5 scenes from a Raptors funeral

One: Dread

I felt only dread as I left my house at 2 p.m. for Game 4. Any fantasies of beating LeBron James were quashed in the first three minutes of Game 1. The rest of the week was filled with painful self-evaluation and shameful performances by the Raptors.

So thus I felt only dread on an otherwise gorgeous Sunday afternoon. I dreaded over paying $250 for a ticket before the series on the off-chance that the Raptors could compete. I dreaded spending my precious weekend attending a funeral. I almost didn’t even want to go.

Those same feelings of dread were shared by my friends Josh and Chris as we met on the corner of King and John. The first words exchanged after dapping each other up were, “we have no fucking chance”, followed by a discussion of which players might leave in the summer as we turned the corner on Front and trudged towards the ACC. I joked that we would witness the last time Patrick Patterson missed a wide open three. It wasn’t so funny when he did exactly that and finished scoreless.

As we got closer to the arena our thoughts turned to the game itself. What did we need to win one? DeMar DeRozan needed to have his Kobe Bryant 81-point game, Josh said. I doubled down on that thought, and even argued that DeRozan should take every shot. Chris wanted more of Jonas Valanciunas in the offense and, well I had to stay on brand and tell him no.

We ultimately agreed that whether the Raptors won or lost wasn’t in their hands, it was up to LeBron. Our best hope was if Drake took the Cavs for the Rob Ford tour after Game 3. Maybe Tristan Thompson punched out JR Smith at Sotto Sotto and LeBron was still hungover from a night of drinking red wine at CIBO?

In the back of our minds was this one shred of hope that LeBron would show mercy and let us have one. But that cynical thought only brought upon more dread. If we need to beg LeBron for face then the Raptors are indeed as pathetic as their performance in Games 1–3.

Two: Vibe

I can’t help but get excited when I step foot in the ACC. Maybe it’s because I didn’t see a game in Toronto until 2010 — six years after I started watching the team — but it’s a beautiful venue filled with hopeless romantics that love the Raptors. I always feel like I’m immersing in myself.

I must admit the energy in the building wasn’t great. Aside from roving packs of (bandwagon) Cavaliers fans acting wild, there wasn’t much excitment for the game. Instead, the vibe felt sombre and dignified like a family of 20,000 about to pull the plug on a loved one. We all knew in the back of our minds that we would be saying goodbye not only to the playoffs, but perhaps sending off a proud group that delivered four years of accidental brilliance.

The free t-shirts sitting on every chair only underlined that sadness. We complained about the conceptual udon noodles and the Rugrats sneakers they were handing out in the Bucks series, so their response was to go as basic as possible. It was a plain white shirt with WE THE NORTH on the front. This was an operation without answers so they did the bare minimum. Even the shirts gave up and we had a whole arena reflecting that sad message back onto the team.

All this loafing around came to an end with the player intros. To further cement the vibe of a funeral, the in-arena host called out the starting lineup for “one last time” and for a second I really thought Raptors game-ops would play “Time to Say Goodbye” as the starters went through their routine of half-heartedly high-fiving Jonas Valanciunas.

Three: Identity

And so the game began. Chris, Josh and I settled into our seats in section 117, slightly to the right of the home basket 20 rows up. The Raptors came towards us in the first half then it was the Cavaliers’ turn.

I had happy memories of those seats dating back to last year, when Chris and I played witness to the Game 5 comeback against Indiana. I screamed my lungs out in that section and my ears were ringing hours after the miraculous comeback was complete. I wrote about that game here.

Sitting to my left was this middle aged Eastern European couple. The husband looked pissed the whole time while the wife was mostly silent as she humored him between beer refills. I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I definitely didn’t expect the husband to call out plays like an advanced scout.

But here he was this man (I’ll call him Igor) who gave better play by play than some seasoned announcers. He implored Serge Ibaka to rebound and cried for Jonas to swing the ball to the weak side. You could tell Igor knew the game, understood it at a high level, and was intimately familiar with the team.

Nothing cemented this thought more than when I heard him groan after Patterson missed a corner three in the first half. There was history in that groan that only comes from watching Patterson miss wide-open shots throughout four seasons. The pain in his voice echoed mine and I felt connected to this stranger.

