NEWS
05/31/2019 13:06 EDT | Updated 06/01/2019 11:49 EDT

B.C. May Hate Toronto, But We Are All The North With The Raptors

An NBA Finals viewing party shows the spirit of basketball is alive and well on the West Coast.

Steve Russell via Getty Images
The Toronto Raptors' historic playoff run has ignited fandom across Canada. 

VANCOUVER — If you live anywhere but Toronto, there are a lot of reasons to hate Toronto. People from “The Six” act like the city is the centre of the universe. They pronounce it “Taranna.” Yonge and Dundas is trying way too hard to be Times Square. And they get Drake as a living meme, whereas in Vancouver we just get Seth Rogen on our transit announcements.  

By nature, we in the West shouldn’t like Toronto. We should find pleasure in jealousy and making fun of their hockey team — which, don’t get me wrong, we do.

But when it comes to basketball, I’ll admit I’m on the Toronto bandwagon now. And the rest of the West is too.

Over 200 fans showed up to a near-sold-out free screening at a downtown Vancouver movie theatre to watch Game 1 of the NBA Finals where the Toronto Raptors dismantled the Golden State Warriors 118-109. The hype is set to continue — in Vancouver, the Cineplex-organized screenings are already sold out for Games 2, 3 and 4 despite going up for grabs only 24 hours before Game 1. If there are Games 5,6 and 7, they’ll certainly sell out too.

WATCH: 5 facts about the NBA’s Vancouver Grizzlies. Story continues after video.

 

The screenings follow the City of Vancouver’s brief attempt to establish a “Jurassic West” outdoor screening party, which was met with bombastic enthusiasm, but deemed too logistically difficult to pull off in time.

“We couldn’t land a site for the seven days needed,” Vancouver city councillor Michael Weibe, who was behind the initiative, told HuffPost.

Instead, fans will have to catch the historic final games from sports bars and movie theatres across Metro Vancouver. And judging from Game 1, they will show the heck up.

Inside A Vancouver Raptors party

At the screening, the vibe was similar to any busy movie screening. But once we’d filed into our seats and “O Canada” started, the tone in the room shifted. Despite being in a downtown Vancouver movie theatre on a Thursday, people actually stood up, removed their hats and sang along like they were courtside with Drake at Scotiabank Arena.

This full-throated commitment continued throughout the game. Chants of “LET’S GO RAPTORS” and “REF YOU SUCK” echoed through the room despite the fact neither the players nor referee would ever hear them.

I’m usually frustrated by clapping at the end of movies — like, we get it, you loved The Avengers, but Robert Downey Jr. can’t actually hear you. But there was something so pure, so satisfying and so very Canadian about this group of basketball fans coming together to cheer on the team from the city they’re supposed to hate. Within moments of the game starting, I couldn’t help but clap when Kawhi hit a three-pointer or cry out in indignation when Marc Gasol got an obviously undeserved foul called against him.

A basketball legacy

Vancouver is primed to appreciate basketball and this Raptors team in particular. The Raptors do a lot of their off-season conditioning in here. And playoff star Kawhi Leonard actually played his first game with the Raptors at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena — an exhibition game against the Portland Trail Blazers in September 2018. Local alt-weekly The Georgia Straightcalled it “the type of night that left you wanting more. Maybe Vancouver basketball fans will get it some day.”

But the elephant in the room of Vancouver and basketball is the Vancouver Grizzlies, the short-lived second Canadian NBA team. The Grizzlies entered the league alongside the Raptors in 1994 as part of the NBA’s expansion north of the border. While the Raptors slowly grew into the franchise they are today, the Grizzlies never found their footing. Consecutive last-place finishes and declining profits led to the team’s sale and move to Memphis in 2001.

Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard charges down the court during Game 1 of the NBA Finals in Toronto. 

Vancouver still carries the memory of the Grizzlies. You’ll find vintage Grizzlies merch in most sports and vintage stores. And as the Raptors’ success grew in 2018 and 2019, so did calls for the Grizzlies to return. Without a team of our own, we’ve latched on the first Canadian team to make a major sports league final since the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins in the 2011 Stanley cup final. But the fandom extends to basketball specifically — one fan I met at the Game 1 screening named Jy said he’s been a Raptors fan since the Grizzlies left the league. He says the nationwide Raptors support is ultimately about national pride.

“I think it’s a Canadian thing at this point,” Jy said.

Canada trumps West Coast loyalty

Despite San Fransisco being much closer to Vancouver geographically, you wouldn’t find a Golden State fan in the room. Early in the game, when Golden State star Stephen Curry sunk a beautiful three-pointer, the guy beside me let out a tentative “woo!” only to be silenced by 200 icy glares.

“I’m just kidding,” he laughed, putting his hands up. “Don’t want anyone to hurt me.”

While many accusations of “bandwagon-jumping” are flying as a result of the Raptors’ recent success, many of the fans I met at the screening said that they’ve been with the Raptors their whole lives. One fan I met named Cody, grew up as a Raptors fan in Ontario and now lives in Vancouver.

“I think this year they’ve got a chance,” he said.

It was the type of night that left you wanting more. Maybe Vancouver basketball fans will get it some day.Nathan Cadell, The Georgia Straight

Cody even brought friends into the Raptors fold. At the Game One screening he was joined by Michael, new to Vancouver from Ireland but already sporting the Canada-ready Toronto Blue Jays hat and Raptors jersey — borrowed from Cody.

“I’m actually a [Chicago] Bulls fan, but I’m just coming out for the game,” he laughed.

Watching the game with this room full of Raptors fans — over 4,200 km from Toronto’s Scotiabank arena — it was easy to feel myself becoming a convert. It reminded me of 2015, sitting in the campus bar of the University of Calgary and almost being late for my anthropology midterm because of the Jose Bautista bat flip in Game 5 of the ALDS. Or sitting at home with my parents when I was in the ninth grade watching Sidney Crosby score the game-winning goals of the Olympic gold medal game in Vancouver.

We’re living in a national sports moment right now, and there’s magic in the air. It’s a magic that brings 200 fans with less than 24-hours’ notice to a movie theatre to watch a basketball game. It’s a magic strong enough to make Vancouvrites cast aside our Toronto beef and wholeheartedly embrace the Raptors.

Melanie Woods
Raptors fans Michael and Cody take in the action of Game 1 of the NBA Finals from a downtown Vancouver movie theatre.

There was a moment during the telecast where the announcers shouted out the various screenings across Canada. Our theatre burst into applause, as if to say, “yeah, that’s us! We’re a part of this!”

And we are. Just the same as rooms across the country, from Jurassic Park to small-town bars in Saskatchewan, when Kyle Lowry hit the game-sealing three-pointer at the end of the fourth quarter, the whole room was on its feet. Someone in our theatre just shouted “Toronto!” There were high-fives, hugs and tears.

Vancouver is all-in. Canada is all-in. For the next two weeks, I’ll give up my prairie-raised-Vancouver-living resentment of Toronto for the sake of basketball. You might even say that we’re all the north.

But while we’re all-in, there will always be limits. I asked fans if the Toronto fever would continue should the Leafs ever make the Stanley Cup finals. The consensus was clear.

“No way,” one fan told me with a laugh as we were filing out of the theatre. “Never. No f**king way. Go Canucks!”

Some things never change.