Raptors and fans are the 'real Toronto': Loud, multicultural and hungry for historic win

Catch Yasmin Said putting up jump shots on a concrete court — her red hijab matching the Toronto Raptors logo on her T-shirt.

The 15-year-old is a huge Raptors fan, who has also been playing the sport for eight years, most recently as part of the group Hijabi Ballers, which encourages young Muslim women to get involved in sports.

The program also offers other sports, but basketball is "part of me," Said says, surveying her local outdoor court in Toronto's Scarborough neighbourhood.

Thanks to the Raptors' success, thousands of Torontonians — and even more across Canada — are feeling the same way these days.

On Saturday night, those fans will watch as the Raptors try to defeat the Milwaukee Bucks and earn the franchise's first-ever trip to the NBA Finals. Historic is not a big enough word.

Dan Hamilton/Reuters/CBC

Said, who says she watches the game with the intensity of an assistant coach, can't wait. When everyone comes together over the game, she says, Toronto feels like "one big family."

Raptors in uncharted territory

The Raptors' story is well-known at this point. At first, Toronto's fans just didn't get basketball. Then the team struggled, in part because American players didn't want to come to the city. Then Vince Carter slam-dunked the team into relevance. In recent years, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan led the team into the playoffs, but left the party early.

Now, they have Kawhi Leonard — and some high hopes.

James Wattie/CBC

But the more interesting story is that the Raptors have inspired so many in this multicultural country.

There are kids who grew up watching Carter and the Raptors, who are now starring in the NBA, like Andrew Wiggins, Jamal Murray and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander to name just a few.

Then there are the newcomers, or the children of immigrants like Said, who see themselves reflected in the Raptors lineup. Those fans can cheer for African players (Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam), as well as Canadian-born talent like Chris Boucher or Marc (Big Spain) Gasol. Guard Jeremy Lin was so popular with the Greater Toronto Area's Asian community that he won cheers at Scotiabank Arena in downtown Toronto even when he was on rival teams.

 

There's also the whole Drake effect, and his large sprinkling of celebrity. 

And if you need proof of the team's universal appeal, just scan the crowd inside that roaring arena, or better yet, those cheering along outside in Jurassic Park. 

Nobody knows Raptors fandom better than Nav Bhatia — better known as Superfan. During a Raptors game, you can't miss him jumping around on the baseline in his turban and jersey (No. 95, referencing the Raptors' inaugural 1995 season). 

Bhatia has missed just a handful of Raptors games since then and speaks about being at Scotiabank Arena with reverence. The crowd is cooler than American crowds, he says, likening it to a "beautiful rainbow" of people.

At a Raptors game, he said, it "doesn't matter how you look, what you wear.… Deep inside our passion is the same."

"We see the real Toronto there. And they're all for the team to win."

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

Next generation watching closely

Part of that "real Toronto" is a contingent of the city's youngest and among them some aspiring future NBAers.

Grade 8 student Mikkel Tyne became addicted to the game playing outside with his brother when he was little. Now, he's already attracting buzz from schools down south as one of the top players in his age group in North America.

Morry Gash/The Associated Press

Watching the Raptors succeed is a huge motivator for Tynne, a player with Toronto City Elite, a program that helps to develop young basketball talent in the GTA.

"It inspires me. It makes me want to go harder," he said.

It's the same for Grade 6 student Jaylen Andrew Simmons. His dream? Getting drafted, winning championships and having a spot of his own in the hall of fame. 

And compared to Canada's other favourite sport, he says, "it costs less. Hockey is an expensive sport. And people who don't have the money can't play."

Paul Borkwood/CBC

But as for just what has so many young basketball fans and all-star hopefuls glued to the game, Grade 8 student Jordan Dickson sums it up best: "They came from the same place as us."