By Tennie Sumague
EBC New York Bureau
TORONTO (Eagle News) – In a country of hockey-obsessed fans, Canada is glued to the NBA finals between the Toronto Raptors and the defending champions, the Golden State Warriors. Record-breaking ratings continue to set on Canadian television outlets, all in support of their team’s quest for their first title in franchise history.
The vibe in the country’s most diverse and populated city is impeccably amazing. People in the streets, regardless whether they follow basketball or not, are addicted to the team’s journey to the NBA finals. Businesses sport out banners or flags waving the team’s motto, “We the North,” to show their unwavering support. Food chains, such as Smokes Poutine offer a 15% discount for Raptors fans. Wherever one walks or drives, “We the North” is flashing right through people’s eyes.
Adding to the Raptors success this year is All-Star forward, Kawhi Leonard. In a bold move made by General Manager, Masai Ujiri last summer, the organization acquired the 2014 Finals MVP and Danny Green in exchange for DeMar DeRozan, then the face of the franchise, Jakob Poeltl, and a first-round draft pick. Though DeRozan was well loved by the city and fans, the organization was more hungrier for the team to exceed to greater expectations and find a solution to their NBA playoff struggles. The organization also fired Dwane Casey, who won NBA coach of the year last season, and promoted assistant Nick Nurse as Casey’s successor whose credentials include leading the Raptors G-league affiliate to two championship titles.
The Leonard-DeRozan trade was worth the risk. Thanks to Leonard’s heroic performances against the Philadelphia 76ers and the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors now achieved their highest accomplishment in their 24 years in the NBA. Dubbed as the ‘King of the North,’ murals and New Balance’s ad campaign of the forward are plastered in the city streets and subways. Businesses are offering him free meals and housing if he decides to continue his career in Toronto after this season. Jurassic Park, Toronto’s viewing party spot for the last six years outside Scotiabank Bank Arena is politely rambunctious. The ‘Kawhi effect’ instantly has become the city’s crazed love affair.
“It’s been huge,” says Raptors fan, Devin Johnson of Pickering, Ontario. “[He’s] taking it off where DeMar left off. [Kawhi] is the first real superstar with credentials and he’s perfect for taking [the team] to another level. We just changed the landscape of how people see Toronto basketball, which is amazing.”
Toronto’s sports landscape has not experienced a high-class championship vibe in a way that Boston, LA, and New York celebrate their professional sports teams’ accomplishments in decades. Though the city’s Major League Soccer team, won the MLS Cup in 2015, which remains overlooked, the last professional sports team to win a major title with celebratory vibe were the Blue Jays, who won back to back World Series titles in 1992-93.
Contributing to this ‘Kawhi’ fascination and the immense hospitality are the fans. Every race from a different place out in Ontario genuinely care about the three-time All-Star success with the Raptors. Leonard’s quiet demeanor and confidence compliments the city’s lifestyle.
“He represents our city well,” says longtime fan Jelani Panzo. “It’s crazy seeing what’s going on in the city and you can feel the energy, everyone high-fiving, [Raptors] jerseys everywhere. We never had a player of this caliber, quiet, hardworking, a champion, one of the top two-way players in the [league]. Looking back on the history of the team, it’s been beautiful to watch. And [with] a full country behind him, we just want to see him win more than anyone.”
Whether Leonard stays in Toronto after this season or plays elsewhere, there is no doubting that many appreciate what he has accomplished and showcased to the multicultural and loving basketball community.
(Eagle News Service)