What do “We” Deserve Anyway?
Drake wasn’t the only one to say it. At the Championship parade.
You deserve this Toronto.
What do we deserve? What’s this? A Championship? A parade? A mind-boggling three-day celebration? 2 million (MILLION) people at a party? Hundreds of thousands flooding the streets on a Thursday night?
We broke records for post-victory merchandise sales, smashing the previous record set in 2016. The TTC broke their single-day ride record, with 2.7 million people using the service on parade day.
Amidst the celebrations, four people were hospitalized with injuries, and at least two were arrested.
Historically speaking, when large groups of people coalesce in one area people die. I wish I was being glib, but I’m not. These are just facts. It could be a stampede, a crush, dehydration, or just a medical emergency in the middle of a crowd - unreachable.
When the Chicago Cubs won the World Series of Baseball in 2016 for the first time in 108 years, upwards of three million people turned up for the parade. There were 6 arrests, and 33 people were hospitalized. It pains me to say this, but it really just happens.
On my walk to the parade Monday morning, I had a neat realisation. Given that I only spent my first four years in Canada, and the next six abroad, when I moved “back” here as a ten-year-old my memory of Canada was so limited, I was - in essence - an immigrant.
I don’t “look” Canadian - at least stereotypically culturally (lumberjack, etc). I can’t skate. I can’t ski. I tried to learn when I moved here, but neither clicked.
I was watching a video recently about Jamal Murray, star of the Denver Nuggets in the National Basketball Association (NBA) and Kitchener native. He was born in Canada, but his parents weren’t. He tried to learn how to skate, to ski, as a kid - but it just didn’t vibe with him. He distinctly recalled using a chair for balance and slipping and sliding about. I distinctly recall using a chair, and slipping and sliding about. It was cold, windy. The only respite was the Beavertail. (for the uninitiated a ‘Beavertail’ is a fried doughy and sugary pastry. They’re delicious and the only reason I would countenance “skating”.) I didn’t understand the appeal of skating, but my (mostly white) friends did.
When I was eleven years old, my second year in Canada, I was a wee bit of a terror on the playground at my sleepy old suburban elementary school. It might have been because my home life was hectic, my parents would often fight in front of me. As a family we were all adjusting to the new realities of being in Canada. I didn’t want to move to Canada, I was quite happy in England. To be frank, in my first few years, I hated it in Canada.
I was one of two black kids at my school. I was the older one, the bigger one, so I protected my “little brother” from the other kids. I’d get into fights a lot. I got suspended a few times. I had a really short fuse.
It was clear I was a danger to the other kids on the playground, but they couldn’t keep suspending me, as I was actually a quite bright student in the classroom. And my teacher had noted that I was a good athlete. The vice-principal had a novel idea: let's get this kid in the gym playing basketball with the middle school kids. I took to the sport like… I dunno, you name the cliche.
Didn’t take much longer for me to fall in love with the Toronto Raptors.
They even LOOKED like me. A full 75% of NBA players are black. Shouts to Jarome Iginla and Anson Carter and Ray Emery (RIP) carrying the torch in the NHL. As a non-white Canadian, it was really important to see people who looked like me on television. I love Drake because when I was 11 he was the only person on TV I could relate to, ol’ Jimmy Brooks from Degrassi. Because he was navigating a white world as a mixed-race guy, just like me.
I fell in love with soccer because of the brown faces on the Dutch National team in 1998, so basketball and the NBA were a natural fit for an athletic child. Especially one yearning for some sports on TV. (back in 2000-2002 it was a LOT harder to watch English Premier League soccer on television here in North America - and don’t @me, the internet was not a thing yet)
The Raptors were BAD. And I mean bad. Enough has been written over the last few weeks by folks much more talented than I. These two pieces by Chris Almeida and Danny Chau are quite outstanding in particular. But to be brief: the fact that today I’m writing about the Toronto Raptors and Championship in the same sentence is still surreal and jarring. They aren’t supposed to be good.
It was a party and EVERYONE was invited. It started with Toronto, of course. You live here? Join the party. The 905, lets go. Southern Ontario, on y va. The rest of the country? Hell yeah. By the end of it all there were 59 large viewing parties around the country, from Nova Scotia to Vancouver. They filled a damn football stadium in Regina. A stadium. To watch a basketball game on the jumbotron.
Then the viewing figures started trickling in. 56% of Canadians watched all or part of the NBA finals. A full 20 million people. Game 5 - the penultimate game - was watched by upwards of 13 million people. And that’s just Canada.
For the first time in history, the NBA Championship was won by a non-American team. With a roster that is almost 50% non-American, hailing from four continents. (Asia, Africa, Europe, North America) In the context of not just basketball, but North American team sports, this is largely unprecedented. The NFL is almost entirely American, Hockey teams are a mixture of Canadians, Americans and Europeans but are ethnically homogenous. Major League Baseball, by contrast, is comparatively diverse, with almost 40% of players identifying as people of colour largely hailing from Latin America. Baseball, however, does not have much influence in Africa or Europe, while basketball can justifiably claim to touch all four corners of the globe.
And then you remember - this team is from Toronto. 50% of people in Toronto were not born here. By most metrics Toronto is the most multicultural city in the world. The true city on a hill. The last stand of neoliberal globalized capitalism - in its finest robes mind you.
The World cheered for the Raptors. From the Philippines to India to Portugal to the Caribbean. There were Raptors fans and Raptors viewing parties everywhere. Was part of this due to Canadians being dispersed around the world, with friends and families touching every shore? For sure. But also basketball is the fastest growing sport (in terms of popularity) around the world. The NBA itself has done a tremendous job over the last twenty years in pivoting its’ brand towards the international marketplace.
