When we think of professional sports, we think of action, drama, championships, dynasties and memorable moments. Fans have seen repeated championships by teams from Boston (New England Patriots, Boston Red Sox, the Boston Celtics and the Boston Bruins) and California (Los Angeles Lakers, and the Golden State Warriors). While it demonstrates that those teams work hard to achieve championship glory, it can also get tedious watching the same teams win on a consistent basis. Unfortunately, the city of Toronto has not won championships in the NHL, NBA and MLB, since the Blue Jays in 1993. But, fans in Toronto have witnessed their sports teams be a part of some memorable moments over the past twenty six years.

The Jays won their first World Series in 1992. They defeated the Atlanta Braves, in Atlanta, in six games to claim MLB’s championship. The following year, they defeated the Philadelphia Phillies, in front of a sold out and raucous crowd at the Skydome.

The final game of the series will always be remembered for a radio call made by the late Tom Cheek. With the Jays down 6-5, Joe Carter stepped up to the plate with two men on and belted a three run homer. The crowd erupted and everyone was in a celebratory mood. As Joe was running the bases, Cheek excitedly exclaimed “Touch ‘em all Joe. You’ll never hit a bigger home run in your life.” That run catapulted the team to their second consecutive World Series. Unfortunately, it was the final championship for Toronto in the MLB, NHL or NBA.

The Jays did not participate in the playoffs again until 2015. They defeated the Texas Rangers in the American League Division Series. However, that game will be remembered for a chaotic seventh inning of Game 5. A run was granted to Texas because of a stipulation in the baseball rule book. The fans at the Rogers Centre became incensed, and did something very unbecoming of Toronto fans – they began throwing cups and beer bottles onto the field. A few were even injured by flying debris. That action delayed the game for almost twenty minutes, and the Jays played the rest of the game under protest. The Rangers took a 3-2 lead into the bottom half of the seventh.

After three defensive blunders by Texas, which allowed the Blue Jays to load the bases, Jose Bautista stepped up to the plate and blasted a three run homer to put the team up 6-3. The fans were euphoric. Bautista then flipped the bat before he ran the bases. The bat flip was widely considered disrespectful by Texas, and some sports pundits across the U.S., while others saw it as letting out the frustration of twenty two years of playoff futility. I liked it. It showed passion and fire. It caused a positive and raucous scene for the fans – they felt like they won the World Series. It also sparked a debate about whether the bat flip was necessary. The Jays advanced but succumbed to Kansas City in the ALCS. The following year, they defeated Baltimore and Texas en route to another birth in the ALCS, but were thwarted by the eventual champions, the Cleveland Indians. Since then, the Jays have not made the playoffs, and continue to struggle mightily.

The Toronto Maple Leafs last won the Stanley Cup in 1967. Under the coaching of the late Pat Quinn, the 2001-2002 Leafs made the Eastern Conference Final. Unfortunately, the team lost to the Carolina Hurricanes. That was the last time the team was close to the Cup final. Over the past decade and a half, they have played Washington in a playoff series, and lost. In 2013, 2018 and 2019, the Leafs lost their opening round series to the Boston Bruins. The Leafs last won a playoff series in 2004 by defeating the Ottawa Senators. They have to find a way to get out of the first round of the playoffs. I am positive that one day they will eliminate the Bruins to get there. If that were to transpire, I am sure Toronto Maple Leafs fans will rejoice.

The Toronto Raptors played their first game in the NBA on November 3, 1995 – a matchup against the New Jersey Nets. It resulted in their first ever win. In March 1996, still in their inaugural season, the Raptors scored their biggest victory at the time, an upset of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. The franchise’s first taste of the playoffs occurred in April, 2000. They were swept by the New York Knicks. The two teams had their playoff rematch the following year, which resulted in a series win for Toronto in five games. The victory allowed the team to advance to the Eastern Conference semi-finals and play the Philadelphia 76ers. The latter was victorious in the seventh and deciding game of the series because Vince Carter missed a three point shot to potentially send the game into overtime.

From 2016-2018, the Raptors were embroiled in a playoff rivalry with Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. In 2016, the Raptors lost to the Cavs four games to two, in the first Eastern Conference Final. However, in both 2017 and 2018 Toronto was swept by the same team. But things changed in a positive direction for the franchise in the summer of 2018.
On July 18, the San Antonio Spurs and the Toronto Raptors worked out a major trade: Demar Derozan moved to the Spurs. In return, the Raptors received Kawhi Leonard. Fans in Toronto weren’t sure what to make of the trade, considering fans were used to the tandem of Demar Derozan and Kyle Lowry. They were also worried about what kind of player they were getting in Kawhi, seeing as he was often injured while with the Spurs, and sat out for most of the 2018 season. But, sometimes, a change of scenery for an athlete is a good thing. The Raptors decided not to play him every game, and reduce his minutes. This was done so he can rest his knee. As a result, the term “load management” became part of the lexicon for sports analysts and basketball fans. And the load management proved to be beneficial for Kawhi, especially during the playoffs.

In the first round, the Raptors lost the first game of their series against the Orlando Magic, but were victorious in the next four. I do not think anyone was surprised with that outcome. The second round was much tougher, against their division rivals, Philadelphia 76ers. It was a tough, tight tense seven game series. After three games, Philadelphia led the series 2-1. The Raptors were forced to fight from behind, yet again. The series came down to a memorable Game 7 in Toronto. With the game tied at 90, overtime looked to be a near certainty. Then Kawhi gained possession of the ball and attempted to win the game with a three point shot. He released the ball, it hit the rim, and circled around…. and around…… and around…. with the crowd at Scotiabank Arena holding their collective breaths. The ball then dropped into the net. The crowd went crazy. Kawhi Leonard rose up from his squatting position and let out a loud yell, as his teammates embraced him. What a moment for the city. What a moment for Kawhi. What a moment for the Raptors organization. It was also great to see Leonard let out some emotion – which is a rarity for him. But, the best was yet to come.

The NBA’s Eastern Conference Final featured the top two teams in the conference – the Raptors and the Milwaukee Bucks. Unlike the first two series, Toronto did not have home court advantage. The team was down two games to none and things looked bleak. But, then the series shifted to Toronto, and the Raptors won those two games. The series was now tied at two. Game five took place in Milwaukee. The Raptors emerged victorious with one more game to win to reach the Finals, and the sixth game in Toronto. Fans who packed Scotiabank Arena and Jurassic Park knew what was at stake. Fans and players felt the intensity.

The Bucks started off very well, and won the first quarter. But the Raptors won the remaining three quarters, punctuated by a Kawhi Leonard slam dunk late in the fourth quarter. When the clock hit zero in the fourth quarter, fans started to celebrate in Toronto. The Toronto Raptors advanced to their first NBA Finals.

Their next challenge comes in the form of Steph Curry, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson – the reigning, defending and well-rested, Golden State Warriors. It will be a tough series. It will be great if the Raptors win the series. I know there will be immense celebrations if they do. But, even if they do not, the team can take solace in the fact that they made it this far and hopefully gained a lot of extra fans, especially in the United States where they were doubted for years. And fans can still celebrate an extremely successful season.

I believe that if the team did not acquire Kawhi, they would not have reached this far. They had all the talent – Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam, just to name a few. But when Kawhi came on board, I think it upped every player’s game, especially in the playoffs. The other reason the team could not get this far is because they always ran into the Lebron James led Cleveland Cavaliers. When Lebron left Cleveland to join the LA Lakers, it opened up the Eastern Conference. And teams like the Raptors had a chance to advance to the Finals. But Toronto deserves this long overdue shot at glory.

Azeem Kayum

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