Throughout these NBA playoffs, Kawhi Leonard has done the improbable over and over again, helping to carry the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA Finals appearance. He hit the game-clinching three over Joel Embiid in Game 4 of the second-round matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, which was followed by a series-clinching buzzer-beater in front of the home crowd in Game 7.
In the Eastern Conference Finals, with Toronto trailing 2-0 against the Milwaukee Bucks, Leonard took on the defensive assignment against Giannis Antetokounmpo and was the best two-way player on the floor for the next four games.
The Raptors won all four, and after Thursday's Game 1 victory in the NBA Finals over the Golden State Warriors, they are now three victories away from the championship.
The on-court accomplishments have been remarkable—one of the greatest individual postseason runs in years—but Leonard's most improbable task might be this: He might have single-handedly changed a cynical Raptors fanbase into a group that is willing to believe in anything. It was especially evident Thursday, with a home crowd that was not only confidently cheering on their team from tip-off but were persistent with their energy throughout the evening. The Raptors are in the Finals for the first time in NBA franchise history, and it appears they may be ready to turn the page permanently and leave all their insecurities behind.
Arguably no NBA fanbase has a greater inferiority complex than that of the Raptors. I grew up in Toronto and have followed the Raptors for their entire 24 years of existence. The feeling of waiting for the other shoe to drop whenever things go well is the defining characteristic of rooting for the team. From Tracy McGrady leaving in free agency for Orlando, Vince Carter demanding a trade to New Jersey, high draft picks like Andrea Bargnani not panning out and the repeated failures of the Dwane Casey-Kyle Lowry-DeMar DeRozan Raptors in the playoffs, there's a rich history of disappointment from following the franchise which has made this feeling permeate among the fanbase.
Indu Rehal is a seasoned Raptors supporter and believes it's finally time to move on from what has long defined this suffering fanbase.
"To have that stamped onto the Raptors identity is a disservice," Rehal said. "It's time to shift from that narrative because it certainly does not reflect the attitude of Toronto. If we can have a prestigious film festival, respected universities, corners to discover, niches to fall in love with, acclaimed authors, then it can also have a competitive, highly competent franchise."
The Raptors have exactly that. They've been to the playoffs for six consecutive seasons and have won 50-plus games in the last four, all high-water marks for this franchise. But the postseason disappointments have piled up, which has only heightened the feelings of inferiority. The Raptors have repeatedly embarrassed themselves on the biggest stage.
Many other small markets might feel the same about their team, but even when the Raptors have been successful, they've rarely garnered any recognition in the U.S. market. Many analysts still talk about the Raptors with broad strokes, like when Fox Sports analyst Chris Broussard called the Raptors and the entire country of Canada "soft" during a radio show several weeks ago.
Despite its recent string of success, Toronto only started getting more nationally televised games this season, and it's still only played one contest on Christmas. There's often a feeling this franchise is completely detached from the other 29 markets in the U.S.
Being the only team in Canada, the Raptors are also plagued with concerns from players, who have to pass through customs every time they re-enter the country and notice minute details like the fact that ESPN is not available on Canadian cable. Antonio Davis, who played for the Raptors for parts of six seasons, was once concerned about the long-term impact of his children learning about the metric system in Canada. The easiest trope is still the Canadian winters, often painted as the equivalent of surviving the Arctic by those who have never lived in Toronto.
Despite all of this, there are two prominent faces representing the franchise who are trying to push the fanbase to think bigger in team president Masai Ujiri, who acquired Leonard in a trade last summer, and Drake, the star rapper who doubles as the team's official global ambassador and No. 1 courtside cheerleader.
Steve Sladkowski is a member of the Canadian punk rock band PUP. His Raptors fandom goes back to the expansion years, when the Raptors played at a baseball stadium, the SkyDome, from 1995 to 1999.
