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So Far Away From a Home Game

The Raptors captivated Canada during the team’s improbable title run. But the prospects of playing in front of their home crowd within the next year are bleaker than every other team in the NBA’s bubble.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

In any other timeline, the scene would have suggested the anguish of gridlock. Hundreds of cars, trapped by inertia, their horns and high beams polluting a summer night. Wild hollering, smoke rising. A thrum of frustration—or maybe rapture? On the night of September 3 in downtown Toronto, a half-second was all it took for one to crystalize into the latter. When OG Anunoby drilled an improbable 3-pointer from the left corner with 0.5 seconds remaining to take Game 3 for the Raptors in their second-round playoff series against the Celtics, more than 200 cars pointed slightly upward in a lot 10 minutes west of the Raptors’ home Scotiabank Arena. With front tires raised up on rubber parking stops, they flashed their lights and honked at the moon. They were signaling a transformation—in the series, and in the city’s connection to its team, some 1,300 miles away.

The Raptors are on the ropes, and their bizarre, historic, and protracted title defense is nearing its end. Should this season’s NBA Finals follow its prescribed timetable and conclude in a Game 7, the Raptors will have been champions for approximately 490 days. No other season-long championship defense in NBA history would come within 100 days of that total. But as the team moves past a quarter-century of existence, the Raptors are also barreling toward an indeterminate future, enmeshed in international bureaucracy beyond the league’s control.

The United States–Canada border has been closed to discretionary, nonessential travel since late March. The closure agreement is revisited on a monthly basis, but with tens of thousands of new COVID-19 cases still confirmed daily in the U.S., it seems unlikely that the border’s status will change any time soon—not when the closure has been met with overwhelming support from Canadians.

In the interim, Toronto will do what Toronto does: assemble en masse and create a public spectacle out of standing around (or, in this case, sitting). Since the start of the postseason, the Raptors have hosted large-scale drive-in game viewings for its fans on a festival stage platform mere yards from Lake Ontario. Until further notice, Jurassic Park, Toronto’s wildly popular postseason outdoor viewing party, is now Jurassic Parking Lot. “You look out and it’s a sea of cars and people hanging out the windows and out the sunroofs,” Kirk St. Cyr, the Raptors’ longtime in-game DJ, better known as 4Korners, told me. “I don’t know if any other team in the bubble has any hometown gatherings to watch these games like we’re doing here.”

While NBA playoff cities like Milwaukee have created distanced beer gardens outside of the team arena, Toronto’s preexisting infrastructure allowed the Jurassic Parking Lot idea to go from pitch to completion in just two weeks. “This is basically just taking the tailgate model and adapting it— people cannot be standing, now they’re in their cars,” St. Cyr said. “So it’s really not that much different for what we’d do for an away game. It’s just we’re doing this for every game now, because there are no home games.”

St. Cyr has had a finger on the pulse of the fan base for 15 years. But these days, with the core of the team in a Disney bubble, he is one of the few representatives of the organization who maintains a sensory connection to Raptors fans in this socially distanced era. From his DJ booth on stage, he looks out to a flood of flashing lights and deafening horns. “It’s weird. But we thankfully have a situation where we feel that energy the moment that shot hit,” he said. “The place went crazy. And you kind of forget that you’re not where it’s happening. Because it’s just happening all around you.”

It gets loud. Really loud. Across the street from the parking lot stage is BMO Field, where Toronto FC has hosted crowdless MLS regular-season games against fellow Canadian clubs since mid-August. During Game 2 of the Raptors-Celtics series, which was played concurrently with a match between Toronto FC and the Montreal Impact, St. Cyr received word that the noise from the Jurassic Parking Lot reverberated onto the pitch.

“I cherish everything that we’ve done where we can be around people in close quarters. Every nightclub, every concert, everything I’ve ever done. I’m really realizing how precious those things were,” St. Cyr said. “The industry doesn’t exist like that anymore. We’ve all had to make massive, massive adjustments. I’m counting my stars every day that we have this drive-in situation for the viewings of these games because it’s the closest thing to anything that we’re used to that I have going on right now.”

Realities of the pandemic have locked everyone into the present moment, the NBA included. Finishing this season while maintaining the bubble and its symbolic platform is the league’s most urgent priority, and as such, according to NBA spokesperson Tim Frank, no decisions have been made for next year. Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the Raptors franchise, has similarly declined to project any plans until they’re privy to the NBA’s. The league has yet to determine how and when next season might begin, but few of the likelihoods discussed—be it another season in a bubble, or a return to home arenas with limited- or no-crowd capacity—would allow the Raptors to play among its fans in Canada.

The NHL was granted the ability to create bubbles in two hub cities, Edmonton and Toronto, to continue its postseason, but a league with seven Canadian teams has much more leverage than a league with one. As such, the Toronto Blue Jays’ interim U.S. relocation to Buffalo for its MLB home games appears to be a more relevant precedent. Last month, Concordia economics professor Moshe Lander predicted a mid-to-late 2021 border reopening, which would coincide with the end of the 2020-21 NBA season, should the league follow through on the target dates for its upcoming campaign. The recently formed Canadian Elite Basketball League has filled a void in Southern Ontario’s professional sports scene since the pandemic began, but it could be a very long time before basketball returns to the greater Toronto Area.

