t playing.”
Bro 1: …
10:01: I spot two familiar faces in the crowd, over near the giant video screen. Lily and Khadeen have been here all day. I met them earlier this afternoon while encouraging Raptors fans to tell Kawhi why he should stay.
How would you convince Kawhi to stay for the long term?@JohnGonzalez and @YourManDevine are on the ground in Toronto for Game 1 of the #NBAFInals and asked Raptors fans to give their best pitches for him to stay. #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/CfmXFqwBJF— The Ringer (@ringer) May 30, 2019
They’re both 19 and skipped school today to be here. Don’t tell.
10:03: Timeout. Lily and Khadeen drag me into a fan huddle. It’s led by a guy named George. He’s wearing a black fedora that has red lights and a red Raptors sport coat with black Raptors logos stamped all over it. “We got these pricks,” Jacket George tells everyone. “I promise you.”
About an hour later, we run into each other in a different part of Jurassic Park and Jacket George gives me a full hug. My server from lunch was right. They are nice here.
10:09: Raptors are up five with a little over a minute to go in the first half when Andre Iguodala dives after a loose ball and nearly crash-lands on Drake in the process.
A guy adjacent to Jacket George chants “leave Drake alone.” No one else chants with him.
10:15: Raptors are up 10 at the half. A 20-year-old named Ben is dancing a celebration dance that makes it look like he’s having some sort of leg spasm. He’s wearing a tank top and what appears to be a lobster bib. On the bib he wrote “DeMar DeRozan” in black ink in a way that makes it look like he had some sort of hand spasm. I ask him what’s with the bib.
“DeMar died for this,” he tells me.
10:23: Still halftime. A Raptors rep is passing around a basketball for Jurassic Park fans to sign. She says it will be presented to the team after the season. She offers me the ball and a black marker. I scribble a message: “Kawhi, go on Desktop.”
10:41: ESPN has dispatched Doris Burke to do a hit from Jurassic Park. The crowd loves it and several people try to take selfies with her while she’s setting up for her live shot. Security loves that less. A woman standing next to Doris is holding a sign that says “Get that garbage outta here.” Shout-out to [checks notes] Jack Armstrong. Big night for him. As Doris powers through her hit, it occurs to me that we’ve drawn similar assignments tonight. By the transitive property I am The Ringer’s Doris Burke. Please call me Doris from now on. Thank you.
10:45: Late third quarter. I’m not sure what the score is because I’m looking at my notes. But I am sure that one of the Raptors has just hit a big bucket because a fan in a Raptors jersey and a Blue Jays hat starts high-fiving everyone with his free hand. His other hand is occupied by a Molson tallboy. (It’s a real shame they aren’t called the Toronto Tallboys.) I get a high five too. “Blue Jays in four!” he screams. He tells me to write it down. I write it down. This is happy news for the Blue Jays.
11:10: The Raptors are up seven in the fourth quarter. I climb back up Macro Beer Mobile Mountain. There’s a better view up there. Also they have couches and I’m washed. The lead is just large enough that the crowd is hopeful, but not large enough that they can really let loose. It’s tense. Sammy and Daniel are still up there, and they look a bit worried.
“It’s Golden State,” Sammy says. “Even when you’re up you’re not safe.”
They’re standing over a table with two plates of congealed pizza slices and an army of empty Coors Slice tallboys. That’s an orange-flavored beer, I think. I feel like Canada is white-knuckling this thing right now.
11:23: Klay Thompson turns the ball over, then gets a technical foul. The crowd doesn’t exactly boo so much as hoot at him. It’s almost tender. As Klay put it the other day, even the heckles are nice in Canada.
11:27: Late in the game, Fred VanVleet hits an absurd, off-balance shot that banks off the glass and rattles around the rim before falling to put the Raptors up 12.
The rims in Toronto are much like the people, very forgiving pic.twitter.com/kiedsBRsoc— Yahoo Sports NBA (@YahooSportsNBA) May 31, 2019
An ostensibly overserved fan offers me a high five. I decline. His high-five hand is holding some of Sammy and Daniel’s congealed pizza.
Time unknown: Raptors win. There is much rejoicing. On my way out of Jurassic Park, I see Thusy and his family. He reminds me that he told me they were going to win and then they won. He is certain there is a correlation. I think he might have dipped back into the miniature Crown Royal supply since last I saw him. I ask if he’s going to work tomorrow. He says no. He says I don’t have to go to work either. He says to tell my boss he said so.
“No,” Thusy says, “I’ll tell Bill. Give me your phone so I can call him.”