Although I started my Raptors relationship with season tickets in the early years (more of a corporate adventure with one of our companies), it was really a platonic relationship.
I fell in love with NBA basketball in Salt Lake City, Utah. For many years, I travelled with an inveterate group of downhill skiers (mostly Northerners) who would fly to Utah to ski in the mountains at a place called Alta. Every Thursday, of every week, of every year we were there, we would truck down the mountain for hot dogs and observe the Utah Jazz destroy their competition. Like most men of a certain age, we didn’t like change and became discombobulated as a group when one of us would recommend against hauling our exhausted asses down the mountain in a nine-passenger van through whatever snowstorm was blowing up from Salt Lake. When you’re in the mountains, storms are good. In that particular location, they brought the best powder in the world. You could get a couple of feet with a good one. The trip down the mountain amounted to risking your life for a basketball team you saw once a year in another country and never thought about again until next year’s ski trip.
The Jazz had a guard named John Stockton and a big man by the name of Karl Malone (“the Mailman”) and they owned the court. They had fun, they had personalities, they liked one another, and they were well loved. Part of the fabric of community life. In John Stockton’s 19-year career (he played with no other team) they never missed the playoffs and won the occasional conference cup. They were very good for a very long time. They played hard, but somehow you knew in your gut they were not going to go all the way, and that was okay.
Only now, after the extraordinary run of the Raptors this year, does a comparison to the Utah Jazz make so much sense to me. Stockton and Malone, of course, are Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Well loved, competitive, part of the community, all-stars, good people. On the civility front (although not the multicultural one), Salt Lake City feels very much like a 1980s Toronto. Well mannered, polite, clean, enthused, but not over the top.
This year, I took in the finals with my youngest daughter, Jackie, in Sudbury at a local St. Louis Bar and Grill each night with their wall-to-wall big-screen TVs. To hold the seat it fell to me to eat, what seemed like, hundreds of chicken wings over the finals. In an extraordinary role reversal, it fell to my daughter to drink sufficient beer. This is not good parenting, but it was the finals, and she is 21 and needed to hold up her end of the bargain. We had a booth for four in a mad house and needed to be active consumers to hold our spot. The first crisis came in game five when we did not arrive in time to secure our normal seats. I knew there was no way they could win if we didn’t get those seats. I don’t need to tell you the result. I will. They lost.
For game six, we went even earlier to our chicken-and-rib emporium, but still our old winning seats were unavailable. In desperation, I suggested to Jackie we offer $25 to the occupants of our old booth to trade with us. She thought this was unwise, immature and perhaps “too much” information on a father she thought she knew. I demurred but kept looking over to see if our squatters were leaving. They were not. I thought, “If they only knew how important this was they would readily agree.”
As one who was actually at SkyDome the night Joe Carter hit his home run to secure the Toronto Blue Jays second World Series championship, I have to say I enjoyed this Raptors run even more. The courage, intensity and pace of the finals were riveting.
For me, the big story was coach Nick Nurse, accounting graduate of the University of Northern Iowa, and playing coach of the Derby Rams, the Birmingham Bullets, and the Manchester Giants (the British Basketball League); Telindus Oostende, of the Ethias League (Belgium); the Iowa Energy of the NBA G league; and too many others to mention.
He hit the big time at the age of 50.
He out-coached the opposition in each series, plain and simple.
Kind of a Northern feel to it.
Michael Atkins is the president and owner of the Laurentian Media Group, a diversified media company, which includes Northern Life, Sudbury.com, Sudbury Living Magazine and Northern Ontario Business.