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STEVE SIMMONS: The Raptors dream season still has many of us walking on air

Kawhi Leonard watches as his buzzer-beater seals the Raptors’ Game 7 win over the 76ers in the playoffs last May. (STAN BEHAL/TORONTO SUN FILES)
Kawhi Leonard watches as his buzzer-beater seals the Raptors’ Game 7 win over the 76ers in the playoffs last May. (STAN BEHAL/TORONTO SUN FILES)

The other day, on the four-year anniversary of the Jose Bautista bat flip, stories were being related about the good old times. Remember where you were when that happened? Remember how you responded?

The big-picture context gets lost sometimes in emotional upheaval. That famous fight-back home run provided the Blue Jays with a divisional series win, that’s all, and Canadian baseball fans with a moment to lock away, but the celebration said as much about Toronto sports as anything else.

We went crazy over a first-round win in baseball — one of only two of the past 26 years. That’s part of understanding who we are and how we respond. We don’t win much around here. We’re not conditioned for it.

A home run in a division series becomes something to hold on to for life. A wrap-around goal in overtime by Doug Gilmour against St. Louis becomes a where-were-you moment because over too much time, it’s about all we have to hang on to.

And then came the one-year sensation Raptors and our sensibilities changed, were enhanced, and unlike the Bautista home run, or the Joe Carter blast before that one, or Nikolai Borschevsky scoring in overtime in Detroit, this one ended in a parade, from a two-month, head-spinning, walking-on-air blur of late-night basketball celebration.

A major league championship was ours. As unlikely as it was, it was still ours. And four months later, there is this part of me that wonders if it was all a dream. Did this really happen? Was I really standing in the Raptors locker room late on an Oakland evening feeling the champagne sprayed in all directions?

I started watching the Raptors playoff games from last season over again recently. What’s amazing isn’t how much you remember about it but how much you forgot. It didn’t seem like it happened so quickly, but there were so many moments to savour, so many parts of so many games to break down and cherish, so many players doing the unbelievable and then doing it again.

And watching how it grew. From Toronto to across the country. From sports to national news. Growing in places where people never cared much for Toronto, or the NBA, or basketball for that matter.

Along the way, we discovered something we hadn’t known since the Vancouver Olympics. How winning brings people together. Brings the country together. How celebration matters. How that rare championship — the first big-time title for anyone in Toronto under the age of 35 — makes you a little taller, a little more proud, a little less cynical, swept up in all the pandemonium.

And you wonder now, with a Maple Leafs team trying to find its way, with a Blue Jays team trying to fight their way back to relevance, with Kawhi Leonard gone to Los Angeles, when will see a championship again in this city — or this country?

The last World Series win was 1993, the same year in which the Montreal Canadiens were the last Canadian team to win the Stanley Cup. And it’s not the same when a Canadian hockey team wins, with teams in five different provinces. There is no Canada’s team the way there is in baseball. There wouldn’t be Stanley Cup viewing parties the way we saw them last June in Red Deer and Penticton and Fredericton.

Because he’s Masai Ujiri and he promised and delivered a championship, you want to believe it can happen again. Just not with the current roster. That’s not possible. This is the Raptors’ 25th season and they will be 1-for-25 in championship years. The Blue Jays are oh-for the past 25 years. The Leafs have more than doubled their championship-free time. This isn’t Boston, where celebration is part of every day life. This is Toronto and we celebrate bat flips and first-round victories and remember that time the Leafs almost beat Carolina in the conference finals?

The bat flip is a sidebar when compared with Leonard’s series-winning, three-point bounce, bounce, bounce, bounce shot against the Philadelphia 76ers. What kind of moment was that? It was so special it produced the best sports photography I have ever seen. So many faces, so many expressions, so much waiting. And then, excitement.

The Raptors could have lost there and that was very possible. And they could have lost in Game 3 in double overtime against Milwaukee, which would have put them down 3-0 in the series and all but out of championship conversation. They won that night with Kawhi playing 52 minutes, scoring 36 points. They won four straight against the Bucks to win the East.

And beat Golden State in six, which meant they went 10 games against the two best team in the NBA and won eight of them. That, by itself, is head-shaking.

The final quarter of Game 6 in Oakland, the night the championship was won, is a study. Just like Game 7 against Philly was. A bounce here, a bounce there, and either team could have won. Steph Curry had two three-point misses that could have altered Game 6 in the final minutes. And on that night, it wasn’t Kawhi, it was Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam and Serge Ibaka and, earlier, a red-hot Kyle Lowry, who won the game 114-110 for the Raptors.

And sent the country into giddy celebration. Did it really happen? Much as it seems like a dream now, it did. It was our moment. Our time. Our amazing reality.

Still living it. Still feeling it. Maybe for the rest of our lives.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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