More than 2 million people lined the streets of Toronto to salute their heroes after the Toronto Raptors clinched a first-ever NBA championship in June 2019. “We the North” roared the fans as Kawhi Leonard and company paraded the trophy through Nathan Phillips Square.
It was a celebration shared by hoops fans across Canada, sparking scenes that few will ever forget. The Raptors are the only NBA team based outside of the US, so they have long carried the hopes of a nation on their shoulders, and an outpouring of Canadian pride greeted their defiant victory over the Golden State Raptors last summer.
It represented the culmination of a 24-year journey, which saw the franchise overcome a number of obstacles and defy the odds to soar to the summit of the NBA. Many doubted the Toronto Raptors would survive, let alone win the championship, but a couple of bold gambles helped them rise to the top.
Toronto Raptors’ Rise to the Top
The Early Years For the Toronto Raptors
The franchise was the butt of several jokes when it launched in 1995. Most NBA teams had nicknames based on fierce animals with specific links to the city, whereas Toronto went for the Raptors after launching a nationwide contest to submit ideas.
Jurassic Park was at the height of its popularity back then, so the Raptors prevailed over options such as the Toronto Towers, Tarantulas, and Huskies. The design was cute and friendly, and it did little to inspire fear in the opposition. The Raptors finished their inaugural season with a 21-61 record.
It was difficult to sell basketball to Canadians, who loved hockey and had never been able to get behind a major hoops franchise. The Vancouver Grizzlies also launched in 1995 and moved to Memphis after just five seasons, and many felt a similar fate would befall the Raptors.
Most NBA fans simply felt sorry for the Raptors after they suffered four straight losing seasons. The Raptors suffered a 17-game losing streak in the 1997-98 season. No big players wanted to move to Toronto. The team’s first draft pick, Damon Stoudamire quickly requested a trade.
The Carter Era
However, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter then put Toronto on the map. Results improved, and the Raptors made the playoffs three years in a row between 2000 and 2002. They took the 76ers to game seven in the 2001 conference semi-finals before suffering a heartbreaking defeat, but it sparked optimism among Canadian basketball fans.
Yet the exodus continued. First McGrady left and then Carter – who steered Toronto to its first playoffs victory – also requested a trade. He lambasted the front office, accusing it of misleading him, and took his talents elsewhere. The next bright hope was Chris Bosh, but the Raptors never made it past the first round during his seven seasons in Toronto, and he left for Miami to form a devastating triumvirate with LeBron James and Dwyane Wade.
Toronto spent years in the wilderness before Masai Ujiri took over as general manager in 2013. He quickly shipped out Rudy Gay and Andrea Bargnani, paving the way for young stars DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry to take centre stage. The Raptors finished the 2013-14 season with a franchise-record 48 wins. They suffered another agonizing defeat in the playoffs, but it sparked fresh optimism that one day Toronto could rise to the top.
A Time for Bold Decisions
The team continued to set new franchise records for regular-season wins with each passing year. However, the Raptors also developed a reputation as a team that choked in the playoffs. Their 2016 Eastern Conference Finals defeat to the Cavaliers was particularly painful. The following year, LeBron ripped them apart again, earning the nickname LeBronto after the Cavs demolished the Raps in four.
There was a sense of urgency as Toronto headed in the 2017-18 season. DeRozan and Lowry had given their best years to the franchise, but glory was not forthcoming. The Raptors managed to win 59 games, setting a new franchise record and earning the top seed in the east. Fans dared to dream. The Cavs were in decline, and Toronto had home advantage.
Yet once again they felt the full force of LeBron, who led Cleveland to another 4-0 mauling of Toronto in the semi-finals. The jokes were unremitting. The Raptors were choke artists.
Ujiri saw the writing on the wall. The Sixers, Celtics, and Bucks were all making great strides, and they would soon overtake the Raptors. It was a time for bold decisions, and he made the two greatest gambles of his life.
The Gamble Pays Off
First, he jettisoned out Dwane Casey, who had just been named 2017-18 Coach of the Year, after deciding the Raps’ offense was outmoded. Then he parted ways with star man DeRozan, the symbol of the franchise, a hero to Toronto’s fans and a bastion of loyalty to the city, in order to bring in Leonard.
The 2014 NBA champion had endured an injury-hit season in San Antonio, during which his relationship with the front office had soured beyond repair, and many fans felt he would struggle to galvanize the Raptors. Yet the team came flying out of the gates, starting the 2018-19 season, 10-1.
The rest is history. Leonard finished the season with averages of 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists, and 1.8 steals. It was a breakout season for Siakam, who had 16.9 PPG and 6.9 REB and posted outrageous stats of 54.9 FG% and 36.9 3PT%.
The Raptors prevailed in the most perilous playoff path imaginable. Iconic moments abounded. Leonard pulled off the first buzzer-beating playoff series winner in NBA history to hand the Raps a thrilling victory over the Sixers in Game 7.
They were the heavy underdogs in the fixed odds against the Warriors, one of the greatest teams of all time, but the Dubs were ultimately no match for Leonard, who averaged 28.5 points and 9.8 rebounds and was crowned NBA Finals MVP for the second time in his career.
Then just like that, he was off. Barely had the celebrations finished when Leonard announced he was leaving for Los Angeles. Yet he will always be remembered as a hero to the people of Toronto. The franchise is now a heavyweight in the east, and it sits comfortably second in the Eastern Conference standings as the NBA season plans to resume next month.
No matter what happens in the years ahead, the Raptors have changed the face of the NBA forever by becoming the first Canadian team to rise to the top. Their achievements are immortalized, and the fans will never forget the time the North reigned supreme.
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