Montreal is getting behind the Raptors. Well, some of us

The success of the Raptors allows us to take look at those weird, complicated allegiances we like to have — and how they can change.

Apparently an NBA team can transcend our deeply entrenched rivalry with Toronto

Restaurant owner Dror Benezra says the Raptors are 'easily' Canada's team. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

The Toronto Raptors are in the NBA finals. What's a Montrealer to do?

There are a handful of obvious options:

  1. Embrace the squad without question — this is Canada's team.
  2. Offer qualified support, using clever logic to note that Montreal does not have a rival team, or that Chris Boucher, who grew up in Montreal, is on the Raptors' roster.
  3. Uphold your entrenched opposition to all things Toronto and cheer for the Golden State Warriors.

The success of the Raptors allows us to take another look at those weird, complicated allegiances we like to have — and how they can change.

A lot of Montrealers are really into this. In the province of The Hockey Sweater, people are wearing Raptors gear in public.

In Roch Carrier's The Hockey Sweater, a Maple Leafs jersey in Quebec was a bit of a problem. Not so with Raptors gear. (Roch Carrier and Sheldon Cohen)

At least one person on Twitter is pestering whoever will listen to set up a Jurassic Park in Montreal.

Bars and cafés are filling up on game nights. Jean Bédard, the CEO of sports bar chain La Cage, said he had several packed venues for Saturday's decisive Game 6.

"I've been president of La Cage for 25 years and, for basketball, I've never seen that before."

Here are three portraits of Montrealers in Raptors Nation.

'It's great basketball'

Dror Benezra had a massive Raptors sign attached to the wall on Tuesday night outside his restaurant, Pizza Prima on Sherbrooke Street in Notre-Dame-de-Grâce. 

"There's no basketball in Montreal, so you follow the Raptors," he said. "About 12 years ago I started religiously watching them and watched them grow."

Could this happen with a Maple Leafs logo? A Raptors sign outside Pizza Prima in NDG. (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

He and customers watch games there all the time — "a lot of customers like the Raptors" — and the idea for the sign emerged out of a conversation with one of them. 

"One thing led to another, it didn't take much," Benezra said. "It got here yesterday, and we put it up yesterday."

Benezra said the Raptors are "easily" Canada's team, but was somewhat dismissive of the Toronto angle.

"It's basketball," he said. "This is nothing to do with Toronto. It's great basketball, and it's going to produce a generation of new [players]."

Leafs, no. Raptors, yes

Montrealer Jen Comtois, who now lives in Fort McMurray, says she would "absolutely not" cheer for the Leafs. But she loves the Raptors.

Jen Comtois, left, with her sister, in Habs gear. (Submitted by Jen Comtois)

"It's funny, even the city, Toronto, I don't really like it," she said. "People ask if I would move to Toronto — I still wouldn't move to Toronto, even though I love the Raptors."

She became a Raptors fan around eight years ago, introduced to the sport by her boyfriend at the time. 

"Even when we broke up, I stayed with it," she said.

When Toronto won the semi-final round, Comtois said Fort McMurray was out in the streets, celebrating. 

"It was like a mini Toronto," she said.

Comtois posted a video of her friend, who is from Toronto, in his living room, in head-to-toe Raptors gear and exalting in the win — a display she judged equivalent to a die-hard Habs fan when the Canadiens go far in the playoffs.

'For ethnic minorities, the Raptors mean so much more'

Born in Montreal, 28-year-old Nader Daher started playing basketball when his family moved back to Lebanon for a few years when he was a kid. Lebanon is basketball-obsessed, he said — the only place in the Middle East where it's more popular than soccer.

When Daher returned to Montreal in 2001, he started following the NBA, and naturally gravitated to the Toronto Raptors.

"It was the fact that it was a Canadian team," he said in a phone interview from Ottawa, where he moved to work nine months ago.

The Raptors also had a particular appeal for a kid who wasn't white.

"For young Montrealers from ethnic minorities growing up watching a sport where you have people you can look up to, as opposed to the Habs who are very homogeneous, the Raptors mean so much more," Daher wrote in a recent Facebook post.

Nader Daher said the Raptors had a special kind of appeal to him growing up. (Submitted by Nader Daher)

Growing up, many of his friends, "especially kids who are sons and daughters of immigrants," followed the team, Daher said.

"Most of my friends to this day still follow them religiously," he said. "We're still shocked that we're in the finals. 

"And I say 'we,' even though we're not from Toronto. Some of us haven't even been to Toronto. But we've followed that team for all of our lives."

Still, Daher said disliking Toronto is not a foreign concept. He and some friends are passionate fans of the Montreal Impact, "and we hate Toronto FC," he said. 

Still, in the long term, Daher has a wish.

"Hopefully one day Montreal will have its own basketball team," he said. "Then we can go back to hating Toronto."

With files from the CBC's Sarah Leavitt and The Canadian Press


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