Raptors' success excites Winnipeggers, offers spotlight for Canadian talent, fans say

While they might be called the Toronto Raptors, the team's historic quest for an NBA championship has captured the imagination of basketball fans beyond southern Ontario, including those playing on courts here in Winnipeg.

Team's run to the NBA Finals is gaining traction amongst fans in the city

High school basketball player Tito Obasoto, 16, has hopped on to the Toronto Raptors bandwagon as the team looks to win their first NBA championship. (Ahmar Khan/CBC News)

While they might be called the Toronto Raptors, the team's historic quest for an NBA championship has captured the imagination of basketball fans beyond southern Ontario, including those playing on courts here in Winnipeg. 

"Our basketball team getting to the finals is a very great thing," said Tito Obasoto, a 16-year-old player at Fort Richmond high school. "The fact that it's happening right now, I want to be a part of that."

As Obasoto put up shots at Esker Park's outdoor court Wednesday evening, the teenager said he isn't the only one to hitch onto the Toronto bandwagon.

"It feels like everyone around me is a Raptors fan. I feel like we're pushing it in the right direction," he said.

A muscular, six-foot-three teenager, Obasoto has hoop dreams of his own — to play college ball and have his education paid for through basketball. The teenager believes Canada now has a spotlight on it as a result of the Raptors' recent success.

"It opens so many doors for the people of the nation, the respect we get from the team carries on to the next generation of the basketball players to come," he said.

Tito Obasoto goes up for a layup while practising at Esker Park. (Ahmar Khan/CBC News)

Led by superstar Kawhi Leonard and company, this is the first time the Raptors have made it to the NBA Finals. 

Like many fans across Canada tuning in to the Raptors' playoff run, Obasoto says there was a special moment when he officially bought in.

"The big shot from Kawhi against the [Philadelphia] 76ers in Game 7, winning four straight against the [Milwaukee] Bucks, that doesn't happen a lot," he said.

The way the team is trending, Obasoto believes they'll easily beat the defending champion Golden State Warriors in the finals. He predicts Toronto will need only five games to win the best-of-seven series, hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy on their home court next Monday night.

If the Raptors do win the championship, Obasoto expects the many more Canadian fans to embrace the sport. 

"Basketball is definitely going to become a bigger sport … it's going to push people to come to Canada to get players and possibly put more Canadian players in the NBA," he said.

Joseph Patterson believes the Toronto Raptors are now Canada's team. (Ahmar Khan/CBC News)

Across the city at Norwood Community Centre, Joseph Patterson wrapped up his day Wednesday with some one-on-one against a friend.

He's grown up with the Raptors. Along with the Los Angeles Lakers, it's been his favourite team since he began following the sport. Like many Raptors fans, he has had to suffer through a number of terrible seasons, but it's all worthwhile now.

"It's been good to see. I've been watching them since I was a young kid and they've kind of always been the team that they feel like they're going to make it throughout the season, [you] feel like they could do something, this might be their year. Then finally they pulled it all together this year," he said.

Other Winnipeg basketball fans said the Raptors' winning ways have brought the country together like few sporting teams have done before. 

"It seems like since there are no Canadian teams in the Stanley Cup Final, it seems like every sports fan is rallying behind the Raptors," said Patterson. "Here it's one team for all of us, so when they win we're all winning, it's pretty sweet."

Fans watch the Raptors in Jurassic Park outside the team's arena in Toronto. (Megan McCleister/CBC)

All that winning is due to the team's management and primarily president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri, according to Patterson.

"Bringing in Kawhi, Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol — pretty much all the guys that are key to this run. The management has done really good the past few years," he said. 

Since 2013, under the leadership of Ujiri, the Raptors have made the playoffs all but one year. During his tenure, they've won five division titles and made the conference finals twice.

The team's winning ways also resulted in a shift in attitude, embracing a new slogan "We the North" and hiring rapper Drake — a Toronto native — as a brand ambassador.

During the playoffs, that same culture has led to the Raptors creating an area outside Scotiabank Arena called Jurassic Park to house their rabid fans.

Joseph Patterson practises his free throws at the outside court at Norwood Community Centre. (Ahmar Khan/CBC News)

"It's pretty impressive to see their fans show out like that, it's good because it's Canada and you need to show that basketball is alive in Canada," Patterson said.

If they do end up being successful against the Warriors, he believes the team will become heroes to the nation and the effects will reverberate across Canada.

"[Their success] will probably push more basketball into people's eyes and maybe more kids will come up and it'll be a snowball effect," he said. 

Much like Obasoto, Patterson is also picking the Raptors to win the series and title in five games and cannot contain his excitement for the moment they raise the trophy.

"I hope they bring it home, honestly it'll be awesome. Every city be partying, it'll be a party across the whole country, you don't really get see that," he said.