Fandom ain’t for wussies.
Greater the devotion, deeper the bajiggity, defined by the Urban Dictionary as “loudly nervous and anxious.”
Fan: From the Latin fanaticus – “insanely but divinely inspired.”
And these Toronto Raptors have so passionately inspired a city, a country, both the sports universe and the sports averse. Because there comes a point where distinctions are blurred and even the chronically indifferent get swept along in the swell of crazy emotion, smitten. Toot-toot.
After the Game 7 clunk of the Maple Leafs – hockey always and forever the pre-eminent religion ’round these parts – and with the Blue Jays going through their rebuild pains, this city yearns for a slab of sports pride, a bit of the boast. So it’s mainlined Raptors reverence, whether as vintage fan or parvenu.
On the dizzying precipice of a Game 6 that could send the Raptors to a first-ever NBA final, devotees descended by the thousands, a good-natured queue – even in the downpour, which would have cleansed the great unwashed down to their toes – that stretched up Bay Street, then hung a left on Front. The lucky (or well-heeled) had ducats, the unfortunate – but maybe even more besotted – had only the possibility of making the entry cut at an expanded Jurassic Park.
Sam Clark was the first in line, arriving at 11:30 a.m., with his service dog, Mr. Pickles, a sweet grey pittie.
“I’ve never been here before, never done anything like this before,” admitted Clark, a 33-year-old accountant who’s suffered with PTSD since a bad car crash three years ago, hence the service dog allowed into the plaza abreast of Scotiabank Arena. “I’m a big basketball fun but I’d rather watch at home, on the couch. But today I thought, this is special, let’s change things up. And, you know, also to change the view of pitties.’’
Mr. Pickles was serenely oblivious of the hoopla as the Jurassic crowd grew and grew, urged to heights of enthusiasm by a rather effective stage cast, hurling balled T-shirts, conducting raffles, spinning hip-hop, and generally cranking up the amplitude as rain gusts swirled and dusk descended. Some wore Vince Carter jerseys, some Tracy McGrady purple, and a whole lot had cracked open the piggy-bank for Kawhi Leonard.
Has there been a more beloved, more revered, more awe-jacking athlete in town since the days of Dougie Gilmour?
Will he stay? Will he go? Don’t think about that now.
“This here, this experience, everyone showing him so much life, how could he say no to all that?” Sandra Daranikone, 28, demanded, pleadingly.
“It’s not just the entire city, he has an entire country behind him,” pointed out Jaz Grewel, 24, a law student from Brampton. “He can go to any team in the States and he’s never going to get that, a whole country that loves him.”
Leonard, the cornrow man of few words, inscrutable, had advised, leading up to this Game 6 crucible: “Enjoy the moment.”
Pleasure and dread, in equal measure at Jurassic Park.
Exquisite agony, in these moments, as every fan who rides the sports roller-coaster knows. Delirious one minute, dejected the next.
In under a quarter-century, the franchise has gone from homely outpost, league aliens – passport players — to championship combatant, among three teams still standing as the curtain was raised on Game 6, Raptors on a roll after three straight beat-downs of the Bucks. There’s a pinch-me wonder to the whole marvel. A longing to get close, even if not nearer than a quasi-public square, can’t even gaze through the glass. Just up to the jumbo-screen.
Lenny Williams, he came all the way from Saskatoon at the end of Game 7, previous round, versus Philadelphia. “When that Kawhi Leonard shot went in, I booked myself a plane ticket. Flew in last week, actually got a ticket for Game 3, and the Raptors haven’t lost once since I’ve been here.
“I’m a diehard fan. Told my boss at work, I’ll be gone for a while. Supposed to go home Sunday but who knows? Maybe I’ll have to stay for another round.’’
They’ve tapped into a deep well of longing and love, these Raptors, who’ve always been third in the public attachment depth chart, who’ve never won anything. But they’re certainly of this era, as buoyant and trendy as their youthful, ultra-urban – and that includes 905 – multicultural enthusiasts. Always, well, different.
Remember when then-GM Glen Grunwald walked out onto the court at what was then called SkyDome and apologized for a horrible season? Unprecedented. Around the time despondent Maple Leaf fans were tossing waffle irons on the ice.
Remember when Vince Carter inhabited superstar status, elevating the franchise to marquee fame? Then a desperation jumper from inside the three-point line that would have given the Raptors a buzzer win over Philadelphia in Game 7 didn’t go in. And the ferocity of a city’s attachment began to wane.
Remember when LeBron James stood like an Eastern Island monolith between the Raptors and out-of-the-east advancement?
Remember a tearful DeMar DeRozan taking his leave of Toronto in the monumental gamble that lassoed Leonard for what might still be a one-and-done season of glory? Thank you, next. No, really, thank you, from the bottom of a city’s thumping heart.
In this trembly moment, it doesn’t matter. Leonard is a deity, his playoff performances the stuff of legend, a metropolis in thrall.
Inside Scotiabank Arena on Saturday, deafening pandemonium. Outside Scotiabank Arena, herded within the concrete jungle of Jurassic Park, bedlam. Teetering from giddy to jittery.
There’s always a sense of caste division between insiders and outsiders, like first class airline passengers already settled into their comfy seats, champagne poured, while you squeeze past to sardine-steerage.
Still, it’s as close to sensation inclusivity, communal oneness, as the Raptors can render. Because sports allegiance, which turbocharges a $700-billion global phenomenon, is tribal, atavistic. And one of the few phenomena – like war – where the outcome is truly unknown.
So worshippers paint their faces and don their colours and clutch talismans, superstitions such a huge component of the fan affliction. The lucky this ‘n’ that, the rituals, the tailgating prologue – to feel part of something larger than oneself, to feel close .
Come what may: Raptors, Toronto has got a crush on you.
Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno