One year ago, Kyle Lowry walked out of the Toronto Raptors’ locker room in Oracle Arena. As he stepped foot out that door, his walk to glory began.
It was a mere three days after the Raptors had lost in crushing fashion on their homecourt. On the night of January 10th, Toronto was up 3-1 in the series, and six points in the game with a minute remaining. The parties in the streets of downtown Toronto were on the verge of erupting. The Larry O’Brien trophy was all polished up and ready to be graced by the hands of the next NBA Champions. Adam Silver and Bill Russell waited somewhere in Scotiabank Arena, prepared to make their annual presentation together. This year, their guest of honour would be the Toronto Raptors – the babies of the NBA, the team that was always overlooked, and always forgotten about. The team “up there in Canada” that nobody paid attention to, that nobody wanted to see do well, that nobody wanted to see win anything. Those guys were about to be champions.
Then, Klay Thompson came roaring back with a couple of threes. Supposedly not because he was a great basketball player, but because he had the “heart of a champion” – one that the Toronto Raptors did not have. As narrated by national media, one that was going to cost the Raptors the championship, and allow the Warriors to become just the second team in NBA history to come back from a 3-1 series deficit in The Finals.
According to some, when Kyle Lowry’s game-winning buzzer beater was blocked by Draymond Green, the Raptors missed their opportunity. As if unbeknownst to the fact that Toronto still lead the series 3-1, people spoke of that one missed shot the final page of Canada’s storybook had been ruined.
But Kyle Lowry had enough of the narratives. Enough of the outside noise. Enough of the crap. Maybe his heart wasn’t that of a champion, but his mind was that of an winner. When Kyle Lowry stepped foot out of that locker room on June 13th, 2019, he wasn’t going to return as anything less than a champ.
“We’re not timid, and a blocked shot is not going to change what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Some 3,600 kilometres away from the team, an army of Raptors fans took the day off from their job, but it was hardly a day off from work. From the wee hours in the morning, thousands of people donned in red, white, and purple packed the sidewalk on Lakeshore Boulevard to reserve their spot in Jurassic Park. Just like all of the rainy occasions before then, and any more that they may have had to deal with, there was something different about the flame that we dub “Raptors pride.” It couldn’t be extinguished by storms, or hail, or even heartbreaking losses or departures of superstars. It was eternal. It is eternal.
Toronto fans alike, had heard enough of the media’s bashing of them; that they were bad people – bad fans, even – for cheering as Kevin Durant lay on the Raptors hardwood in pain. June 13th was their opportunity to show the world that they were still the most elite, and proudest fans in the stratosphere.
On that day, honking your car in Toronto did not mean you were mad. You weren’t cussing out the driver who cut you off, or signalling to the person in front of you to speed up. You were saying, “Let’s Go Raptors”, as you proudly looked on at the waves of fans, and felt united through basketball.
It was a long 15 hours until tip-off, for those of us who woke up in cold sweats at 5:00 AM, but as soon as the ball went up in Oracle Arena, it was all about the Raptors, and it was all about Kyle Lowry.
Quick drive and finish against Kevon Looney. Two. Catch the ball at the 45 from Danny Green, and step back behind the three-point line to drain a jumper. Five. Come off Pascal Siakam’s screen on the opposite side and release another bomb over Draymond Green. Eight. Dribble step back three at the top of the arc right over Stephen Curry. Eleven.
With one of the most spectacular and dominant openings to a game that NBA pioneers had ever seen out of a six-foot tall point guard, Kyle Lowry announced his plans to the world. The Raptors would not be stopped. Not tonight. Not on June 13th, 2019.
He muted all 20,000 fans in blue and gold around him. This was his night. This was Canada’s night. This is Canada’s night. Nobody else’s.
With under five minutes to go in the game, and his team down two points, Lowry showed off his hustle and was the first guy back on defense to stand in front of Draymond Green on the fastbreak. Despite giving up seven inches of height in that matchup, he lynched the ball out of Green’s hands like his life depended on it.
A couple of possessions following that came the iconic Fred VanVleet step back three after he lost Quinn Cook with a pass fake, before letting out a scream that would circulate the internet to this day.
The defending champions were rattled. Their heart was displaced. Their energy had been stolen, and their soul had been snatched. Now it was our time; Canada’s time to take the reigns of the NBA.
Raptors by one. Toronto basketball. 18.5 seconds left on the clock.
Kawhi Leonard catches the ball in the backcourt and is swarmed by two Warriors defenders. He finds a way to clear the ball to Danny Green, who is quickly trapped between the sideline, and the timeline by Draymond Green.
In one moment, we all shared Danny Green’s panic. In the next, both ours and his head dropped. As he tried to explain his turnover to Siakam and strolled back to the bench, we needed to get up and take a walk around our living room so that we wouldn’t have a heart attack. It was the Warriors ball with 9.6 seconds on the clock, and while they didn’t have Kevin Durant or Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry was going to be the guy taking that shot anyways.
Somehow, they were able to get the ball to Curry in time for him to heave up a three-pointer over the outstretched arm of Serge Ibaka. The ball hung in the air for eons, and carried the breath of both Warriors and Raptors fans with it. It had shades of “the shot” with how high it arced, and with how it carried the weight of the basketball world on its seams. The world dropped dead-silent until the ball came back down.
All that would break the silence was a clank off the rim, before Kawhi Leonard knocked the rebound out of DeMarcus Cousins’ hand, and chased the ball all the way down to halfcourt. Draymond Green would then dive on it and call a timeout with less than a second remaining, only to grimly realize that the Warriors had no timeouts left. It was a minute of frenzy and confusion. Nobody knew what the Warriors were trying to argue about with the officials. Nobody could hear the broadcasters over how loud it was in the stadium. We couldn’t even make out our own thoughts through all of the shouting at whichever viewing party we attended that night. All we knew was that the Raptors had a free throw, and a possession coming up, to pile onto our one point lead with less than a second remaining.
In other words, we were close.
Kawhi went to the line and nailed the first of what would become a few free throws to seal the deal.
With 0.9 seconds on the clock, Lowry found Leonard with a pin-perfect over-the-top pass, but Kawhi would be fouled by Andre Iguodala before he caught the ball, sending him back to take another two free throws.
As Kawhi walked up to the free throw line once again, he knew exactly what was at stake – for him, for his teammates, for his coaches, for the landscape and the trajectory of the entire NBA, but also for Canada. If he hit one, the Raptors were guaranteed overtime. If he hit both, they were guaranteed a championship.
“Bang,” we whispered, doing our best Mike Breen impression as he nailed the first one. We all let go of our breath and welcomed oxygen back into our bodies that we were saving for Kawhi to inhale. Then, we held our loved ones closely.
And then the second shot went in, and it didn’t feel real. You really had to pause for a moment, zone out from everyone and all of the noise around you, look at the scoreboard, and ask yourself – is that real?
And it was. The Toronto Raptors were NBA Champions, and Matt Devlin took the honours of letting it be known.
“114-110, Curry lets it fly. Canada! The NBA Title is yours!” he called, as tears rolled down our cheeks and blinded us from fully grasping that moment, we looked each other in the eye, and exclaimed, “We did it.”
Kyle Lowry caught the full court heave. Serge Ibaka leaped up to hang on the rim and watch media, league personnel, and family and friends crowd the court. Kawhi Leonard let out a few seconds worth of emotion as he stretched his arms high in the air at centre court and let out a scream. June 13th was a date cemented in Canadian sports history.
One year ago today, we did it. Happy anniversary.