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Is Canada finally on call with the Raptors?

The Raptors have spent years building loyalty with the Canadian population. And those inroads are starting to bear fruit. Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY

THE RAPTORS WEREN'T even playing in Toronto -- they were on the road, in Brooklyn, preparing for Game 6 of the opening round of the 2014 playoffs. But that didn't stop great mobs of fans, like pilgrims, from trekking to Maple Leaf Square outside the Air Canada Centre. Leading up to Game 1, the mood had been so fevered that the team's normally staid general manager, Masai Ujiri, had made an appearance and dropped a few F-bombs, for which he would later be fined.

With the Raptors leading the series 3-2, and Game 6 presenting an opportunity to advance to the second round for the first time since 2001, the tension built. An all-out proxy war broke out between newspapers in Toronto and New York. During Game 5, the Nets Twitter account implored their fans to meet Toronto's intensity. Maple Leaf Square, "Jurassic Park" to the Raptors faithful, was total pandemonium.

This was an opportunity -- to that point, the opportunity -- for Canada to fall in love with basketball, for the Raptors to become the NBA's first team to effectively represent a nation. Think New York and L.A. have an unfair market advantage? The Raptors play in a top-six NBA market before you count the 29 million Canadians outside the Greater Toronto Area. Across the country, basketball's popularity had been consistently ballooning, thanks in equal parts to the coming of age of the Vince Carter generation and the emerging Lowry-DeRozan generation, as well as the NBA's initiatives in India, China and the Philippines, with droves of immigrants touching down in Canada already dreaming of mimicking Kobe Bryant's fadeaway. Was this the moment?

Across the country, the lounge in a Boston Pizza in Edmonton, Alberta, was a Canadian caricature: a hockey scout's paradise, the walls plastered with TVs featuring NHL playoff action. A couple of friends and I asked the server if the TV near our booth could be switched to the Raptors. What's the harm, we figured? Game 6 featured epic stakes. The Oilers hadn't even made the postseason -- the Canadiens were the only Canadian team in the playoffs, and they weren't even playing.

Confused groans filled the air. "What the f---!" exclaimed a woman behind us, sitting next to a guy in an L.A. Kings jersey. A male voice in the crowd, in a moment of pure poeticism, yelled, "This is Canada!" The revolution, it turned out, couldn't span 3,000 kilometers in a matter of months. The birthplace of James Naismith would remain a rich, but largely uncultivated field.


IT WAS IN the 2016 playoffs that the forces materialized to rouse the sleeping giant. No Canadian teams qualified for the NHL playoffs, and the remaining story lines were abnormally uncompelling, all the while the Raptors overcame their jilted history, taking Game 7 against the Indiana Pacers and proceeding to the second round. The game drew 1.53 million Canadian viewers, setting a record. Their Game 7 victory over the Miami Heat in the second round sent the Raptors to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in franchise history and won the weekend, defeating two hockey games and a Blue Jays game. In lockstep with a franchise that has become used to beating its own records, 1.8 million Canadians tuned in for Game 4 against the Cleveland Cavaliers, winning the weekend again and setting another record.

It is fair to say that multicultural Toronto, with the emergence of the Raptors and the Blue Jays, is today a mecca of the modern intersection between culture and sports. The NBA's All-Star weekend in Toronto was a massive success. Drake is an unparalleled hypeman. It is, for all intents and purposes, happenin'.

Even the players are swept up in it. "I am Toronto," proclaimed DeMar DeRozan, capping an impromptu love letter to the city that drafted him, at a news conference following the five-year, $140 million extension he received this summer.

Despite being an unrestricted free agent, DeRozan didn't meet with any other teams. He didn't want anybody else. It was an almost dreamlike moment for a fanbase that became accustomed to watching young stars blossom and leave for greener pastures, a healing turn for both city and player.

If it was a dream, it was something like déjà vu, a repeat of when Kyle Lowry re-upped two years earlier, and fans let out a collective sigh of relief. He stayed, phew! But this time, nobody was holding their breath. A high scorer in his prime, DeRozan had options to leave. But he's also a throwback ballhog, no darling of advanced stats. Some were left wondering, "Aren't we past this?" DeRozan's monologue felt like a revenue-motivated sequel to a classic, with a lesser actor at the mantle.

These fans are no longer the insecure teenager, shocked that anyone would even consider going to the prom with them. They read "Bossypants" over the summer, found themselves in an altered state of consciousness and came to an epiphany: an emotional speech in July is not worth the spate of ill-fated jumpers they'll endure in late April. It was, after all, during the playoff run that the flaws in DeRozan's game, which thrives on inefficient ball-stopping, were laid bare, the offense often flowing better when he sat.

DeRozan's on-court value is polarizing, the flashpoint of a debate between new and old philosophies. The cult of the individual remains widespread. But that this divide has even punctured The Six, that they would question their star at all, marks a sea change in the fan base's self-conception.

IT'S OCT. 2, 2016, and the Toronto Raptors are facing the Denver Nuggets in a preseason game in Calgary, Alberta, as part of the NBA Canada series. It appears to be working: On StubHub, nosebleeds are $110. Scotiabank Saddledome is a packed house. In the media room, a scout with the Nuggets quips, "How do you sell out a game in 10 minutes?" Most conspicuous is the attire, a melting pot of basketball and Canada-related sports memorabilia: speckled into the Raptors gear was an Aaron Sanchez Blue Jays jersey, Maple Leafs gear, a knock-off Yao Ming jersey, Luis Scola's Argentina uniform, even an L.A. Clippers warm-up jersey.

Hours before the game, leaning on a pole outside the Saddledome is a wiry 15-year-old kid in a Raptors jersey named Braden. A swingman for his high school team an hour or two north in Red Deer, he is killing time before doors open because he overestimated the trek down to Calgary. Who can fault his eagerness? It'll be his first NBA game.

The groundswell that began two years ago is, right here tonight, being realized across the country. A basketball love bomb was detonated in Toronto, and the fallout reached the outskirts: Google trends show the word "Raptors" being searched in Alberta four times as much in the 2016 playoff run as in 2014.

Outside the arena, you can bear witness to the argument for staying the course, a crowd of beady-eyed Bradens, all the way from Banff and Red Deer to Edmonton, champing at the bit to catch DeRozan, Lowry and the crew that vaulted Toronto's playoff run. DeRozan, nit-picked as he might be, is paramount to the night's success. He is, after all, the name on the back of Braden's jersey.

Inside, coach Dwane Casey reflects wistfully on the first pro team he watched live, the ABA's Kentucky Colonels, and remarks, "You will touch a young life, just by him coming to the game."

Progress is always double-edged. Moving forward requires letting go of the past, being unsentimental about big moments and memories. Watching sports, paradoxically, and especially cheering for a particular team, is built on relishing collective nostalgia. Acting like you've been there, on some level, defeats the purpose.

In the third year of this experiment, nobody would be acting anymore. If Toronto stagnates, will the crowd still be as satisfied? Would they flock in from all over the province? It's unlikely. But the ability to feel dissatisfied, too, is progress. And when the Raptors' fortunes eventually flip, fans will be able to reflect back on a highlight reel of players who actually wanted to perform in front of them.

An inferiority complex is eroding, little by little, as a national identity emerges. You can catch it, uninterrupted by any hecklers, at your local Boston Pizza.