‘Up North’, Canadians set rivalries aside to rally behind Toronto Raptors

A few hundred metres from Nick Nurse’s city centre apartment in downtown Toronto stands Fort York, one of Canada’s most significant historical landmarks, the symbol of the still nascent country’s war of 1812 with the US.

‘Up North’, Canadians set rivalries aside to rally behind Toronto Raptors

A few hundred metres from Nick Nurse’s city centre apartment in downtown Toronto stands Fort York, one of Canada’s most significant historical landmarks, the symbol of the still nascent country’s war of 1812 with the US.

This week, in far more benign circumstances, the 51-year-old former British Basketball League coach is once more waging war with Canada’s “noisy neighbour” to the south and, in the process, helping to redefine Canada’s sporting landscape. For the country known primarily for ice hockey, curling, and their own bastardised version of American football has fallen head over heels in love with basketball.

Just 24 years after the Toronto Raptors were formed, Nurse’s side has become the first non-US team to ever compete for the NBA Finals, a best-of-seven series in which they currently stand tied 1-1 with the Golden State Warriors.

It isn’t just Canada’s largest city, but the nation as a whole that has bought into the Raptors in a way few could have envisaged when Nurse, an assistant on the Toronto bench for five years, was promoted last summer after the club’s owners decided Dwane Casey had taken the team as far as he could — sacking him days after he was named the NBA’s coach of the year.

Any disapproval for that move was quickly forgotten when Toronto put together a risky trade that brought injury-plagued superstar Kawhi Leonard to Canada, on a one-year deal, while Nurse’s solid leadership and buoyant personality soon won over critics.

Yet still, few could have predicted the sort of response that has seen Canada resemble more a European country in the midst of World Cup fever than a cosmopolitan — it lays claim to being the world’s most cosmopolitan — country playing for a domestic league title.

“Well, obviously the city’s excited and the fan base and the whole country, really,” said Nurse. “And that’s neat. That’s a neat feeling. I think there’s some real heartfelt pride, for real, you know, and that’s kind of cool.

“When there were 20,000 people signing ‘O Canada’ (national anthem) the other night, without any musical backing, that was one of the coolest things I’ve ever heard in a sports stadium. It reminded me of football or rugby back in Europe.

“I think all the cities, that are on championship runs get excited in American sports. But this is a big city and a first time, and I think the first time always makes it seem like there’s a little more energy.”

That energy has a metric, literally so when it comes to the all-important category of television viewing figures. Four times in the past couple of weeks of Toronto’s exciting run to the Finals, new TV records for basketball have been set, culminating in Sunday’s Game 2 loss which was watched by 10.6 million people — just under a third of Canada’s 37 million population.

Perhaps even more astonishingly, given that inter-city sporting rivalries run as deep in Canada as they do any country, an estimated 35% of all Canadians have now watched one of the opening two finals games.

One reason for that passion is obvious, given ice hockey’s calamitous decline and the fact the city’s beloved Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup title in 52 years, while the whole country is suffering an unprecedented drought that has seen no Canadian NHL champion since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.

Toronto’s Canadian Football Argonauts remain a power but, in the all-important North American leagues, aside from FC Toronto’s Major League Soccer crown in 2017, the city has had no cause for celebration since the Blue Jays won baseball’s World Series in 1992 and ’93.

“FC Toronto winning was nice for the franchise but that’s not one of the four top-tier North American sports leagues,” said Michael Grange, one of the country’s most respected journalists, with Rogers Sportsnet.

“The important thing to understand about the Raptors is there are two elements to this feeling of being ‘the other’. One is that in this city, this country, basketball always felt like the poor cousin to hockey. But in the 70s and 80s you see immigration laws change and urban centres like Toronto grow and change.

“People were looking for a sport to gravitate to and hockey didn’t always catch them. Along come the Raptors in ’95 and they became a gathering point for that new element in the city. Then the other element is expressed in the team’s slogan which you see everywhere, ‘We the North’.

Canada, by nature, always feels like the hard-done-by younger kid brother to the US to the south. I think we’re super sensitive about that relationship so this team’s success is a big fuck you to everybody!

To enhance that message, the NBA has accredited over 2,000 media members for this year’s Finals, around normal for the event, but, significantly, the games are being covered by 41 different Canadian outlets, compared to seven a year ago.

The clamour has been so great that Toronto’s resident superfan, the rapper Drake, has become such a major national talking point that the NBA issued an official warning to him last week — for giving Nurse a shoulder massage during a vital play-off game.

Drake was front and centre in the opening two games in Toronto, exchanging hugs with former US president Barack Obama, a self-confessed basketball nut who sat alongside a gallery of other celebrities, like Rory McIlroy, on Sunday.

More widely, barely an office block, shop, or business stands in the city without some sort of Raptors logo or a ‘We the North’ poster in its window. The ubiquitous coffee shop chain Tim Hortons — a symbol every bit as Canadian as Mounties and moose — is doing a roaring trade in donuts with the team’s dinosaur claw logo on them.

Head coach Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors and Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors exchange words in the second half during Game Two of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena on June 02, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

Head coach Nick Nurse of the Toronto Raptors and Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors exchange words in the second half during Game Two of the 2019 NBA Finals at Scotiabank Arena on June 02, 2019 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)

And on game days throughout the play-off run, Jurassic Park fan zones have sprung up to live screen games. Outside the Raptors’ Scotiabank Arena on Sunday, fans started arriving at 1am, 17 hours before tip-off.

More surprisingly, other such parks have been established in cities as far away as Halifax, some 1,770km east of Toronto. There is no love lost for the mighty Maple Leafs — think Manchester United — outside Toronto but the Raptors have made a much more meaningful impact across the country, transcending sport in the process.

“I spent 10 years in England and Europe and saw what team sports mean there,” said Nurse, an assistant on the GB team at the London Olympics and who has been offered the job of coaching Canada at this summer’s World Cup in China. “In fact, I went with some friends to Dublin before the 2002 World Cup to watch the USA play a (football) friendly and I’ve always loved international sport. We don’t talk about it quite in those terms in our locker room at the moment but you can see how the country does.”

Whether Nurse can deliver that title remains to be seen as he faces two games at the Warriors’ home in Oakland, starting with tonight’s Game Three (2am Irish time, live on Sky Sports).

This is Golden State’s fifth straight Finals appearance, having won three of the last four, and despite a growing injury list that cost them the services of the brilliant Kevin Durant in the Toronto games, they remain heavy favourites. But, just as Canada lost the Battle of York to the Americans only to emerge victorious from the war, whatever the outcome of these Finals, the Raptors and all of Canada can consider themselves basketball conquerors.

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