Masai Ujiri has long referred to the Raptors as Canada’s team — and for a few glorious weeks last spring, they truly were.
“The momentum of the championship run brought fans from all over the country, and it seemed like unification,” the Raptors president said. “Everywhere you looked — Montreal, Vancouver — you saw fans watching.”
“It’s what we’ve always said, it’s one team, one country, and if you can put it together that way and you’re good, there’ll be unified support. We saw that.”
On Saturday, the Raptors were rewarded for their historic NBA championship run by winning the team of the year award from The Canadian Press for 2019 in a slam dunk.
The Raptors earned 61 of 67 votes in a poll of writers, broadcasters and editors across the country.
“The entire country rallied around the Raptors. Million-plus celebration in downtown Toronto. And really, a remarkable feat,” said Phil King, The Globe and Mail’s sports design editor.
Canada’s Davis Cup tennis team, the runner-up at the Finals, was second with five votes, while Melissa Humana-Paredes and Sarah Pavan, gold medallists at the world beach volleyball championships, were third (one).
Olympic ice dance champs Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir won the 2018 team award. Only one other basketball team has been honoured — the Canadian team that won the U19 FIBA World Cup in 2017.
The Raptors became the first Canadian team to claim a title in one of the four major North American leagues since the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 and ’93.
“Not only did they win the battles on the court, they also won the hearts and minds of Canadians coast to coast, becoming the first team outside the U.S. to win the NBA title,” Global’s lead of special projects George Browne. “The celebration culminated in the largest victory parade ever for a Canadian sports team, 2 million strong.”
With a lunchbucket collection of players carrying big chips, the Raptors made it easy to cheer for them. They defied the odds, winning with a squad that boasted zero NBA lottery picks — superstar Kawhi Leonard was the highest draft pick at No. 15.
The only NBA squad outside the U.S. gave the league a truly global champion. The Raptors’ roster mirrored the city’s diversity, with players from all corners of the globe — Cameroon, Congo, Spain, China, England and Canada. The team was led by Ujiri, who was born in England and raised in Nigeria by his Nigerian dad and Kenyan mom.
The playoffs were packed with “where were you when” moments, and images so remarkable they’ll be among Canadian sports’ most enduring.
There was a bloodied Fred VanVleet sprawled on the court, a chunk of his tooth on the ground a few feet away. There was VanVleet, mouth open in a guttural scream — with broken tooth and bandaged cheek — after hitting a vital three-pointer in a series-clinching Game 6 victory versus Golden State.
There was champagne-drenched Leonard dancing in goggles in the celebratory locker-room. And there was of course the shot, the Leonard buzzer-beater that famously bounced four times off the rim before falling, sending Toronto to the conference finals and fans into a frenzy.
Ujiri hasn’t paused to watch any of last season’s playoffs, but sees highlights at various functions he attends.
“You just see moments from the championship run, and you actually remember exactly where you were during those times. It brings some shivers through you,” Ujiri said. “One thing that’s stupid about our job is you’re so in the mood of now, you’re thinking about the season now, but every now and then I’ll see Freddy screaming with his scar, or you see Kawhi run and dunk with his left hand . . . just moments. They’re all precious.”
Coach Nick Nurse watched the first-round series versus Orlando because it happened to be on TV while he was home one recent afternoon.
“(That series) seems insignificant but it wasn’t, it was probably what catapulted us more than anything, losing that Game 1 and playing so well in Game 2, that I say that was where we got our belief,” Nurse said. “I even said it: If we play like this, we can go all the way. But it’s still amazing to see the pictures man, of the crowds from the parade, and crowds outside the arena, and really truly how well the team played.”
Capturing the Larry O’Brien Trophy was a story a quarter of a century in the making, and the colossal punctuation mark on a season that started off with plenty of questions. Ujiri had fired coach Dwane Casey, replacing him with Nurse, a rookie head coach, and swapped franchise icon DeMar DeRozan for Leonard, an unknown commodity who’d played just nine games the previous season due to injury.
But Leonard was treated with kid gloves; the Raptors made “load management” part of the team’s lexicon, resting the star for one game of back-to-backs. And the careful treatment paid off massively with Leonard’s performance in the post-season.
The one big negative on the year was Leonard’s depature to Los Angeles in the off-season. But Raptors fans were more grateful than hateful, greeting the player who was known as the “King of the North” with an emotional standing ovation when the Clippers played in Toronto recently.
Nurse said the team of the year honour sums up how Canada was “captivated by the Raptors.”
And the Raptors had never won the award, “so another first for the Raptors — and I think a really cool time for basketball in Canada.”
Tennis star Bianca Andreescu captured the Bobbie Rosenfeld award for the female athlete of the year on Thursday, while moguls standout Mikael Kingsbury won his second consecutive Lionel Conacher Award for male athlete of the year Friday.