The team are one victory away from their first-ever NBA title. And many in Toronto see basketball as representative of a diverse, global city
When Fitriya Hussein was given free tickets to a Toronto Raptors basketball game years ago in middle school, she was drawn in by the intensity of play; the strategy, speed and excitement. She instantly became a fan. But with that mantle came years of heartbreak, disappointment and frustration that sports fans around the world know all too well.
Now, after Fridays victory over the reigning champion Golden State Warriors in the NBA finals, the Raptors are a single win away from their first-ever championship. And basketball fans in Toronto are experiencing a feeling that has been absent for more than two decades: hope.
Paired up against a powerful but injury-riddled Warriors team, the Raptors can make history when the best-of seven series, which they lead 3-1, returns to Toronto on Monday evening.
Its actually happening. Its literally a dream come true. Weve had to fight so hard for this, says Hussein of the teams hard-won place in the championships. Its mind blowing.
Raptors fever is everywhere in Toronto. The raptor claw is on billboards, restaurant windows and inked into the skin of the most loyal fans. Even at a recent performance of the national ballet, the teams slogan: We the North, was projected onto a black curtain.
Canadas largest city is no stranger to major sports franchises. Its vaunted Maple Leafs were a dynastic ice hockey force in the 1960s. The Blue Jays won the baseball World Series in 1993. But Toronto hasnt experienced the frenzied elation of a major sports championship in more than 20 years (Toronto FC won the MLS title in 2017, but soccer doesnt quite have the pull of hockey, baseball and basketball in Canada); there is an excitement that has infected much of the city.
Part of the interest surrounding the team is a belief that basketball is the sport of the future for Canada, says Toronto-based photographer Neil Ta. A longtime Raptors fan and seasons pass holder in recent years he sees the sport not only captivating viewers, but reflecting the makeup of the city. If you go to a [hockey game] the crowd is sort of very much one type of demographic. And when you go to a Raptors game, its much more reflective of the city and of the country, he says.
Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world, and basketball resonates at a much wider level than other sports, accessible to both longtime residents and new arrivals, says Ta.
I grew up with hockey. But because we were immigrants and not too well off, it was a sport that I could never playI couldnt afford the equipment and league fees, he says. But with basketball, you know pick up like a $5 rubber ball and youre pretty much set.
It hasnt hurt the Raptors immense popularity in Toronto at least that their global ambassador and de-facto mascot is Drake, the award-winning hip-hop artist who has made it his mission to elevate the status of Toronto. But another component of the Raptors success and one which sports analysts have marvelled at since descending on Toronto as the finals began are the citys obsessive fans.
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