Have you ever felt an immense amount of disappointment in your life?
You know, the type of disappointment that gnaws at you even after a whole block of time has passed? You try to forget about what happened, but it just sticks out like an ugly-ass painting in the Louvre?
If you’ve been through that, you know what it felt like to be a Raptors fan for most of the past decade.
I first watched the Raptors way back in 2014, when they first made the Playoffs after a few years of rebuilding. They lost to the Brooklyn Nets in the first round (courtesy of Paul Pierce’s game-winning block), but something about the team intrigued me so much. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry’s games reeled me in as I watched seven games series. The team had this general hungry underdog aura that only endeared me more to them.
I started watching more and more of their games after that, and it wasn’t long before I was transformed into a huge Toronto fan. I loved everything about that team: from Kyle’s pronounced posterior to DeMar’s old-man game to Dwane Casey’s rugged demeanor. I picked a good time to hop into the bandwagon, too: after another first-round exit the next year, the Raptors made a huge leap and shocked the league when they nabbed the second seed in the East two years after that 2014 Playoff run.
Unfortunately for me and a lot of Raptors fans, this would the start of the worst times of our lives.
See, here’s the thing about new relationships: when you’re new to one, you kind of blur out the flaws of your partner. You have these rose-tinted glasses on you that make you blind to what your partner is doing wrong.
I had these glasses on me for the first two years of my life as a Raptors fan. I didn’t exactly see the problems that the team was having, all I knew was that they were pretty damn good in my eyes. Once I started actually watching their games closely, though, I started to realize that not everything was rainbows and butterflies up North.
To put it simply, the team was a big, fat choker in the Playoffs. No one exposed that damn trait more than the King himself, LeBron James. You’ve all heard of the LeBronto Curse by now: No matter what happened, once the Playoffs hit one thing was certain: LeBron and the Cavalierss would whoop Toronto’s ass.
It was the most heart-wrenching experience I’ve ever had as a basketball fan, to see the team that I rooted for getting beat up year after year by one player. Even in 2018, when Toronto was at its highest and Cleveland was at its lowest, LeBron still managed to break the hearts of the Raptors fans by sweeping them out of the Playoffs. His Game 3 one-legged game-winner was just salt over the large, bleeding wound of the franchise and its fanbase.
With all that said, you can’t really blame me for being pessimistic during the 2018-2019 season. Yes, we traded DeMar for an actual cyborg-Terminator hybrid in Kawhi Leonard. Yes, we replaced Casey, who couldn’t make an adjustment to save his life, with a forward-thinking coach in Nick Nurse. And yes, Big Bad LeBron was out of the East. But years of Playoff failure have left us jaded about our championship chances. No matter how good the Raptors were in the regular season, we know that they can just as easily flip the switch and flop helplessly on the floor when games mattered more.
Never mind that Toronto had the second-best record in the league after 82 games, or that the Raps went 17-5 without Kawhi in the regular season. I’ve seen this script play out before, and it ends with me eating my words about Toronto winning it all. Losing Game 1 of the First Round against the freaking Magic only dampened my hopes.
“We’re doomed. Our franchise is cursed, and we’ll never win anything, ever.”
There’s one thing I failed to account for, though: There’s a new lead actor in town, and he sure as hell ain’t letting this season pan out like the others.
Kawhi immediately put all of my fears to rest, going to work and leading the team along with fellow Finals veteran Danny Green. The team followed suit, and Nick Nurse also made some crucial adjustments. What happened was something that I’ve never experienced as a Raptors fan: Toronto winning a Playoff series convincingly. In the games after that Game 1, Toronto felt like a different team, a team freed from a prison they built in their own minds.
There’s a handful of moments in life where you remember everything vividly.
For me, Kawhi’s “The Shot” was one such moment.
You gotta understand: at that point in the series, I was drained. If not for The Klaw’s heroics and Nurse’s decision-making, we would’ve been out of that series earlier. So during the entirety of Game 7, we were just balls of anxiety waiting to explode. The whole game, I was a nervous wreck, panicking over minor mistakes while hoping the game would end well. Jimmy Butler’s lay-up after Kawhi’s missed free-throw with four seconds left was the icing on the big anxiety cake that was baking in my head.
“Welp. That’s it. We’re doomed. This game is going to overtime, and we’re definitely going to lose there because they have the momentum.”
Four seconds left. Gasol inbounded from the sideline. Leonard got it up top and dribbled towards the baseline. Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, the two cornerstones of the Sixers, chased him. Suddenly, Kawhi rose up and fired the most awkward, off-balance fadeaway I’ve ever seen. Embiid flew in and tried to block the shot, all of his 7-foot wingspan rose up to try and get a piece of the ball. There’s no goddamn way that show could go in.
But somehow, as the ball was bouncing around the rim for what felt like an eternity, I knew it was going to go in. It was as if the basketball gods finally took pity on the Raptors’ playoff misfortunes and wanted to make it up to us.
One. Two. Three. Four bounces. The ball finally went through the hoop. I start shouting and jumping incoherently around my house. It felt like cosmic karma for all the shit we had to endure in the decade: Pierce blocking K-Low’s potential game-winner back in 2014, LeBron casually torching us for three straight years, getting swept out of the second round as a FIRST SEED. All the pain of those moments were washed away by that singular shot.
After that shot, it felt like nothing could stop us. Even when the Bucks went up 2-0 in the ECF, I felt a strange sense of calmness. It was a foreign feeling, not being stressed out about my team losing two straight games against possibly the best team in the East. But after overcoming that grueling battle against Philadelphia, I knew that Toronto could handle a measly 0-2 deficit. Sure enough, they did, thanks again to Nurse’s coaching genius and the team collectively getting their groove back in time for the Finals.
The Finals felt more like a footnote for me at that point. Yes, we were going up against one of the greatest teams of all time. But after that magical game-winner over Philly, and after overcoming a 0-2 deficit over the league MVP, I felt like nothing could shake this team anymore. They’ve endured so many struggles, overcame many obstacles to get to this point. Nothing was going to deny this team the championship they deserved, not even Steph Curry’s heroics.
My favorite moment during the Raptors’ title run, though, isn’t Kawhi’s game-winner. It’s not the moments before the final buzzer of Game 6 in Oakland sounded.
No, my favorite moment was during the final game of the Toronto-Milwaukee series, about three seconds before the end of the game. Toronto was up by six, their Finals trip was all but secured. The camera cuts to a shot of Kyle Lowry, hands behind his head, grinning like a kid who was given his favorite toy by Santa Claus on Christmas.
When I saw Kyle smiling like that, I started crying, man. Not the tear-down-your-face crying, no, I was ugly crying my ass out.
Kyle Lowry, the man who helped the Raptors climb from the basement. The man who sacrificed his body for the team every game. The man who went through all that torment in previous years, trying his damned best to carry his team, only to be labeled as a choker year after year.
Kyle Lowry, the man who embraced Toronto with all his heart, finally captured his white whale with the team that he built. That will forever be the best moment of that entire run: seeing a man who’s worked so hard, who’s been through a lot of adversity to get to where he is finally accomplishing his goals.
And that’s what made that championship so special for me and Raptors fans around the world. We watched this team start from the bottom and grind their way to the top, only to be stopped in their tracks multiple times. We’ve seen these players overcome personal struggles and constant criticism to be the best versions of themselves. That pain the Raptors endured made the championship oh-so-special: it was the end-product of all the sacrifice from everyone part of, and following the team.