Toronto

'People are all in': Raptors fever sweeps Canada as team wins first NBA Finals game

Basketball fans in Canada witnessed history as Toronto's team made its first appearance at the NBA Finals.

Toronto team won first game in the NBA Finals, beating Golden State Warriors 118-109

They couldn’t get into the stadium for Game 1 of the NBA Finals, so these die-hard Toronto Raptors fans lined up around it hours before tipoff for a chance to cheer on their team in the fan zone known as Jurassic Park. Reporter Greg Ross shows you how big the crowd is. 7:57

Basketball fans in Canada witnessed history on Thursday night as Toronto's team made its first appearance at the NBA Finals — and won. 

The Toronto Raptors beat the Golden State Warriors 118-109 in Game 1, sending thousands of fans into a frenzy.   

Whether in Vancouver, where the local NBA franchise is long gone, or Montreal, a sworn rival of Toronto's when it comes to hockey, fans from coast to coast to coast are getting their fix. 

Versions of Jurassic Park — the area outside the Raptors' home arena where fans gather to watch games — have even cropped up in neighbouring cities including Mississauga and Brampton. And on Wednesday, Cineplex and MLSE announced they had teamed up to host viewing parties in 33 cinemas across Canada. 

Fans started packing into the original Jurassic Park in downtown Toronto in the early-morning hours on Thursday.

Even Toronto's youngest fans are getting in on the fun.

Kindergarten students from Church Street Junior Public School posted this video of tips for the Raptors:

'King of the North'

Perhaps no Raptor has done more to get fans fired up through the playoffs than Kawhi Leonard. 

One of the most electrifying players in the NBA, Leonard's likeness has popped up in murals on Toronto's fashionable Queen Street West, and in the Regent Park neighbourhood.

"He's the King of the North,'" said Toronto resident Naheed Dosani of the L.A.-born ball player, who is depicted in the latter mural wearing a gold crown. 

The Regent Park mural is the handiwork of artists Javid Jah and Moises Frank, better known as Luvsumone.

"I think one of the most interesting parts of creating this work was being able to have conversations with people that walked by," Frank said on CBC's Here and Now.

"The unity that basketball has brought within all diverse people and all types of people," makes the attention that the mural is getting particularly special, he said. 

Murals depicting Raptors' forward Kawhi Leonard have popped up on Toronto's fashionable Queen Street West., and, seen here, in the Regent Park neighbourhood. (@javid_jah/Instagram)

In the short time CBC News hung out around the mural at 50 Pembroke St. on Wednesday, fans of all stripes came to pay homage.

Marvin Cargill said he's especially pleased that the piece went up in the neighbourhood. 

"Everybody is trying to see what he's going to do for the finals," Cargill said of Leonard. "Being around here in this area, for people to come and look at it, it's really kind of nice."

Leonard "has been really good for the city," said Greg Stacey, another Toronto resident checking out the mural. "I hope … he wins the championship and that we go all the way against the Golden State Warriors."

And of course the team can count on some major support from Toronto's students. Several schools around the city are turning game days into "spirit days," with kids encouraged to dress in Raptors colours. Or as actual dinosaurs.

Raptors sportscaster Jack Armstrong, who has been working with the Raptors for 21 of their 24 years in the NBA, says he's never seen anything like the last few weeks.

"It's an amazing buzz, and not just in the city of Toronto — across the province, across the country. People are just so excited about the Raptors being in the NBA Finals," he said.

"The joy, the exhilaration, the jubilation and enthusiasm is just off the charts. People are all in."

Everybody is coming together, everybody is paying attention.​​— Peter Jackson, musician

That might in part be by design. The Raptors have held training camps, exhibition games and clinics around B.C., for example, which might have helped maintain excitement there about the game after the loss of the Vancouver Grizzlies, who moved to Memphis, Tenn., nearly two decades ago.

"I think we're going to see a big uptick," said former star player Pasha Bains​​​, co-owner of Drive Basketball Academy in the Vancouver suburb of Richmond.

There's been so much Raptors buzz out west that efforts were underway in Vancouver to set up a Jurassic Park outside the city's art gallery, dubbed "Jurassic West." Sadly, those plans were scrapped, with the city saying it wasn't able to secure a space in time for the playoffs.

And even on the other side of the country, fans in Nova Scotia gathered to watch at the "East Coast Jurassic Park" in downtown Halifax.

The Raps' success is also responsible for some complicated feelings in Montreal, where the usual hockey rivalry with Toronto is giving way to some newfound love for the home of the Maple Leafs. 

You only need to walk by Dror Benezra's Montreal restaurant, Pizza Prima, to see the Raptors love. Though, to be clear, Benezra maintains his love for the Raptors has "nothing to do with Toronto." 

Montreal restaurateur Dror Benezra says his support of the Raptors has 'nothing to do with Toronto.' (Sarah Leavitt/CBC)

And the excitement isn't confined to Canada. 

James and Courtney Auclair were in Jurassic Park first thing Thursday morning. The couple made the more than 15,000-kilometre journey from Brisbane, Australia to Toronto for Game 1.

"We just love the city, love the people and love the game. So we couldn't wait to be here," said Courtney.

The pair have no familial connections to Toronto, and the trip costs thousands of dollars. But the couple said they have no regrets.

"It's worth it. It's absolutely worth it," said James.

Wear your fandom, forever

Either way, there are fans, and then there are fans

And if you include yourself among the diehards, you might just want to wear your fandom — permanently.

In Toronto's Little Italy, Freedom Ink is offering free Raptors-themed tattoos for the truly obsessed until June 1.

A man receives a free — and permanent — reminder of his Raptors fandom. (Chris Glover/CBC)

Canadian hip-hop artist Peter Jackson is one surefire Raptors super-fan. In 2016, when the team made it to the Eastern Conference Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers, Jackson released his song Rap City

That series didn't end in Toronto's favour.

But when the Raptors beat the Bucks in Game 6 this year, Jackson was inspired to write a new hype track. He stayed up late into the night, and came out with Toronto Raptors — 2019 NBA Finals Anthem.

Jackson says he's "emotionally invested" in this year's stunning playoff run.

"I care about it that much … It makes me feel like I'm a part about what's going on," Jackson said.

He hopes the track will add to the excitement and help unite fans across the country.

"That's what I like the most about this stuff. Everybody is coming together, everybody is paying attention to the same thing, they want the same outcome for the same team."

With files from Lucas Powers, Shanifa Nasser and Chris Glover

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