When I was 14 years old, I spent an incredible amount of time following the Calgary Flames. My motives were dubious – I had a crush on a girl who was a die-hard fan, and I was desperate for a reason to talk to her. Early in the season, I printed out the team’s schedule and copied it into a notebook. As often as I could, I would tune into The Fan 960 and listen to the games, meticulously noting the scores.
That season, the Flames made the playoffs for the first time in seven years. I watched eagerly as Jerome Iginla, Miikka Kiprusoff and Martin Gelinas eliminated the Vancouver Canucks, then the Detroit Red Wings and then the San Jose Sharks. My friends and I began gathering in the basements of our parents’ houses to watch. When the Flames won, we’d celebrate. When the referees failed to award the game-winning goal in Game Six, we were flabbergasted. And when the Tampa Bay Lightning stole the Stanley Cup in Game Seven, we were crestfallen.
I didn’t follow any team with similar vigour until 2014, when I began watching basketball, my preferred sport, in earnest. I picked a great time to start – the Toronto Raptors were just beginning to see meagre success, led by coach Dwayne Casey and back-court duo Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan.
As the team continued to improve throughout the past five seasons, I found myself filled with a sense of futile hope come the playoffs. If things break in just the right way, I’d think, maybe Toronto will hoist the Larry O’Brien NBA Championship Trophy. Alas, they never did.
Until this year.
As Golden State Warriors’ point guard Steph Curry missed a three-point shot June 6 in the dying minutes of Game Six, and honourary Canadian Kawhi Leonard made three free-throws to cement Toronto’s first NBA championship – and the first championship by a Canadian team in a major North American league since 1993 – I couldn’t help wondering if I was imagining things. For the first time in my life, my team was the best in the world.
In celebrating the Raptor’s win, I tapped into a feeling that swept the country, consuming both long-suffering fans and those who’d recently climbed on the bandwagon. Whether you’ve cheered for the Raptors for 24 years or 24 days, the excitement was identical.
Sports fandom is at once intensely personal and inevitably shared. My elation at the Raptors’ championship is rooted in my history with the team, but it is by no means unique – just look at pictures of Toronto’s crowded streets during the team’s championship parade. The Raptors are special to me, but not to me alone. That’s what makes this championship so thrilling.