Toronto, this is for you

by Vivek Jacob

We’ve seen it before: Toronto trailing and in need of a spark. The players look around and they know all that’s needed is a couple plays, that’ll be enough to get their crowd going. And then it happens, a monster block, a couple big threes, maybe even a thunderous dunk that sends the Canadians with a reputation for being friendly into a frenzy and turn Scotiabank Arena into the most intimidating place to play in the NBA.

Now, the fans will finally be able to feel that magical feeling again. Oct. 20 marks 599 days between regular season games for the Raptors at Scotiabank Arena, a duration no other NBA team can relate to. For 72 games last season, Toronto played on the road and it showed. COVID-19 and injuries significantly hampered the team but the lack of fan support was also sorely missed for a franchise that has built a special home court advantage.

Let’s go Raptors! Clap, clap... clap, clap, clap. Let’s go Raptors!

Over the past 20 months, Gordon Sealey has desperately missed chanting those words and can’t wait to do so on Wednesday. When it comes to watching the Raptors in-person, Sealey has a strict no-phone policy to make sure he’s fully immersed in everything going on at the arena, he’s going to dance his butt off at every opportunity, and will stick around for the kids who usually get to play on court at halftime in the hopes he might be watching the next Steph Curry.

Having grown up a Detroit Pistons fan watching Isiah Thomas’ Bad Boys, allegiances switched quickly after Sealey emigrated to Canada from Guyana in 2005 and became enamoured with Chris Bosh in a Raptor uniform.

“It’s going to be emotional, it’s going to be loud, and it’s going to be like the first game the Raptors have ever played in Toronto,” Sealey said. “I think it’s gonna have that type of atmosphere because we Raptors fans are hungry, we’re starved, and we just can not wait to get back in that arena.”

The Raptors called the SkyDome -- now the Rogers Centre -- home for its first couple seasons but also played some exhibition games as well as Boxing Day games at Copps Coliseum, which is now FirstOntario Centre in Hamilton, Ontario. Born and raised in Burlington which is just a short drive away from Hamilton, Jef Moore can remember being taken by his mother to watch the Raptors there as a child and being thrilled to receive a Raptor foamhead but equally disappointed about not receiving thunder sticks because he wasn’t sitting in the sight line of free-throw shooters. Like many back then, he didn’t actually understand what the thunder sticks were for.

Moore was a rarity to find in his parts during the 90s, a caucasian male with Irish roots who didn’t quite take to hockey and wanted to spend all his time consuming basketball. The friends he made playing basketball as an adolescent have become best friends to this day. In fact, it was one of those best friends who helped secure tickets to the Raptors’ home opener against the Washington Wizards.

“For anyone who feels like they’ve been an outsider before, that is kind of their church,” Moore said of the in-game experience. “Outside the arena, 20,000 people could have 20,000 disagreements about 20,000 things… but inside the arena, we’re undisputedly the same. We are on the same side, cheering for one thing, and that’s a win.”

As the Raptors fan base has continued to evolve over time, they have earned a reputation for being good travellers. Games in Detroit have become notorious for being filled with Raptors fans, and one of the most memorable fan moments of the championship run was seeing them shut down Oracle Arena after clinching the title, screaming ‘Let’s Go Raptors!’ and singing the national anthem.

Toronto last played a home game on Feb. 28, 2020, a loss to the Charlotte Hornets. For Sabrina Madhani, a Toronto native with Tanzanian roots, that isn’t her last live experience watching the team. While attending home openers had become tradition for over a decade, Madhani had never watched a game on the road. Planning a trip long before the world was turned upside down, Madhani and her husband were deciding when to travel to Arizona and found an easy answer because of their fandom.

“We timed it so that the Raptors were there at the same time,” Madhani said. “We decided we’ll catch the Raptors game, we’ll get a little vacation in Scottsdale, we’ll see our friends… not knowing that that was the last time we would both be on vacation or watching the Raptors for a very long time. There were so many Raptors fans, it was incredible.”

Toronto defeated Phoenix 123-114 on March 3, 2020 and played three more games before the league shut down due to COVID-19.

 

Sonia Cheung spends whatever spare time she currently has on maternity leave reading about her favourite team. She recently read We The North: 25 Years of the Toronto Raptors by Doug Smith and is halfway through head coach Nick Nurse’s Rapture. Of Chinese descent, Cheung was born and raised in Toronto but didn’t become fully captivated by the team until the 2014-15 season when the passion of her co-workers got her fully invested.

She’s flipped the script since, becoming the one to organize jersey days at work and find other creative ways of celebrating the Raptors. Now a mother of two, Cheung has got her 10-year-old son all the way in on the team from knowing all the players on the roster to meeting the Raptor and expects nothing less with the newborn.

The past year-and-a-half has been traumatizing in the words of Cheung, who is a healthcare worker and was pregnant through the pandemic. Add the disconnect felt from having her favourite team play away from Toronto, and there was not much to be found in the way of momentary relief, either.

“Knowing that they’re so far from their fans and the only team that’s not actually playing their season at home was like a sense of defeat,” Cheung said. “It’s like when you’re separated from your family, that kind of feeling. You can’t reach them, it’s just so distant. Now, knowing I’m gonna see them on our court at home, I think it’s just going to be so emotional, I’m ready to cry, I’ll bring tissues, I think it’s going to be overwhelming and unbelievably exciting.”

 

 

For Mozammil Chaudhry, watching the Raptors has always been a communal experience. From his 80-year-old grandparents to now a two-year-old nephew, this household of Pakistani heritage is glued to the TV when their favourite team is in action. Born and raised in Vaughan, Ontario, Chaudhry would frequent the Dufferin Clark Community Centre as a kid and talk basketball with his friends but didn’t even realize he was watching the Carter effect play out firsthand as Andrew Wiggins and his brother could also be spotted there.

Though he grew up a Carter fan and has vivid memories of the dunk contest, it is the greatest Raptor of all-time Kyle Lowry who is No. 1 in his heart now. Chaudhry got married this past March and, ironically, went to Miami for a short honeymoon. Their plans were placed on hold on trade deadline day, as Chaudhry knew there was no way he could think about anything besides whether or not Lowry would remain in a Raptor uniform.

“I just remember sitting in the hotel room, I told her I literally can not do anything until I know,” Chaudhry said. “I knew, no matter what, this year he was gone, I know how contracts and all that stuff works but I was still hoping for one last run.”

 

 

Among the list of traditional Gameday experiences, the Lowry introduction is the one that was consistent across Sealey, Moore, Madhani, Cheung, Chaudhry and presumably many other fans to be most missed. They are excited for this new beginning, though, and seeing what fresh faces like Scottie Barnes and Dalano Banton bring to the table alongside the young veterans in Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet and OG Anunoby.

Old or new, as long as the front of the jersey says Raptors, the fans are ready to cheer, ready to let this team know how much they’ve been missed, and remind the opposition just how difficult it is to come into Toronto and leave with a win.

For many members of this intensely passionate fan base, it’s the Raptors who have always been home for those who’ve been made to feel like the away team in some shape or form in their life, made to feel like the other. It’s time to reunite, it’s time to feel at home, it’s time to be the north again.

 

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