Some people will tell you Kawhi Leonard was built in a lab; that for his first three years in San Antonio he would do drills, endless drills, with coaches on his own, but would be told, if you try this in a game, we will bench your ass. It helped explain why, when he got a bigger role, he seemed something close to fully formed. By the time he got to Toronto, Kawhi was a superstar.
On Sunday night, at the very end of a draining, punishing Game 7, at the end of a hard, physical series, Kawhi was dribbling hard towards the right corner of the floor, and everyone in the building was looking at him, and seven-foot Goliath Joel Embiid was chasing him, and Kawhi sent the ball up. Tie game. Time gone. It hung in the air.
Veronica Majewski and her sister were in the same place they always were: at the high tables across from the bar in a St. Louis Bar & Grill on Bloor that is a local hangout, and where they and her Trinidadian friend Alex — as Veronica says, “I bear the weight of being singularly responsible for ruining her life, since I am the one that turned her into a fan of all our stupid teams” — watch every game in the same place, every time.
But it was stressful, and it all seemed to be falling apart again, and Veronica and her sister went outside to smoke. By the time they were done, the bar was suddenly too full to get back in, but it was coming down to the end. So they stood in the rain, watching through the window. When the ball dropped, they jumped into a hug, and high-fived every stranger. Every one.
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Meanwhile, Nicholas Carter was working the Mother’s Day shift at Cava restaurant in midtown, and as a patron went to pay, he was streaming the game, and people stopped to watch. The chef was, too. He told the chef, “If they win, you pretend to accidentally break a glass.” And as it happened, another server walked through the swinging doors to the kitchen and ran into a stationary worker, watching the game on a phone. A platter of plates clattered to the floor. The chef poked his head out and said, dryly, “The Raptors won.”
One thing about Kawhi: He works. He hits the weight room every day, and in this series Jimmy Butler was telling people Kawhi might be the strongest player in the entire league. He works on his shot every day: on off days, on mornings of games when they don’t shootaround, all the time. “Every freaking day,” said one Raptors staffer. “He’s like an Army officer.” When asked about the shot, Kawhi said, “Ended up finding a spot that I like, that I work on. Ended up getting to the spot.”
Raptors staff confirm he has been seen working on that shot, among all the others: a running, pull-up fade from the right corner. He can take those shots without getting benched now. But he’s still running the lab.
Sean O’Malley, who does PR for the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, was listening on the radio, streaming through his phone; he doesn’t have the extra cable channels. He was glued to it. The shot went up. The silence as the ball bounced made him think, for a few seconds, that the signal had been cut.
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After it was over, Kawhi was asked about the atmosphere, about Toronto fans. He said, “When we got leads, they screamed defence, were screaming the whole time. It was amazing. You know, when guys are shooting free throws, they’re screaming as loud as they can. It was a fun experience. They’ve been great all year. We needed them.”
Bernie Lee is a Toronto kid. He saw his first Raptors game at the SkyDome because he spent $10 at National Sports at Yonge and Sheppard and they threw in a ticket to a pre-season game against the Pistons. He has watched, by his count, every second of every Raptors game in franchise history.
He’s also Jimmy Butler’s agent, and when the Philadelphia 76ers star drove the length of the court to tie the score, Lee ran back out to the court from the back of house, excited. He thought, 4.2 seconds is a lot of time.
“I will never, ever, ever be able to explain to people the feeling of standing in an arena with 20,000 people that goes from dead silent to pure elation in the matter of seconds,” he said. “It’s literally a lifetime defined by seconds. I also can’t express the feeling of watching 20,000 people be so happy for something that runs the exact opposite of what you want, but … that’s life.
“Just an incredible experience, and this is the best Raptors team they have ever had, and might ever have. They can, and should, go and win a ring.”
Kawhi roared. His stone face broke and he howled, and he was mobbed, surrounded, hugged. Kyle Lowry snuck after the game ball. “He does that all the time,” said one Raptors staffer, “when it’s special.”
“I’m a guy that acts like that I’ve been there before, so probably the last time you’ve seen me scream is when we won (the 2014 championship with San Antonio),” said Kawhi. “Whenever it’s a moment that I haven’t experienced, I probably try to give and show some emotion. Just let it come out.”
In that, he wasn’t alone.
Vakis Boutsalis grew up in East York, and he and his brother George were basketball fans. They’d go once a year or so; they would watch together. George suffered from schizophrenia; he died three years ago, on the day of Game 7 between Toronto and the Miami Heat. After that, Vakis would watch the regular season waiting for the playoffs, and then in the playoffs would feel the weight of his brother’s loss.
He and his wife and two kids were at his sister’s Sandy’s house, on a day they had devoted to George. He didn’t want to see a loss, another one, but his sister made him turn it on. With 4.2 seconds left, he thought of George, and asked for some help.
He jumped right off the couch and paused it so he could go grab his family and show them the replays. He couldn’t believe it.
“George pushed that ball in,” he said. “And you can’t tell me otherwise.” He was glad he stuck with it. He was glad he watched.
When you asked Raptors fans what it was like, a few themes emerged. Everyone yelled, yelped, screamed. Often they woke somebody up, or tried not to — the neighbour, the baby, the dog. There was a TV on a B.C. ferry in the Georgia Straight that lost the signal in the fourth quarter, and workers scrambled to get it back, two minutes from the end. They did.
And everyone had different types of names, and were from different places. There were Raptors fans streaming from China, Barcelona, Israel, India, Ireland, Dubai, Great Britain, B.C. or California. There were Torontonians and Winnipeggers and B.C. kids who were the children of immigrants, usually first generation. So many thought of Vince’s miss in 2001, and all the playoff disappointments over the years, and all the wasted seasons in between.
And it went right. Finally, finally. The Raptors fans across the city and the country and the world were all different colours, from all different places, because as Jurassic Park shows every year, Raptors fans look like Toronto. So many were watching with their kids. So many were watching with their parents, their grandparents, their brothers or sisters, their friends. Their tribe, for this other Toronto team.
And so many were watching without anybody else. But none of them seemed to feel alone.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur
Published at Mon, 13 May 2019 20:57:54 +0000