Helped at first by a wave of post-soviet Europeans in the early 90s, and buttressed by the incomparable Yao Ming in the 2000s, the NBA now boasts players from every corner of the globe. And of course with players, come the fans. The NBA is now arguably a distant second to soccer in terms of global reach and import. Which is a pretty stunning development for the ugly stepchild of the North American sports landscape.
To clarify: in America the NFL rules the roost in both ratings, culture and finances. Baseball is a hearty second because of culture and history. The NBA is third. In Canada, hockey rules the roost in both ratings, culture and finances. Baseball is a hearty second because of culture and history. The NBA is rapidly approaching.
When I first moved to Canada in 2000 it was impossible to watch live basketball games on television, with the exception of the Toronto Raptors. Sometimes. There was a show on a specialty sports network called Court Cuts. It was a two hour show, a couple nights a week. The hosts, Sid Seixeiro and Tim Micallef would literally flip channels between NBA games being broadcast down South. That was the show. I watched them watch basketball. Because if I flipped over the Sportsnet or TSN there was FUCKING LIVE CURLING ON TV.
(No disrespect to curling, but also, much disrespect to curling. When I first moved back to Canada, I didn’t understand the core concept of an ice rink. Why would anyone, in the middle of winter - when it is already cold outside - seek the respite of an indoor freezer? 11 year old me didn’t get it when I moved here, and 28 year old me still doesn’t get it.)
I’ve heard it said a few times in the last few weeks. Toronto is a basketball town. Canada may be a hockey country, but Toronto is a basketball town.
Basketball, like soccer, is the sport of the people. The perfect urban sport. Hey, do you live in a city? Is it 90% pavement? Then basketball’s the sport for you, the city is your court. To play hockey you need parents with a car and disposable income and the time and willpower to shuttle you to suburban rinks at 5am four days a week. Basketball? You can just lace up some shoes and dribble down the street. Don’t need no parents.
Growing up in downtown Ottawa, it couldn’t have rung truer for me. Mum bought me one of those rolling basketball nets when I was 12, and it changed my life. For sure, there was a park around the corner, and I could have played soccer there. But basketball was better, more fun, and more accessible.
There’s nothing quite like the feeling of a basketball swishing through a net. It’s much like the feeling of a soccer ball burrowing itself in a net. I imagine it’s comparable to a puck nestling in the net in hockey, or a touchdown in football, a homerun in baseball. The list goes on. But as a kid, growing up as an athlete, it was just that little bit better to play ball, because there was a net. There was no net for soccer, just cones you’d set up yourself. You could make a game out of it sure, but there was no net. Again, we’re talking about kids here, and games. And as a kid, I found basketball to be the most compelling sport. Because the feeling you get when the ball ripples the net, that feeling of success and mastery. It’s incomparable.
So what do we deserve? A championship parade? The right to trash the city? Or to clean it up?
I was there on Monday. Amidst the 2 million. I followed alongside the bus for two hours. I was one of the reasons the parade was so darned late. There were thousands, hundreds of thousands of us on Lakeshore Boulevard. And we cheered and hollered and whooped, as some very large (mostly) black men danced on busses.
Sports have a very important role to play in modern society. I’ve seen friends who would never even bat an eyelid at “sports” join in with the madness over the last few weeks, full converts. And I’ve seen cynics note the absurdity of standing in the sun for five hours to wave at a millionaire they don’t know, nor will ever meet, on a bus for twenty seconds. (Granted, I’ll happily point out that idolatry is as old as humanity, from Jesus to now, we’ve always idolized real human people in lieu of gods and monsters)
That’s the thing about sports though. Everyone’s invited. Everyone. They made a damned special olympics after World War Two because of all the amputees. There’s a very compelling theory that sports have replaced war in the human psyche. From the violent impulses that lurk around our sub consciousness to the tribalism that fandom precludes.
Hell, I can speak to it myself as a former violent playground terror. By playing basketball, channeling my energy and anger into a sport (which is one way to challenge toxic masculinity, I suppose), I calmed down. I never got suspended again. In a sense, sports offer a sort of therapy, curbing some violence. It’s not perfect, believe me, significant social change takes time.
More than anything, this Championship Parade, this whole Raptors thing has been the culmination of an incredible journey for millions of people like me. Millions of people who moved to Canada over the last twenty, thirty, forty years. From the Superfan, Nav Bhatia, to you and me and everyone else. The Toronto Raptors, and basketball, have been incredibly welcoming to us. The Raptors were our canvas, our Toronto and our Canada. Because it wasn’t an exclusively white space.
While hockey says: hey, you should probably be white and learn to skate, basketball says: come play. Millions of children are going to start playing basketball now, and their parents are gonna be hyped cuz its so much cheaper.
So what do we deserve?
Drake said a few words at the end of the parade to the crowd at Nathan Phillips Square. The Crowd of 140,000. Turn to someone beside you, someone you don’t know. And hug them. You’re both from Toronto, you share this city together. We share this city together. Hug them.
I feel he was on to something, you know? Here in the 21st century, humans live so close together in physical proximity, yet so far apart in emotive empathy. Shouts to condos. I don’t really know my neighbours., but I should. The Raptors brought us ALL together. For better.
And maybe next time we have a huge parade, let's plan it a little better. Maybe have some more garbage cans around at least.
As a Canadian, I felt so proud all week. I was so proud to be a Torontonian, an Ontarian, and a Canadian. Being a part of that parade was truly one of the highlights of my life in Canada so far. Walking in that crowd of every ethnicity, colour, creed and background. Incredible.
We deserve to share this with each other.
That is my Canada, and your Canada.
Authors note: this is a genuinely fantastic Wikipedia list if you’re looking to kill an hour (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_largest_peaceful_gatherings)