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The Toronto Raptors turned the NBA's global dream into a reality

TORONTO — Over the course of this magical run, several truths have risen to the surface about the Toronto Raptors. This city can be a winner. Canada isn’t just a hockey country. But the one truth that became more apparent as the Raptors inched closer to the finish line is that this team carries a global brand.

On the court, Pascal Siakam stood proudly after Game 6 with the Cameroonian flag draped over him. Serge Ibaka is from the Congo, Marc Gasol is the Big Spain, Jeremy Lin’s arrival sparked a Chinese media frenzy while OG Anunoby is affiliated with both Nigeria and the United Kingdom.

Off the hardwood, Masai Ujiri wears Nigeria and all of Africa on his sleeve, right hand man Bobby Webster hails from Hawaii, and this season’s unsung hero, Alex McKechnie, the Raptors’ director of sports science and commander-in-chief of load management, hails from Scotland.

Fans celebrate after the Toronto Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game Six of the best-of-seven NBA Finals. REUTERS/Andrew Ryan

“When I look at all the international players we have on our team, from Marc [Gasol] and even our staff and the people on our staff and the backgrounds, it's really brought us together,” Ujiri said on the eve of Game 1 of the NBA Finals. “I think it says so much because that's how our city is, that's how the country is, that we can all relate to the multicultural or the diversity of Toronto and Canada and that's how our team is.

“They talk in different languages on defense, they talk in different languages in the locker room, and it's like that in our organization. And being international myself and being from Africa, I'm proud of that.”

Much like the organization as currently constructed, the Raptors fan base is incredibly diverse, and perhaps what has made those fans so attached to this franchise is that — much like Toronto has had to work its way out of being the outsider in a league of 30 teams — fans of the franchise have also been outsiders.

Prior to tip-off in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, there was a pre-game video that hammered home that point. It was a montage of fans from all over the globe — from Germany to Colombia to the Philippines to Dominican Republic — sending their well-wishes to the team.

As someone who migrated to Canada 17 years ago and became enamoured with the Raptors a few years before that, this montage was everything for me.

Growing up in an Indian household in Dubai, about 11,000 kilometres away from Toronto, there was cricket followed by more cricket, and then a healthy dose of football (or soccer, as I learned to call it). Basketball was a distant afterthought, and the eight-hour time difference certainly didn’t help.

What did help, though, was channel flipping one evening and coming across a show called NBA Action. It was my first taste of the league and there was one particular highlight during the Top 10 countdown that hooked basketball, Vince Carter and the Toronto Raptors straight into my veins.

After that, it became a weekly affair of catching glimpses of Carter and the Raptors on the show. These were the days of dial-up internet and very limited screen time for kids. Look at the accessibility to the game today and there’s League Pass, YouTube highlights, House of Highlights on Instagram and plenty more. The league is only expanding its horizons, and with Toronto being the only city with a team outside the United States, their appeal as the world’s team is striking.

“I think, symbolically, having our first Finals outside the United States maybe has a big impact on countries that follow the NBA but don't have teams, whether that be in Asia or whether that be in Latin America,” commissioner Adam Silver said before the Finals began. “As we look back in time at the NBA calendar, I mean, this clearly is a marker of sorts that here we are in 2019, you know, our Game 1 of the Finals taking place in Toronto, Canada. That will, I think, be a milestone.”

I knew nothing of Toronto before arriving in August of 2002, except that I’d have a chance to actually watch NBA games in their entirety (which I did plenty of with my brother) and that it would eventually get very, very cold. Being in a new country for the final couple years of high school, where everyone had their cliques, brought out insecurities over everything from my accent to my clothes. The easy solution was to keep quiet and speak when spoken to. There were nice people, no doubt, but the risk of saying something that left me exposed was too high. Ice hockey? I was coming from a desert. The latest movie? I wasn’t going to the theatre by myself as a teenager. Girls? You don’t stand a chance, F.O.B.

Then November came, and the watchful wait to understand what was cool and what wasn’t was cast aside. “Did you watch the Raptors game last night?” Yes, yes I did. A few people were having that conversation in class and I finally had something to contribute. The chats became invitations to hang out, to play basketball in the driveway, to weddings, and now children’s birthdays. They are my closest friends 17 years on, and they helped stoke the fire that had me quit a job in the finance industry four years ago and has me doing what I do now.

Would things be different if I wasn’t channel flipping that fateful day in Dubai? Maybe I would have naturally developed a passion for the sport once I came over, anyway, maybe I wouldn’t. What’s great now is that it doesn’t have to come down to that. Forums on Reddit or RealGM or other team sites and #NBATwitter give everyone a voice, give everyone a space in which they feel they can fit in. There are dangers that come with those platforms as well, but it’s so important that they’re there.

The Raptors gave me a chance to believe in myself and a new life at a time when all I wanted to do was bury my head in the sand over the life I lost. And that was the bad Raptors. This franchise is a champion now, and the possibilities are endless for those whose foremost memories are Ujiri’s Raptors.

Canada is now filled with kids who have seen the championship winning moments, will see the parade on Monday, and want to recreate what their adopted icon Kyle Lowry did for them. But there will also be the kids in Cameroon seeing Siakam win it all in a Raptors jersey and Spanish children who watched Gasol proudly rock “We The North” across his chest.

The world played its part in bringing Toronto its first title, and now, Toronto will always be a bigger part of the world.

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