At one point in the first quarter Josh turned my attention to the jumbotron and made the point of the crowd being so diverse. Mind you this was a Jamaican-Canadian telling that to a Chinese-Canadian, so the point was self-evident. But it was still cool to see people of all backgrounds brought together on one screen by a singular silly love of the Raptors and by the undeniable urge to dab awkwardly in front of thousands.

I scanned my own section. Sitting in the seat in front of me was another Chinese man of my age. He was decked out in a DeRozan jersey and spent most of the game conversing with his WeChat honeys. Behind me was a black teenager in a Lowry Huskies jersey catching the game by himself. To his right was a Filipino woman treating her father, who had to be over 60, to some family bonding time. The seats left of Chris and Josh were two white dude bros wearing fake jerseys (a brownish yellow-laced DeRozan OVO and a camo Tracy McGrady) and beside them was a dad and his cute toddler who wore industrial ear muffs and won all the free giveaways. And of course there was Igor to my left, still fuming over a botched defensive coverage against Kyle Korver off a down screen.

Nothing hits home for me more than the Raptors community. This is the multicultural mosaic that Canada purports itself to be. Basketball is a global game in the larger sense, but Canada is hockey’s country in the winter and baseball’s in the summer, except in Toronto where there is basketball. Walk through Agincourt or Scarlett Heights during lunch and you will hear the bounce of a basketball, not the grind of a skate or the crack of a bat. These are my people. This is my space.

It was at that time when I felt truly at home sinking into a sea of my own. No more dread, no more funeral vibes. I came here to be with my people to cheer on my team.

Four: Fight

Nothing gets people angrier than when LeBron whines to the officials. It has the same effect on every fanbase outside of his team. Boos rain down harder on the King than anyone else because he is the greatest heel the NBA has ever seen.

It’s just below him. LeBron can already do everything on the court and he already gets a generous whistle — does he really need to ask for more? It’s just obscene. It would be like if a Republican dropped down to a soup kitchen and asked for thirds. They’re free to do as he pleases but damn, people are going to feel some kind of way about it.

That bit of whining, coupled with some inspired play from Tucker and Ibaka, really brought the building to its feet in the third quarter. I wouldn’t say it was hopeful, but the arena started to believe. The Raptors showed heart and traded punch for punch with the Cavs through three quarters and while we weren’t ever going to win the series, this was a game worth playing. And so we cheered them on.

My section hardly sat down in the fourth. We were too turnt to stay seated. Any bad call prompted loud jeers of “Ref you suck” and every one of DeRozan’s fadeaways drew loud screams of “KOBE” from Josh and I. When Tucker pounded his chest the arena did the same as if the whole building shared one heartbeat.

They were in this. They even took a lead in the fourth. Fred VanVleet gave them decent minutes. Valanciunas was left in a bit too long but he worked an awkward post-up into a basket. DeRozan was hitting shots. Tucker couldn’t miss from the corners. Norm Powell was relentless in transition.

All we ever wanted was this: to belong on the same floor as the reigning champions. We could swallow a sweep if all four games were like this.

Five: Goodbye

Sheer willpower wasn’t enough to win the game.

The Cavaliers ultimately pulled away in the end thanks to the singular brilliance of Kyrie Irving and LeBron. Irving put Cory Joseph on skates and Valanciunas’ help at the basket was always a few beats too late. Tucker gave James hell, but there’s nothing you can do when he’s making pull-up threes and baseline turnaround jumpers. Cleveland is more talented, more experienced and just flat-out better than the Raptors and it played out that way as it did in the three games previously.

But for the only time all series, the fanbase could feel pride swelling within us, as the Raptors laid everything they had on the line. We don’t always have to win, but we do always have to fight. They finally gave us that on Sunday.

So we chanted “Let’s go Raptors” throughout the final minute, even when the result was decided, and even after the players dapped each other up after the final buzzer. We wanted to show our appreciation, even if the franchise had been embarrassed throughout the playoffs. We wanted them to know that even when the times get rough we would still be there. Igor’s gonna be screaming about Jakob Poeltl at home while his wife reads a book. The love is real and comes with no conditions. If we cheered on Joey Graham we can definitely get behind Powell and whoever is next. Believe that.

And so the arena filed out and fans went their separate ways. A sea of red and white flooded Union Station while others headed west towards Spadina. With that another Raptors season was in the books, and while it didn’t end how we wanted it to, Sunday’s game did remind us of why we’re here in the first place.

It hurts in the moment to be swept, but I’ll spend all summer missing it.