Raptors championship from a year ago is both a fond memory and a path forward
They all marched into the same bland room, determined to close down the dingy 53-year-old arena by drenching it in champagne, beer and littering it with cigar scraps.
There was the 74-year-old construction magnate, his wife linking arms with him, who was worth more than $1-billion; the 82-year-old gentleman who helped change professional sports from the inside out, becoming the first black general manager in the NBA 47 years earlier; his mentee, the 48-year-old man who had become the first African-born NBA GM nine years previous, a pioneer in his own way; and the 25-year-old Cameroonian man, somebody who might never have picked up a basketball if not for the work of that GM and those like him, draped in his country’s flag.
No, as the 2018-19 Raptors celebrated the franchise’s first ever championship a year ago this Saturday, Larry Tanenbaum, Wayne Embry, Masai Ujiri and Pascal Siakam were not equally powerful. This is not fantasy. The NBA has been helpful to the black community, but there are only three visible minorities who are principal owners of franchises, and only one of those is an American-born black man — and he got wealthy only because he was really good at playing basketball. However, in that moment, those four men, not to mention a bunch of gym rats-turned-coaches from all over Canada, a coaching lifer from Iowa whose journey to a head NBA gig took him to Europe for more than a decade and so many others had come together to achieve something great.
一年前还不是现在这样。一年前，2018-19赛季的猛龙队还在庆祝球队有史以来第一次冠军时。而本周六，Larry Tanenbaum，Wayne Embry，马赛-乌吉里和帕斯卡尔-西卡姆的实力均不一样。这不是白日梦。 NBA对黑人社区帮助甚多，但只有三个明显的少数族裔是猛龙队的主要所有者，而其中只有一个是美国出生的黑人。他之所以富裕只是因为他真的很擅长打篮球。然而，在那一刻，这四个人，更不用说还有一堆来自加拿大各地的健身教练，一名来自爱荷华州的职业篮球教练(他在欧洲当主教练当了十几年，之后才回NBA当主教练)，还有许多其他人齐心协力实现了夺冠这一伟大的成就。
“I’ll say this, and I’ll keep saying it: to me winning a championship was bigger than just me,” said Serge Ibaka, himself the youngest of 18 children born to a pair of basketball players in Congo. “I was thinking about my country, where I come from, (and) my continent, Africa, because coming where I come from, even my people never (thought) I’d be where I am right now, winning an NBA championship. And during that game, I know they were watching, so in my mind it was like, ‘What are they going to think about it? How are they going to react? What is something that they are going to learn from this?’”
Now, a team wins the Larry O’Brien Trophy every single year, so let’s not equate the Raptors defying some pretty significant odds to take the title with the effort required to fundamentally overhaul hundreds-year-old power structures. Still, that lesson that Ibaka was wondering about should be clear regardless of whether you were watching from Toronto, Oakland, Rockford or Brazzaville: When a group of smart, talented people with varying skill sets and diverse backgrounds come together, tremendous success is possible.
As much as Kawhi Leonard’s shot is the single moment that will live on from the Raptors’ playoff run and Kyle Lowry’s journey from nearly traded in a firesale to star of the title-clinching game is the one fans can identify with most easily, it was Fred VanVleet that provided so many of the lasting images from last springtime. He dropped in one high-arcing 3-pointer after another in the only win in Milwaukee they would need in the Finals. He lay flat on the ground on the Oracle Arena court, blood coming from his eye and tooth chipped, after he took an elbow to the face in Game 4. He released a primal scream after a huge shot in Game 6, the first sign of much emotion following an up-and-down postseason.
VanVleet is one of many Raptors who will be greeted with raucous ovations every time they come back to Scotiabank Arena, long after they are done playing for the club.
“I think winning a championship was everything I thought it would be and more,” VanVleet said. “The journey of actually being in the playoffs was way more excruciating and intense than I thought it would be just because of how long it took to finish those series out. I mean, two and half extra months of basketball, but the actual winning and celebrating and having the whole summer to enjoy it and kind of rest on what you’ve done, that was beyond anything I could have imagined. I never would have imagined a parade or a ring or the celebrations that we had. There’s no way to imagine that unless you’ve already been through it.
“The celebration was a little different than if we had been at home in terms of confetti and we had our travelling party there, but not as many people probably (as there) would’ve been in Toronto. It really wasn’t until the parade that you kind of got to see what felt like. The whole of Canada all there at once. People came from all over. Obviously, Toronto showed up. That was an unbelievable day that I’ll never forget.”
Yeah, that was the same celebration that Kawhi Leonard called the “best parade ever” during his introductory press conference as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers. Now that we’re a bit removed from the moment, allowing the championship to sink in and the inferiority complex to fade into the background, we can admit that no, it was not.
No public proceeding that was orchestrated in part by the city and an organization worth billions of dollars can run hours behind, leaving hundreds of people dehydrated, being dragged over barriers by security, police and EMTs to receive treatment. That does not even acknowledge the violence that broke out.
For some it was scary; but there was joy, too. The whole run was made infinitely more fun for the unity and sheer togetherness that was involved. The Jurassic Parks that formed across the country, the plethora of reaction videos to Leonard’s shot against the 76ers, they all made cheering for the Raptors feel like more of a shared experience than it ever had felt like before. This is what they mean when they say sports can bring people together.
Given what life has been like in the last three months, those are times that take on a different meaning now.
“It wasn’t after we won, it was before, when we beat Milwaukee in Game 6 (of the Eastern Conference Finals), and not being able to get out of the arena because people were in the street and jumping on cars and stuff,” VanVleet said when asked about his coolest memory of the city during that time. “That’s something that will stick with me for a while, too.”
Hard to imagine. Just a few weekends ago, an estimated 10,000 people showed up to Trinity-Bellwoods Parks and they were rightfully criticized and mocked for breaking social distancing guidelines. Even as restrictions are loosening, with friends and family seeing each other from a safe distance if the sun is out, any gathering without masks like the ones we saw last May and June are a ways away.
Those scenes will stand in stark contrast to how Raptors fans will watch their team try to repeat: on television exclusively, watching them play teams in an empty gym in Orlando. Most fans will welcome the distraction, assuming the league is able to find its way back to playing games, but it will be an odd experience. Regardless of who winds up with the 2020 title, we have no way of knowing how it will feel for fans to watch their team come out victoriously, let alone how the championship will be remembered.
We are overwhelmed, right now, with a desire to see things change and a need to see other things return to normal. It is crucial, then, to remember that togetherness, both in its physical and spiritual senses, is still possible.
“The coolest thing is after we won the title, I feel like everybody was just so proud of us as a team (and) as the players,” Ibaka said. “The way people were talking to me when they saw me everywhere I went, it was like we changed their lives. You know, to us it’s just a game. We love this game. But I didn’t know how impactful it was for a lot of Canadians. And going to the airport, to the restaurant or anywhere, the way people were talking to me, the way people were reacting, thanking me with my teammates, all those things, to me it was like, wow. Sometimes (with) these things you don’t know, but after it changes some people’s lives or it’s helping some people. It was just amazing. That was one of the amazing things and even ‘til now, it’s still happening. Even ‘til now.”