"What Drake has done to put Toronto on the map has been so big," Sladkowski said. "It put a focus on Toronto that has never been there before from an arts and culture perspective. Civic pride is important; it's actually how you become engaged in a city and where you live in many different ways. He's made it OK to be loud about how much they love the city."
Drake's courtside behavior can be a divisive topic among the fanbase. I've always been cautious about condoning his involving himself in the game—not because it ever feels inappropriate (I watched Spike Lee sit courtside with the Knicks for years), but because of the fear that his sticking his neck out too far will only haunt the team and add another story to the franchise's list of embarrassing big-stage moments (I watched what happened to Lee during Reggie Miller's eight points in nine seconds).
While my discomfort with Drake's bravado stems from the fear of watching the team embarrass itself again, his attitude combined with Ujiri's conviction and Leonard's calming presence creating a permanent change in the mindset of an entire fanbase.
They're starting to learn to embrace being as confident as the faces of the franchise.
"I feel like people are emboldened by this playoff run," Sladkowski said. "They're like, Nah, not this time, not anymore."
Sladkowski and his band were touring throughout most of the Raptors' playoff run. He wore a Pascal Siakam jersey on stage for most shows. The tour wrapped up last week, and he was in attendance last Saturday for Game 6 to watch the Raptors eliminate the Bucks. This time, he learned to fight those old feelings and believe.
"Even when they were trailing by 15, I was like, They're good, they're fine," Sladkowski said. "I think a lot of people are starting to feel that way about the Raptors, but feeling this way makes them uncomfortable, like, 'No, this can't be good.' The Toronto sports fan is conditioned to say, 'I can't feel good about this. They're going to do something to break my heart. It's going to hurt.'"
The inferiority complex isn't just connected to the franchise, where Raptors fans have long felt disregarded by the American media—with some even posing the league is conducting a grand conspiracy to keep the Raptors from advancing in the playoffs because of lower ratings in the United States. The Raptors also share a city with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and hockey remains king in this city and country.
Slowly, though, this has turned. Saturday's Game 6 was the most-watched basketball game in Canadian history, per Sportsnet.
Talking to long-time fans of the team, it is easy to see why the team's struggles over the years have created this lasting feeling of inferiority.
Shankar Sivananthan is a critical-care doctor in Toronto. Born in Sri Lanka, he moved to Canada when he was just 10 months old. He has been a Raptors fan for 23 years. He says there wasn't enough money to spend on going to Raptors games growing up. His close high school friend's father was a lawyer and would take him to a game every season. Sivananthan calls rooting for the Raptors a communal experience and reflective of the diversity of the city.
"When you look at the faces at Jurassic Park, that's the faces you see on the subway or at the mall. That's what Toronto is," Sivananthan said. "The Leafs fanbase is a little older and wealthier; it's still multicultural, but not as much as the Raptors fanbase."
As the team as grown and matured, so have the fans along with them.
"I've been thinking about the evolution of being a fan," Sivananthan said. "A lot of us immigrants, we come from humble beginnings. We had struggles through high school and college, and the team's ascension and its rise mirrors our rise, of making it in whatever profession or industry we're in. It's our generation now that's doing it, and it's amazing to see the team doing it with us."
There are more challenges ahead. The Raptors will face a Golden State Warriors team in their fifth consecutive Finals, who have lost just one playoff series during that stretch. Regardless of the outcome, Leonard is expected to decline his player option and become a free agent on June 30, with many industry insiders pointing him toward the Los Angeles Clippers.
Sivananthan believes Leonard's impact has already been felt and will represent a permanent change in the city's attitude, regardless of whether he returns. "It's gonna last," Sivananthan said. "Even if he leaves, people will have Raptors gear; they'll be tied to the team. This city and country is now tied together by this playoff run."
If anything, Leonard has taught the fanbase to carry the confidence with it even if he leaves.
"People are finally looking at Toronto as the fourth-largest city in North America," Sladkowski said. "We're finally embracing that."