It was always going to be emotional. It was never going to be just another former Raptor returning to Toronto as a rival. But DeMar DeRozan's return to Scotiabank Arena proved to be even more touching than everybody already expected.
The Toronto Raptors beat the San Antonio Spurs 120-117 on Friday night with a nerve-racking finish worthy of a Hollywood thriller, but few could have seen it coming after such an emotional start.
In the first few minutes of the highly anticipated matchup, DeRozan received huge cheers from the fans every time he touched the ball, possibly unheard of for a visiting player at the Scotiabank Arena. When he got his first points from a three-point play after two minutes, it was almost celebrated like he did it for the Raptors.
Make no mistake, no returning player would have got such support in Toronto. Go ask Damon Stoudamire, Chris Bosh or Tracy McGrady, who were booed in their first games back here as a rival. Even Vince Carter needed many years to make amends with the Raptors faithful.
DeMar is unique in that sense.
"DeMar means a lot to this city, he is this city, he is Toronto, he is The Six," Alex Mangrew, an 18-year-old fan, told NBA.com Canada before the game. Alex, along with his friend Adam, was wearing a half-and-half shirt to the game: One half Spurs, one half Raptors, number 10 in the middle. Alex was saying he would be alright with Toronto losing.
"Out of 82 games, we could let this one go: This is DeMar's night. We can lose this one," he was saying. (I did not have the chance to meet him later, but I suspect he might have changed his mind during the course of the game).
The two friends have marked the date on their calendars when the NBA schedule was announced in August. Once they managed to get the tickets, they thought the idea of the half-and-half shirt.
It was safe to say fans wearing number 10s outnumbered any other current player jerseys on Friday night. Not everyone went out of the way to design such jerseys, but there were some people that literally made it all the way to Toronto for the game.
Patty Debassise did a six-hour trip from Manitoulin Island for example.
"It'll be very emotional, now that we get to pay him a little homage for what he's done for Toronto," she said ahead of the game. "I think he's done quite a bit for putting the Toronto Raptors on the map for the past few years, that's one of his biggest accomplishments and he loves Toronto. He's part of Toronto society."
The Raptors fans did more than "a little homage," actually. Apart from that first few minutes, there was a thunderous ovation during and after the video tribute in the first timeout. It was a beautiful one-and-a-half minute video trying to encapsulate what he meant for the city. Doing justice to a connection and commitment of nine years in ninety seconds is an impossible task, but fans made sure those minutes were remembered.
In fact, the standing ovation lasted more than the video itself: Very few dry eyes left in the Arena, and DeMar came in the centre of the court to acknowledge the support.
The connection between DeMar and Toronto is a very rare feat in today's sports and the fans made sure that this would not go unnoticed. Greg Harvey and Bobby Jones are two friends that drove all the way from Vancouver for the game.
"I hated to see him go but you have to make that deal if you're Masai [Ujiri]. You can't pass up Kawhi Leonard," Harvey said. "But hopefully he'll come back one day, I don't know. Today, I came to pay my respect, to show my gratitude and support. I came 2,000 miles to show my support to him."
DeMar's connection with the Raptors went far behind simply his dedication to the team. The four-time NBA All-Star also made a huge impact in the community when he opened up about his mental health, which was almost unheard for an NBA player then.
"He's a solid individual, he said he suffers from mental health, which I appreciate, it's something that I've dealt with and I appreciate it," Harvey said.
Debassise has echoed the sentiments: "That [was] a big step for him, admitting that - not a lot of people have that bravery to say that out loud."
MORE: 5 takeaways from the game
So much has been said about the trade that sent DeRozan to the Spurs and Leonard to the Raptors since the summer. From the Raptors faithful perspective, the heart and the mind clash too often. Even those who agree that this would give the extra edge the Raptors needed in the business end of the season are regretting that they had to part ways with one of the most devoted players they had seen in Toronto.
Alex, for one, likens DeMar to "your Kobes, your Dirks, your Birds, your Magics" as one-franchise legends, and "it would be amazing if he had a chance to end his career [here]."
DeRozan is a player who wears his heart on his sleeve and literally has the word "loyalty" tattooed on his hand. From his "Don't worry, I got us" tweet to his "I am Toronto" quote, he represents a time when the Raptors upgraded from also-rans to playoff fixtures in the Eastern Conference.
Now, not only him, but also many members of that era are gone: From coach Dwane Casey to center Jonas Valanciunas or the "bench mob" members CJ Miles and Jakob Poeltl, who also had a heart-warming welcome to Toronto as a Spurs player on Friday night. Maybe it was a good thing that the emotions have flown unusually high for a regular season NBA game. And it would serve as a closure for both sides.
And maybe it already did. While DeRozan was posting his free throws to take his points tally to 23 with two minutes left in the game, the chants for him had already turned into jeers. When Kawhi and Kyle Lowry, DeMar's best friend, forced a turnover on DeRozan in the game's most crucial position, the fans were already behind their No. 2 in a white shirt.
Kawhi dropped two free throws to be the game's leading scorer in the closing seconds and the Scotiabank Arena was shouting "MVP," a chant that was long reserved for DeMar here.
It was a night full of emotions: Sweet, raw, brutal, conflicting, yet all honest emotions. It was expected to be a memorable game, but turned into a regular season classic.