No Asterisks Here: Behind the Scenes of Toronto Raptors Championship Celebration

Will Gottlieb@@wontgottliebFeatured Columnist IJune 14, 2019

Toronto Raptors center Serge Ibaka, left, guard Kyle Lowry, center, and guard Danny Green celebrate with teammates after the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of basketball's NBA Finals in Oakland, Calif., Thursday, June 13, 2019. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Ben Margot/Associated Press

OAKLAND, Calif. — A security guard rolls a cart stacked high with a mountain of 30 racks along the walkway from the court to the locker room as the NBA Finals ceremony takes place. Media members wait in line to get into the locker room and take video of the new champs following the Toronto Raptors' 114-110 Game 6 victory over the Golden State Warriors on Thursday night.

The players finally emerge from the tunnel and head into the locker room. The media is still held out, but their cheering is audible.

While waiting, Raptors wing Danny Green emerges from the locker room to spray the media with champagne. Eventually, the line turns into a mosh pit, forcing its way into the locker room to view the celebration.

By the time a small wave of media is herded into the away locker room at Oracle Arena, the lid has already been blown off. The walls and floor have been tarped off and are now collecting an inch-deep pool of some combination of cheap beer and bubbly. The hundreds (OK, maybe a hundred) of bottles of Cuvée 89 Rosé float around on top. My socks are soaking through my shoes while writing this.

Nineteen teams have been to the mountaintop. And now, the Toronto Raptors are one of them.

The party has already been going as Kawhi Leonard enters the cave with his Finals MVP trophy. He pops a bottle, sprays most of it and then gurgles the last little bit. Yes, there is a giant smile on his face. He's a fun guy!

Past him, there are media members draped in ponchos and TV cameras covered in plastic. The few who were less prepared for the fireworks are now soaked.

Pascal Siakam, who scored 26 points in Game 6 and was a revelation all season and postseason, is jumping up and down while draped in a Cameroonian flag. Marc Gasol, Toronto's big midseason trade acquisition who took a lesser role to afford the Raptors a multidimensional look in the frontcourt, is alternating English and Spanish interviews while FaceTiming as Raptors public relations tries to escort him through the herd of cameras for him to give his press conference.

Clutching the Larry O'Brien Trophy, Serge Ibaka is backed up against a tarped wall while a swarm of media questions him. Champagne foam is dripping off his goatee.

"I don't know, but the guys just left [the trophy] with me," Ibaka said. "So I said, 'Why not? I deserve it.'"

Ibaka does deserve it.

After nearly reaching the peak with the Oklahoma City Thunder earlier in his career, he eventually landed in Toronto—no longer the shot-blocking dynamo of his younger days but still a solid frontcourt presence. He adapted to his role, came off the bench and contributed 16.7 points per game over the last three while shooting 65.6 percent from the field. 

Kyle Lowry deserves it, too. His 26-point, 10-assist, seven-rebound, three-steal game laid to rest any doubt that he is a meaningful postseason contributor on a championship team. His impact over the series was unquestionable after he and the Raptors had previously underperformed in the postseason.

"Words can't explain how I feel," Lowry said. "It's been a long, long time. Thirteen years of NBA basketball. Couple years of college. A couple years of high school basketball. And to be able to say I'm a world champion, it makes me feel great. And to do it with the group of guys that we did it with is amazing; like it's just kind of still surreal.

"Kind of, it hasn't hit me yet. I'm still kind of in this moment of just like, 'Is this real yet?' And for me just at the end of the day, I work extremely hard on my game, I work extremely hard on myself, and I am extremely hard on myself. And I'm happy to be able to say I'm a champion, and it's been a long time coming."

Taking the whole thing in, the scene is remarkable. These guys just took down the Golden State Warriors. They were less than whole but still perhaps the greatest NBA dynasty of all time. In their building. In the last game there. The Warriors were on the ropes, to be sure, but this accomplishment is still historic. A certain level of disbelief is hard to shake. 

It almost didn't happen.

Despite losing Thompson late in the third quarter, who was absolutely on fire, the Warriors had a great look to win the game with eight seconds to go. A long, crosscourt inbounds pass nearly went awry before Draymond Green corralled the ball and whipped it to Stephen Curry, who lofted a three on as good a look as the Raptors afforded him all night.

"I just saw him get free; he got a good look at it," Danny Green said. "We had two guys contest it, and it came up long, and luckily we had guys fighting for the rebound—Kawhi getting his hand in there. I was just thinking, 'Please, God. Don't make it.'"

Green, who is now being pestered for interviews, is wearing a soaked white "NBA Champions" T-shirt, his new matching hat and a pair of ski goggles. He seems slightly overwhelmed and expresses as much while he answers questions and gets drenched with rosé in the midst of his answer.

"We're trying to do it now, man, as best we can," he said. "It's hectic! Lot of media, lot of cameras. I'm sure when we get a chance to get out of here, when it's just our team, we're gonna have an amazing time." 

Winning a title doesn't just happen. There is no single-elimination tournament when variance can be the judge, jury and executioner. Just getting hot at the right time doesn't win you a title.

There has to be a collective goal and execution over the course of 240 days. Then you have to win four out of seven in four series. That takes skill, depth, smarts and, of course, a little bit of luck.

"Just look at the roster—look at the roster of that team," Gasol said. "You look at the depth, the depth of them. Then you look at the bench, you look at the young players that they have, you see the coaching staff, their mindset, you look at the front office, their mindset they have.

"Go from top to bottom: ownership, trainers, physical therapists, chefs, everything. It's a top-class organization. They're all about winning. And like I was telling your colleague, it doesn't guarantee you're going to win, but it does help that everyone has that championship mentality."

"It was a heck of a 12 months," coach Nick Nurse said. "And I don't know, I just try to take things as they come. Didn't look too far ahead."

The Raptors were constructed and prepared for this moment. This summer presents some major questions about the fabric of the Toronto roster, but before worrying about that, the franchise has plenty of time to enjoy this moment.

This was a uniquely emotional Finals. From Kevin Durant's uncertain status and seeing him leave with a torn Achilles after playing just 12 minutes in Game 5 to Thompson missing Game 3 and eventually suffering a torn ACL in his left knee Thursday, the Raptors needed to be ready to face various versions of this Warriors team. Toronto's poise in managing that, even with all of Golden State's health concerns, required a superior level of mental focus.

The reigning champs did not bow out.

Neither did the Raptors. They answered every run. All of the tension associated with that culminates in this moment. No more taking it day-by-day. No more games.

It was all for this. This is why they party. 

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