The exit strategy at the Paramount Fine Foods Centre in Mississauga, roughly 20 miles from Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, is confused. Cars are expected to follow the primary route of traffic out to Rose Cherry Place, but along the back of the entire sports complex is a narrow tributary of vehicles that flows into the main stream of cars, mere feet from the exit. Say there’s a sold-out basketball game that just concluded; it’d be damn near impossible to make a right turn onto the main path when there’s a row of hundreds of cars already itching to get out of the arena. A bottleneck forms along the back route. Inertia creeps. That’s what I faced on the night of March 11, when a fissure created our present timeline and disintegrated the one we lived on before.

It was Alumni Night for the Raptors 905, Toronto’s G League affiliate. The first 1,500 fans to show up received a Pascal Siakam bobblehead; two nights earlier, Siakam, a former D-League Finals MVP, had a masterful 27-point performance for the big-league Raptors, narrowly missing out on a triple-double in an easy win against the Jazz. Vendors sold light beer, pizza, pretzels, lentil soup. Bored suburban teens heckled the College Park Skyhawks players, but not as much as they heckled the game crew for not tossing T-shirts their way. There were so many families. There were two small, disconcertingly well-behaved siblings beside me watching the game in awed silence, sharing a bag of popcorn. Parents had their children rush toward Stripes, the onetime Raptors mascot and current 905 mascot, for photo-ops.

The experience was exceedingly pleasant and exceedingly normal, as long as you weren’t checking your phone—tom hanks jazz gobert coronavirus. Not five minutes after fans began filing out of their seats and celebrating the 905 win, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that the NBA had suspended the 2019-20 season indefinitely. In the car, trapped in that bottleneck on the eastern wing of the parking lot for what seemed like hours, I felt time fray at the seams. When, if ever, would we be able to do this again?

Toronto Raptors Victory Parade & Rally Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Fifteen months ago, an estimated 2 million people crowded downtown Toronto for the Raptors’ 2018-19 championship parade. Overhead photos captured at the time were stunning, if not claustrophobia-inducing. They gave context to what we mean by “a sea of people.” From certain angles, street lights and poles were swallowed up by the dense swarm of bodies. Looking back now, the photos are unfathomable, the gathering itself all but impossible. That was what life and joy and communion could look like. Do you remember?

The Raptors are, in a way, the keepers of that flame. They entered the bubble as artifacts of a bygone era, the last champions to reign before everything changed. They were the last team to witness the unbridled ecstasy of victory and the galvanizing effect it has on a city, a nation. To what extent can that still be channeled this year, and in the years ahead? I think of someone like Kevin DiPietro, a longtime Raptors staff member who worked his way up from a ball boy in the team’s earliest years to the Raptors’ logistics and travel coordinator. In one year’s time, DiPietro faced the whiplash of going from planning a championship parade to planning daily life for dozens of people in a literal biodome. Soon, he will be beholden to the protocol the NBA has authorized with the skin of their teeth—or to news regarding the state of the U.S.-Canada border, like so many business owners whose livelihoods straddle the line between countries. There will be other hard pivots in the future, but life in a pandemic, inside or outside the bubble, affords concerns about only the present. “If you’re ever going to do it, now’s the time to do it,” Fred VanVleet affirmed after Game 4. “There’s nothing to be resting for. There’s no tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, the future will catch up with the Raptors soon enough. Championship experience and resolve clawed them back into the series, but the team has been in crisis mode since the very start, when the Celtics landed a 39-point first-quarter sucker punch in Game 1. Scoring against Boston’s top-ranked postseason defense has been taxing work. Toronto isn’t equipped to isolate against most middling defenses, let alone one of the best, which has left its most important players doggedly hunting for mismatches and slivers of daylight that are seldom available. Monday’s collapse looked like a team felled by the weight of its own drudgery. “That’s the flow of the game. I think it’s a little bit worse here—there’s no fans, there’s no crowd noise,” VanVleet said after Game 5. “But those frustrations happen all the time.” In another timeline, Game 5 would have been a Raptors home game played at Scotiabank Arena.

Toronto, for its part, will continue to do what it does until the games are through. Cars will file into their distanced spaces, raise up onto the rubber bumps, and honk into the night. There’s nothing to be resting for. There’s no tomorrow.

“I’m so happy that we’re at least at this point where we can do something like this, but looking towards next season, which is supposed to start in December, I don’t know what it’s going to look like,” St. Cyr said. “We don’t know. Anything that is said is not necessarily going to be the case by next month, much less December. We have no idea where the world is going to be at. Next season, we’re the only team on this side of the border. What’s that going to mean?”

Danny Chau used to work here. These days he’s just a friend.