It was about an hour before the start of Game 3 of the NBA Finals when I arrived at a friend’s house to watch the action on his giant TV. I parked on the street and just before I got out of the car my attention was captured by what was on a neighbour’s front lawn.
There was an old hockey net on the grass up against some bushes. It didn’t look like it had been used in a while as the grass was beginning to grow over the edges. Beside it was one of those brand new, towering, fancy NBA-approved basketball nets.
It looked like it HAD been recently used.
I took a picture, posted it on Instagram and labelled it, “The New Canada.” Within hours it had received more than a thousand likes and people were commenting that they were seeing similar scenes in their communities across the country.
So what’s going on?
I blame it all on “The Shot” — the way Game 7 of the Raptors’ second round ended. With the game tied and the clock rapidly ticking toward zero, the Philadelphia 76ers were set in their defence; they knew who the ball was going to. And they were right. The ball found the hands of the six-foot-seven, brilliant Toronto Raptor Kawhi Leonard, half circling the floor, trying to find his signature spot for a baseline pull-up, buzzer-beating shot. With one second left, he launched into the air and sent the ball in a high arc over the outstretched hands of the 76ers’ seven-foot Joel Embiid.
It hit the rim.
Bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce.
It was mesmerizing and yet agonizing in the same moment.
Watch Kawhi Leonard’s incredible buzzer-beater beat 76ers:
With Leonard squatting almost prayer-like on the floor at the spot where he had shot, the ball finally, yet gracefully, dropped through the netting. The countless replays, from every angle, and at every speed, almost made you want to cry. It was that powerful and that emotional. And at that moment, everything about basketball in Canada changed. The game has grown in recent years and we’ve produced some great young players, but the spring of 2019 is different.
Millions of Canadians saw the shot live, tens of millions have seen it since. It captures the moment we all dream of — making the game-winning play at the last possible moment. The overtime goal; the two-out, bases-loaded home run in the bottom of the ninth. We’ve all had those dreams. Kawhi Leonard lived his, took us with him and we were ready to go.
Ready because this all happened during a Canadian spring where we are supposed to be fixated on hockey and the run to the Stanley Cup. But it’s been 26 years since a Canadian team won the Cup and a whole generation has grown up assuming it’s just not our game anymore. When the St. Louis Blues won the Stanley Cup on Wednesday night, there hadn’t been an NHL game on Canada soil in more than six weeks. How heartbreaking is that? Even Lord Stanley would be embarrassed.
So Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and their fellow non-Canadian teammates (one exception — Chris Boucher grew up in Alma, Que.) have embraced the Raptors and in doing so have embraced Canada. They’re also being embraced right back.
Americans are shocked and so are we, quite frankly, at how Jurassic Parks have sprung up across the country to watch on outdoor event-sized TV screens. TV audiences are double and triple what they’ve ever been for basketball, school teachers and coaches are reporting new interest, neighbourhood basketball courts are full til dark, and yes, driveways are sprouting basketball nets from coast to coast to coast.
The Raptors’ multiracial, multicultural team reflects the new Canada in other ways too. Perhaps in ways some of us just hadn’t noticed because we weren’t looking. You just have to attend a Raptors game to understand the changes in our country. You see it in the cross-section of faces that inhabit every row right up to the rafters. This isn’t your father’s hockey crowd.
And finally, the Raptors and basketball in Canada has become a huge business. Some recent figures shocked me on that. Forbes magazine annually rates the value of professional franchises. Are you sitting down? Who’s ahead of the other — Raptors or Maple Leafs? Seriously. I grew up, like most of my generation, thinking nothing would ever approach the NHL franchise in Toronto for dollar value. The Leafs are healthy make no doubt about that, valued at $1.35 billion US, but they are not as healthy as the Raptors’ estimated value of $1.7 billion.
Is it a passing fancy? Maybe. The Raptors’ championship win will stoke the fires of interest for some time to come, but teams change, and the ebb and flow of a championship team can change a lot and with it, fans’ attention. But something has happened here. It caught us off guard. And it’s been wonderful. As Leonard said, “Enjoy the moment.”
And speaking of this soft-spoken, incredibly low key, calm and ice cold Californian, let me say this.
No one knows yet, perhaps including him, whether he will choose to stay in Canada if, as expected, the 27-year-old opts out of the final year of his contract and becomes a free agent. This city, this country and these fans have given him every reason to stay, and if he does there will be a national sigh of relief. But if he decides to leave, how will we react?
Well, I’ll tell you how I will. I’ll be sad but I won’t be angry. This guy has given us a May and June to remember. It wasn’t the one we thought we’d been waiting for, no hockey sticks and Stanley Cup parades. Instead, for many of us, a whole new game and cheering on a national level like we have never seen before.
All because of that bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce … swish.