The Toronto Raptors completed a remarkable evolution from a laughingstock to NBA champions on Thursday, with a victory that could well shift the identity of a country long associated with ice hockey.
When they broke into the league in 1995, the Raptors were known more for the gimmicky basketball-playing cartoon dinosaur on their jerseys than for anything they did on the court, which in the early years was plenty of losing.
The team had only made the playoffs five times in their first 18 years before going on a six-season run of contention that culminated in a 4-2 NBA Finals victory over the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
“And that’s how we do it in the North,” Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted after the Raptors’ triumph.
Ice hockey has long been seen by people from both inside and outside Canada as the sport that most defines the country, and when the national team competes in their red and white jerseys the nation comes to a near standstill.
But given the changing demographics of a population that grows more diverse with each day, many are seeking a national identity through basketball, which is more of a global game than hockey, and therefore more familiar to many new Canadians.
Even the Raptors’ fan base in Toronto, which is one of the most culturally diverse cities in the world, reflects Canada’s multi-cultural spirit greater than any other professional team in the country.
“We’ve been growing and trying to prove to the world that there is a meaning to having an NBA team, one NBA team, outside the U.S.,” said Raptors President of Basketball Operations Masai Ujiri.
“All of these guys, these players have been unbelievable. To our coaches, to our ownership and much respect to the Golden State Warriors… we love you as NBA players, but we wanted to win in Toronto and we have won in Toronto. Yeah!”
What put Toronto over the top this season was the arrival of Kawhi Leonard last July in a trade that split the fan base, given the team parted ways with a fan favourite for a player who was limited to nine games the previous season due to injury.
But Leonard, who was named the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player for the second time in his career, put the team on his back and carried them to heights few thought possible given the talent-laden team that awaited them in the Finals.
And while Leonard will become a free agent in a couple weeks and can sign elsewhere, the impact he has had on the sport of basketball in Canada over the course of one NBA season will surely be felt for years to come.
“Basketball fans across the world know now what ‘We The North’ really means as out Canadian team finally raises the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy!” Toronto Mayor John Tory said in a statement.