The Toronto Raptors have just wrapped up the best season of their 24-year existence. The city and the country have everything to celebrate! It is the Raptors’ turn to kiss the Larry OB. In a country starved of sports championships, the Raptors’ win awakened a nation from its years of slumber in basketball obscurity even if the team is almost entirely American. If we cannot win in hockey, at least we have basketball. How ironic that a country that produced Gretzky is head over heels in love with a boy from sunny California. That boy charmed the country with his stoicism and high basketball IQ during difficult times in the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is now synonymous with Raptor’s magical 2018-2019 run for the championship. He was an indispensable part of the team’s success.
And this was a basketball team years in the making. Yes, the Raptors were born when Mariah and Boyz II Men were topping the charts and the world was generally safer. It took a very long time, but the Raptors finally got here. It has been a story of sacrifice, difficult decisions, emotional trades, firing of a beloved coach, and plenty of disappointment (those moments of “so close, but no cigar”, and I suspect Lebron James is responsible for those).
In my foggy memory, the Raptors, even if they were always a lukewarm team, were omnipresent. Their logo was on my friends’ jackets, caps and shirts. I still remember a high school friend who wore the same purple Raptors jacket everyday, and it was like his school uniform. Today I still wonder if that coat was ever washed, and will he pass it on to his children now that the Raps are champions?
Champions they are. The Raptors are more than sports champions. They are proof that the road to success is never straightforward. It’s not superior skills alone, but a group of teammates that deliver at critical junctures, all of them united by a common goal. Added to the mix is superior leadership from a man of a few words. If you believe in God, yes perhaps God must have been smiling down on them between April and June 2019. Serendipity yes. If Durant was healthy, the Warriors may have won (just look at Game 5 of the Finals). Game 7 against the 76ers would have had a different outcome if the buzzer beater had come from an opponent. But without the collaboration of a team led by a man who will be remembered as much for for his leadership, calm demeanor and ability to rally his teammates as for his skills, each series could have gone another way. The Raptors could have collapsed on many occasions but bouncing back from adversity has become part and parcel of the team’s repertoire. Kawhi was the critical piece. But everyone else was also critical. Think of Fred VanVleet’s big 3s toward the end and Lowry saving the day when the team seemed just little out of sync. The Raptors bench delivered when they were needed to fend off the big bad Milwaukee Bucks’ fearsome 3-pointers.
Whatever the individual flaws were, the 2018-2019 roster worked well. And now can they keep it up? Will a future roster inherit this team’s formula? At the time of this writing, it is unknown whether Kawhi will return. A player of his caliber is an asset to anyone. His value to a team cannot be measured in dollars. He just brought a championship to a country that has only seen sports teams disappear and to a city that has hearts broken year after year because the Leafs can’t beat Boston.
I am far from a basketball expert because I still don’t fully know the rules or understand the gradations of fouls. But watching the NBA playoffs this year was a treat. I feel privileged to be a witness to the magic of this season. Watching Kawhi Leonard taught me what it means to be a true professional. The Raptors taught me what resilience is; it is when people write you off that you carry out your best work. You write your own script. No two scripts look alike. All roads lead to Rome. My script to win my own professional championship or my own life championship does not have to be prescribed by anyone else. The Raptors illustrated this perfectly.
I salute you, Kawhi. I salute you, Raptors. Thank you for everything.