Toronto throws unforgettable party for champion Raptors

TORONTO — When it’s all said and done, all we remember in life are individual moments. And for fans of the Toronto Raptors, this was the moment.

Nobody will ever forget the scenes from Monday afternoon, when the six million residents of the Greater Toronto Area celebrated their first championship in 26 years. It went down as one of the longest parades in the history of professional sports, although that hardly was the original plan. So many onlookers spilled onto the route such that the dozen floats travelling from OVO practice facility to Nathan Phillips Square were delayed by over three hours.

It was fitting that the procession inched along at a snail’s pace because Toronto needed to slow down and smell the champagne. For a city that is so often jaded and overlooked, this outpouring of joy was long overdue. Toronto is a place in which people from every corner of the globe flock to make this their second home, and finally there was an outlet to unleash this burbling sense of civic pride. It was bigger than the Raptors bringing home “Larry O.B.” after 24 tortured years — this was a rare moment for citizens of Toronto to unite under one banner.

Downtown ceased to function. Four streets closed and nine transit routes were diverted. Construction workers abandoned projects and scaled scaffolding to gain a better vantage point. Firefighters parked in the middle of the road and perched atop their trucks for a peak. Teachers brought students along in the greatest excuse ever for a field trip. Office workers squinted from above in their skyscrapers and formed messages out of sticky notes, while window washers outside their buildings stopped and stared. It felt like not a soul was working that morning as everyone gathered for the spectacle.

Somewhere between two and three million fans stuffed themselves along the parade route. Red, white and purple covered every inch of concrete as far as the eye could see. The scene was something like an apocalypse, where people crawled out of every crevice. Some pressed themselves into the fences of nearby parking lots along Lakeshore Boulevard, while others dangled themselves off on-ramps for the Gardiner Expressway. A handful of drivers pulled over just to catch a glance, while hundreds of rabid supporters filled the muddy underpass where only wanderers would otherwise inhabit. The more adventurous climbed atop street signs and trees, just as toddlers perched atop the shoulders of their parents.

First came the thrust of the TTC busses. Horns blared to clear a path, but fans only took that as a cue to be even rowdier. Then came cheers for Raptors president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster, the two architects of this team. Head coach Nick Nurse, scooting behind in a blue truck, was received as if he were the mayor. The first of four player busses was captained by the figurehead of Serge Ibaka, who guided the way with a flag bearing the silhouette of Africa. In the next trolley were Norman Powell and Danny Green, followed by Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, and Drake toting the Larry O’Brien Trophy and the Finals MVP, while a belligerent and excitable Marc Gasol brought up the rear.

All throughout the city there was a cacophony of cheers, punctuated by choruses of “MVP,” “Lowry,” “One More Year,” “TTC,” the popping of corks, and the steady whir of helicopters watching overhead. A steel drum band set the mood from the back of the parade and onlookers whipped out every horn short of a tuba. There was no shortage of dancing — not from the fans, and definitely not from Ibaka, who looked more limber grooving to the chirp of whistles than he did at any point during the season. Even after three straight nights of non-stop partying and five hours into the parade, the players never once wavered in their enthusiasm for the crowd.

Toronto Raptors basketball player Kyle Lowry celebrates with fans during the Raptors victory parade after defeating the Golden State Warriors in the 2019 NBA Finals, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada June 17, 2019.    REUTERS/Moe Doiron
Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry celebrates with the people. (REUTERS/Moe Doiron)

It was shaping up to be the party to end all parties until violence threatened to sidetrack the coronation. Fans were sent scattering after shots were heard in the east end of Nathan Phillips Square right as the Raptors delivered their speeches. Thankfully, none of the victims suffered life-threatening injuries and authorities were able to apprehend three suspects without inciting mass panic, but it put a haunting chill over the event. Nobody wanted to party when they couldn’t feel safe.

But the afternoon did eventually turn around. Of all people, it was the otherwise muted Leonard who stole the show with his speech. He credited his teammates and coaches for allowing him to reach new heights, before dropping the mic with a self-flagellating remix of his infamous cackle. Leonard’s teammates rolled around in laughter along with everyone in attendance, leaving only a gaggle of clueless politicians out of the joke. The Fun Guy brought levity back to what was mostly a wonderful afternoon, and fans headed home afterwards in every direction of Toronto with grins on their faces. All in all, it was an unforgettable scene.

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