North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

In the Crowd Outside the ACC: Raptors/Nets, Game One

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The bus lets you off at the station on Bay and a tunnel takes you into the Bay Atrium next door. From there it’s just a short walk down the Path to Union Station and a series of tunnels that takes you to the Air Canada Centre’s doorstep. I made the trip yesterday with my buddy Eric, hoping to watch some Raptors magic.

It’s been a while since the Raptors were in the playoffs. I’m pretty sure it’s been even longer since they were on ESPN, since people in the US paid any attention to this team. Raptor fans have been waiting for a national spotlight like this for a while. And that’s not even getting into this season’s special circumstances, either.

Coming into this season, the Raptors weren’t highly regarded. Rudy Gay was a high-volume, low-output scorer, although laser eye surgery was supposed to help that a little bit. Near the end of last season, DeMar DeRozan had started playing a lot better and Kyle Lowry was, too. All three seemed like trade bait, a way to help the Raps quickly rebuild as they looked forward to a stacked draft, topped by local talent Andrew Wiggins.

The Raptors flipped Gay to Sacramento early in the season and almost immediately looked better. But they weren’t done: there was a rumoured deal to send Lowry to the Knicks, but someone in New York vetoed the deal. Soon the wins kept piling up and, amidst a poor Atlantic division, the Raptors were in the thick of it. They couldn’t tank, they were just too good in a bad conference: by year’s end, they’d finish with an identical record as Phoenix, a team that didn’t qualify for the postseason.

Juxtapose this welcome surprise against the Toronto sports landscape: the Jays disappointing 2013 campaign, the Leafs crashing and burning late in the season. Two teams everyone expected to go places, both of whom crushed fans in new and exciting ways.

Essentially, going into Saturday, there was a lot of pent-up emotion.

The crowd outside the ACC packed into a tight square. There was a big fence and off to one side, a pile of steel bleachers. Some people brought signs, others brought their kids. One guy in front of me had his son on his shoulders, each wearing Raptors gear. I got there as the second quarter started and the Raptors were keeping pace with the more-experienced Nets team. People were shouting, yelling when calls didn’t go their way. When someone – Vasquez or Lowry, it usually seemed – made a play, they all cheered. It was a good scene and the lone TSN camera outside – a lens on a pole, occasionally swinging around like a pinata, just above our heads – didn’t do it justice.

***

The Eaton Centre is a changed place from even last December. The big Sears is gone, replaced by a gaping white tunnel. The food court is open now, looking more like a restaurant than the place where you could buy Sbarro’s. There’s nice tables, the food stands give you plates and flat screen TVs on every wall. All of them were on the Raptors game.

Eric and I sat there to watch the end of the game. Even here, in a crowded food court, people were yelling and shouting about the Raptors. The guy behind me was there with a young woman and a kid; we often yelled variations of the same line right around the same time. Usually something about Lowry, who was carrying the team on his back. He scored baskets, gambled on huge steals and created the fast break that led to the game’s highlight dunk.

Lowry was doing it alone, it seemed. DeMar DeRozan shot 3-of-13 and seemed even less a factor than that; Amir Johnson scored two points in over 20 minutes of play. Going into this series I worried about the Nets outside shooting and what’d happen if it went to the wire, if Toronto has someone as willing to take the big shot as Brooklyn’s Paul Pierce is. Now I wonder if it’ll even be close – if Toronto can even recover from this game. Lowry was going everything, doing everything.

I remember one possession well: after a turnover, he rushed it back up the court and was fouled hard on his way to the basket, landing on his side and slamming into the base of the net. He was down for a moment; all I could think was how he can’t do this alone. He was still trying, though, in a way I haven’t seen a Raptor try in years. I don’t think I’m alone: as I left the crowd outside the ACC, people were chanting “Ky-le! Ky-le!”

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