My name is Mack and I’m a dirty little bandwagon hopper.
Until the last few weeks, I had watched almost zero basketball in my life. Now though, I’m insatiable, devouring as much Toronto Raptors content as I can. I’m a bandwagoner, someone who becomes a fan at the best possible time. I’m not ashamed of being one of the most loathed creatures in all of sports fandom though. What’s more is I can defend it.
Hear me out.
I’m not new to Toronto, but I sure as hell haven’t been here for a long time. When I first came to this city in the tail end of 2016 I knew no one, not a soul outside of my editors whom I had merely an email relationship with. Still, though, for the sake of my career, I loaded up a 2004 Grand Caravan with my cat and my crappy belongings and made a long and terrible drive east from Edmonton.
I had spent just one day in Toronto before I moved here. Like many others who do big relocations, I was greeted with a pretty nasty bout of depression. I didn’t go out. I didn’t explore. I was in this massive city with millions of people but all that did was remind me that everyone I cared about was a normal sized country away. As many other people have said before me, one of the great ironies involving a place with so many people is how lonely it can leave one person feeling.
To this day, I miss my home desperately. I miss my family. I miss the acreage I grew up on. I miss my hometown of Fort Saskatchewan, population 24,000. I miss my friends. I miss my Edmonton locals. I especially miss watching Oilers games at the Hilltop Pub with my long-time buddy Joe. I miss the admittedly just OK wings, and talking about how this was the year for the copper and blue. It’s a basic memory, but it’s a warm one which gives me a feeling I’ve rarely felt since the move. It’s a feeling I’ve only found again in recent weeks.
To put it bluntly, this Raptors playoff run is the first time, to me, Toronto has felt like home. The first time I’ve felt any sort of connection to this city.
I wasn’t expecting to get hooked when I finally accepted the plea of a good buddy to start watching basketball—I’d love it, he told me. I first flicked on the game during the end of the Orlando series. I’ve never really watched pro basketball before and was hooked by, yes, the game, but also by the story of the team. I’m sure it helps that I decided to hop the wagon during the Raps best season in history but, at the risk of sounding cliche, it’s more than that. It’s Kyle Lowry making the show after years of struggle; it’s people freaking out over Drake; it’s the people yelling in the streets after wins; it’s Kawhi Leonard being, well, Kawhi Leonard; it’s the bench holding Kawhi up in game four after an all-time performance in double-overtime; it’s the glasses I’ve clinked with strangers at bars; it’s Fred Vanvleet’s turnaround in the Eastern Conference finals; it’s my friend Sasha hanging his head during the third game against Philadelphia and him texting me in all caps after game seven; it’s everything.
I quickly started watching the games with whoever I could.
The sheer electricity flowing through the city right now is immense, it’s coursing through the veins. This has transformed Toronto in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before—I was a young underage pup when the Oilers made the run to the finals in 2006 so I can’t really compare the two. People are living and dying by this team and filling up bars, streets, and conversations for them. Sports bars must be making a dang killing.
The fandom, with a self-effacing grace, has been completely cool with me hopping on, but I was nervous for a while, given that hockey fans are notoriously shitty about bandwagon hopping. When I watched game six of the Eastern Conference finals at a small Japanese bar on Dundas West with my neighbour, it was pandemonium. When the Raptors were making their comeback the 50 or so people in the bar made it deafening. People were chanting and screaming and drinking... together. For the prior game, I was at a work going away party with no TV and I had to run somewhere so I could watch the final quarter. I ended up watching it with a few people on a TV outside of a shisha cafe off Yonge and Dundas.
A few weeks before that I was at Dock Ellis, a pretty top-notch west end sports bar, for The Shot. That rim bouncer in the last second of the seventh, a 336 minute series all came down to this one play, this one shot. The oxygen was sucked out of the bar as it bounced around and exploded in a fury of passion when that ball went in unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It was the coolest sporting moment I’ve ever experienced (I was born months after the Oilers won their last Stanley Cup.)
It feels like this has just opened up the city to people like me. I’m sure it was never closed but, for the first time since I set foot in Toronto… it feels like Alberta is where I’m from and the city I live in is my home. The importance of this feeling is something that you don’t really recognize until it’s gone and maybe that’s why I hopped on board so goddamn hard.
My story isn’t unique or new. Toronto is full of displaced people—many of whom have come a hell of a lot further and dealt with a hell of a lot more than I. Toronto is a city of immigrants and the Raptors fans reflect that. Look, I love my fellow Oilers fans and Edmonton, and this isn’t meant as a jab, but let’s just say it’d be hard to find a crowd like this at the Oilers game. For this team, backgrounds don’t matter, if you want to cheer, you can cheer for the home team.
For me, at the very least, the fact that basketball, of all things, gave me back this feeling is magic. Now I’m not smart nor articulate enough to fully unpack why sports or other likewise activities can bring a community together but we all know it does. For much of the last three years, I was pretty anti-Toronto even though I was pretty sure I wasn’t moving back home to central Alberta anytime soon. Now though, I can’t help but think staying here for a while might not be the worst thing in the world. The city is bumping, the food is great, and the people are quite a bit nicer than I think I initially gave them credit for. I suppose I can thank the Raptors for showing me that.
Follow Mack Lamoureux on Twitter.