Excited and slightly anxious Raptors fans put their faith in Canada’s only NBA franchise on Thursday as they waited hours in the rain for their team to take a second shot at winning this year’s championship.
Supporters brought tents, tarps and umbrellas to a long lineup for Jurassic Park, the fan zone outside the team’s arena in downtown Toronto, ahead of Game 6 of the NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif. Some had camped out overnight to secure a spot, despite the dreary weather, and the crowd grew steadily through the day.
The Raptors currently lead the Warriors 3-2 in the best-of-seven series after losing by a single point on Monday. A win on Thursday would mean the Toronto team secures the title for the first time in franchise history — a milestone fans said they wanted to take part in, even from a distance.
Daniel Zhang, who arrived from Markham, Ont., shortly after midnight with a tent, tarp and inflatable mattress, said he was skipping his high school prom to watch the game with fellow fans.
“If it goes to Game 7, either way this game is uncharted territory, both for me and every other fan here. It’s an elimination game,” said the 18-year-old. “This could be the last game of the season. It could be Kawhi (Leonard)’s last game as a Raptor, you never know.”
Leonard, one of the Raptors’ star players, will become a free agent in the off-season. Before being traded to Toronto by the San Antonio Spurs several reports indicated he wanted to play for one of the teams in his hometown of Los Angeles.
Others in the outdoor fan zone said the stakes will be higher than at Monday’s suspense-filled game, but stressed they remain confident in their team.
“We’re making history soon,” said Malique Stone, a longtime Raptors fan. Stone said he has maintained hope throughout the emotionally intense Finals by “trusting in the players and how they’re playing.”
Another fan, Isabelle Leonardo-Cruz, said even a loss on Thursday — which would mean a Game 7 in Toronto on Sunday — wouldn’t shake her faith in the team.
“It’s going to be a lot of pressure, a lot more pressure than it is right now, but I’m still going to keep the same confidence, still going to have hope,” she said. “They can do it.”
The Raptors “represent Toronto as a whole,” Cruz said, and supporting them is like being part of a community.
“It’s kind of like we’re part of the team even though we’re not,” she said.
Toronto’s mayor, John Tory, donned his now-signature black-and-gold Raptors blazer to visit the gathering crowd Thursday morning and said he planned to return for the game in the evening.
“It is beyond comprehension that people could be down here, huddled under these makeshift tents, for hours on end, more than a day, overnight,” he said. “It’s cold, it’s rainy, it’s been such a terrible spring, but they’ve been here week after week, day after day, and they’re the greatest fans in sports.”
When asked about plans for a victory parade should the Raptors win, the mayor would only say that there are records of past parades for other teams and “we will dust that file off at the appropriate time.”
Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, which owns the downtown Scotiabank Arena and the Raptors franchise, had initially said it was considering moving the Jurassic Park crowds inside the arena due to the weather, but announced at 6 p.m. that it was moving ahead with the outdoor viewing party. Several nearby streets were shut down in anticipation of an overflow crowd.
Raptors fans elsewhere in the country also have a chance to watch the game among a mob of their peers.
Halifax was planning an outdoor block party, Montreal was shutting down two city blocks to allow people to cheer on the Raptors, and several cities in Ontario — including Mississauga, Brampton, Kingston and London — had viewing events planned.
Further west, Regina planned to show the game on a massive screen at the Saskatchewan Roughriders’ home stadium while in Edmonton, fans were heading to the Edmonton Expo Centre to watch the game. Select Cineplex Odeon theatres across the country were also offering free screenings of the game, which begins at 9 p.m. ET.
The Warriors are two-time defending NBA champions. A win by the Raptors on Thursday would mark the first for a Canadian team in one of the big four professional sports championships since the Toronto Blue Jays won the 1993 World Series.
Paola Loriggio, The Canadian Press