Greatness is a fickle mistress. After advancing to the NBA Finals, the Toronto Raptors have their shot at it. This is a special moment not only for the organization and the players but the long-suffering fans.
After 24 years mired in futility and precious few bright spots, the Toronto Raptors have reached unfamiliar territory— the 2019 NBA Finals! The team is ecstatic and the fans, in the Greater Toronto Area and across Canada, are delirious with celebration.
Considering the way the Raptors’ playoff run has unfolded so far and the team’s history, all of this feels so surreal— it is like a dream that you might predict but could never truly anticipate.
On the eve of this momentous occasion, let’s put it into a broader context, what it means for certain players as well as the significance for Toronto Raptors fans.
To truly appreciate the magnitude of this situation, it is a good idea to define greatness, as it applies in our society and more specifically, the NBA.
"“Greatness is a transitory experience. It is never consistent. It depends in part upon the myth-making imagination of humankind. The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man.”"
This deeply complex quote from Frank Herbert’s seminal work, Dune, encapsulates what it means to be great.
Greatness is an intangible thing that depends on other people’s perceptions. You usually have to struggle to earn it and you never fully control it. When you reach the summit, it is an impermanent position that can disappear in an instant, especially in sports.
The individual(s) given this status need to keep things in perspective and understand how they got there. If not, they risk being consumed by their greatness.
Real heavy stuff.
Applying this to the NBA, you often see this when a player and/or team elevate themselves to greatness, only to forget what got them there in the first place (i.e. Carmelo Anthony, early 2000s Los Angeles Lakers).
Sometimes players have an easy path to greatness, due to their natural abilities, bypassing the struggle and as a result, never reaching their full potential (i.e. Vince Carter). As much as we praise him now for his remarkable longevity, Carter could have been so much more.
In terms of the Toronto Raptors, they’ve never been at the top. Throughout their entire history in the league, they’ve had to deal with bad choices, underachievement and choking in key moments.
But now they are playing a team, the Golden State Warriors, that’s been at the pinnacle of greatness for the last five years.
That’s what makes the Raptors’ ascension in the 2019 NBA playoffs so sweet. Considering how much work it took to get here, it feels so richly deserved.
The players: Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol & Kawhi Leonard
This deservedness extends beyond the Raptors organization and is reflected in its most decorated players, namely Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, and Kawhi Leonard. All three of these leaders have had to pay their dues for a chance at greatness.
Lowry is the perpetually underappreciated engine of the Toronto Raptors. He’s never been a prolific scorer. His worth instead comes from his sustained intensity and all the little things (i.e. hustle plays) he does to help his team win.
This isn’t surprising as he’s been doing this for years. With a win in the NBA Finals, Lowry will get his long overdue recognition and solidify his Raptors legacy.
Gasol spent his formative years anchoring the Memphis Grizzlies during the ‘Grit and Grind’ era, making deep runs in the playoffs but never quite reaching the end. For one of the most selfless, team-oriented players in the game, Finals glory at the ripe age of 34 would be the perfect individual accomplishment.
We see the polished product now, but Leonard was very much a middling prospect when he entered the league in 2011. While always a dynamo on defense and genetically gifted, his limited offensive game was an obstacle to superstardom.
You can’t be transcendent in the NBA if you can’t score the ball.
But through work ethic and sheer will, Leonard stayed true to himself and improved into something more.
True, he’s been on this stage before and won it all. However, if Leonard leads the underdog Toronto Raptors to glory against the Golden State Warriors, he’ll gain basketball immortality in this city and vindication over his detractors the world over.
The fans: Toronto & across Canada
Just reaching the NBA Finals is a tremendous feeling for most Toronto Raptors fans across the country. After years of disappointment, many are still in disbelief that the team managed to break through.
Obviously, it’s part of the fan experience to go through the emotional highs and lows of your favorite team’s success. When things are going great, you feel a swell of pride and like nothing can go wrong. On the other hand, when it goes sour, you’re depressed. If it happens repeatedly, you could fall into a coma of sports misery.
As mentioned earlier, for most of the history of the Toronto Raptors, it’s been the latter; fans haven’t had much to celebrate.
So after so much heartbreak, it’s finally their turn to witness greatness.
These are people after all who’d trained themselves to think that good things couldn’t happen here. This pathological belief was all-consuming and continually reinforced too. Remember, it was only a few short years ago that Toronto was voted the worst sports city in North America.
So while the odds may be against the Toronto Raptors in these NBA Finals, you can forgive the fans if they seem a bit over enthusiastic.
There’s no guarantee they’ll ever get this chance again.