Toronto Raptors fans willed first NBA title success 'into existence'

Canadians are celebrating after the Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors to clinch their first ever NBA championship. CNN's Paula Newton visits the Ontario hometown of the man who invented the sport.

Posted: Jun 14, 2019 11:30 AM
Updated: Jun 14, 2019 11:30 AM

And breathe. The Drake curse is over. More poignantly, the rapper and the Toronto Raptors most recognizable fan quickly summed up the depth of feeling in the Canadian city -- and Canada -- after the team secured its first NBA title after defeating the Golden State Warriors.

"We did this off of heart," said Drake. "We did this off of love. We willed this into existence."

The Canadian music star has been ever-present during the Raptors' run to the Finals, and his almost fanatical support has put noses out of joint across the league.

To commemorate the Raptors' momentous win, Drake is also releasing two new songs -- "Omertá" and "Money in the Grave." But for Raptors fans everywhere, this hasn't been an easy journey.

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Long haul

"We're going to make the NBA proud. We respect the trust that they've charged us with," said John Bitove Jr., president of the yet-to-be-named professional basketball franchise in Toronto back in 1993.

Established on November 4, 1993 for a then-record expansion fee of $125 million, the Toronto Raptors were the 28th NBA franchise and the second Canadian franchise alongside the Vancouver Grizzlies.

While the Grizzlies relocated to Memphis, Tennessee in 2001, the Raptors remained in Toronto and for its fans, the team's 2019 success has been a long time coming.

In the 24 seasons of their existence, the Raptors have made the playoffs 11 times -- a good percentage on face value -- but have only reached the NBA finals once (this season).

Although they've qualified for the playoffs for the past six seasons, the Raptors have been plagued by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, being knocked out three years in a row by King James.

Following a 59-win season last season in which the Raptors reached the Eastern Conference finals, coach Dwane Casey -- appointed in 2011 -- was fired, days after being named NBA Coach of the Year.

Due to the improvement the Raptors made under Casey's stewardship -- they finished with a record of 23-43 in his first season and a record of 59-23 in his final season -- the decision to replace him with his assistant, Nick Nurse, didn't go down well with many.

However, what General Manager Bobby Webster did in the summer went a long way to rebuilding bridges.

READ: 'We all have Hoop Dreams'

New beginnings

DeMar DeRozan -- who blossomed into a perennial All-Star for the Raptors -- was traded in July 2018 to the San Antonio Spurs for 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.

As well as acquiring Danny Green from the Spurs and Marc Gasol from the Grizzlies, Nurse entered his first season at the helm with a seriously kitted out team.

And they didn't disappoint. Leonard and fan-favourite Kyle Lowry were named as All-Stars, Green finished with the fifth highest 3-point percentage in the league and Pascal Siakam developed from an up-and-comer to a flat-out superstar.

But it was during their playoff run that the Raptors, who receive a lot less media coverage compared to many of their American counterparts, really burst onto the scene.

From Drake's almost comical reactions on the touchline and ability to get under the skin of MVP-hopeful Giannis Antetokounmpo to Leonard's now-iconic game and series winning shot against the Philadelphia 76ers, the stars seemed to align for the Raptors.

Canada's team

There have been clips of viewing parties for the Raptors games all across Canada, and for Tas Melas -- a fan of the Toronto NBA team and co-host of "The Starters" -- the outpouring of support for the Toronto-based team has made him even more proud of being Canadian.

"Even as somebody who supported team for a long time, I didn't know that this amount of support existed out there," Melas said.

"More people in Canada watched Game 5 of the NBA finals than every other program this year, including the Super Bowl. It's shocking really.

"Even though there's been Raptors fan bases online that are so adamant about the team, but for pop up parties to happen from the Prairie provinces to the Atlantic provinces, it's a head-scratcher.

"It's something which bonds all the cities just like in London, England. I'm sure there are cities in England that aren't really fans of London. And that's the same sort of scenario in Canada.

Journalist Mike Bossetti -- who has covered the Raptors for past four seasons -- echoes Melas' incredulity that the Raptors are now so popular and says that the lack of any other Canadian NBA franchise helps people to unite behind one common goal.

"Every team in the NBA has a city they represent. The Raptors have a country," he said.

"It's truly been remarkable to see the entire nation of Canada rally behind just one team. Over 50% of Canada has tuned in to at least one portion of the NBA Finals.

"Go 15 minutes in America and you might find different fan bases colliding. Up in Canada, there's only one love."

Starting something new

The Raptors opponents in the Finals -- the Warriors -- have been the team to beat over the past five seasons, winning the NBA title three times.

Behind the brilliance of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, "Dub-Nation" have reached the Finals in each of the last five seasons.

But for Jordan Hayles -- who's supported the Raptors since he was 11-years-old -- the wait for the Raptors victory has made it even sweeter.

"For the city, it is probably one of the biggest moments to happen really since the Blue Jays won (in 1993)," he said, referring to the MLB team.

"I think it's even more important because when you look at it from a generational standpoint, it's always been the Maple Leafs," added Hayles in reference to the Canadian ice hockey team.

"The Leafs are a 100-year-old team and they won all their titles before television. The Blue Jays won when TV was obviously prominent, but they won before the internet era.

"And when you have the technology age that we live in, at the end of this decade moving on into 2020s, then the Raptors are a millennial team. They have been around for 24 years. So, you have a lot of generations coming together and witnessing this."

An attractive proposition

When NBA players are deciding where they'll be playing next during free agency, the past success (or lack of) for the franchises trying to claim the signature of that player can be a key factor.

The Warriors themselves were that team before they won their title in 2015, having only reached the playoffs eight times in the previous 37 seasons.

Melas thinks that winning the title this season will make Toronto an attractive place to play for star talents.

"They are already an A-list organization that's been proven in the last few years, but this would absolutely cement them as an organization that's not going anywhere and that is a free agent destination.

"And it also is going to increase the amount of kids and interest in basketball throughout the country as well.

"These parties that are happening, win or lose, I do think there's people watching the game that maybe have never watched a NBA game before or weren't all that interested.

"So I expect the gyms and the outdoor courts to be more and more packed as these next few years go on because of the Raptors and how appealing they are and how appealing winning is and how magnetic this team is.

"And again, people just love these dudes."

'Waiting for this moment'

Suna Bari -- a Raptors fan whose earliest memories include watching Damon Stoudamire -- believes this title will have a dramatic effect on the Raptors' status and also their fans.

"The Raptors have always been the team in the league having to prove themselves; the underdog; and I think bringing this title home is enough proof that we don't only belong in this league, but we're good enough to compete against some of the greatest players in the world AND win," she said.

"I've been waiting for this moment for over 20 years. These last few years have been a wave of emotions, watching the Raptors push through the playoffs and inch closer every year only to fall short of the finish line.

"To win this title is to fulfil a childhood dream. Seven-year-old me is sitting at the edge of her seat, dripped in Raptors gear and full of emotions."

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