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NBA Finals

NBA Finals 2019: The city of Toronto revels in its long-awaited shot at the big time

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Raptors fans gather in Jurassic Park ahead of NBA Finals Game 1 (NBA Getty Images)

Fifteen hours. That is how long some Toronto Raptors fans waited outside the Jurassic Park for the Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday.

But compared to 24 years, 15 hours look so unimportant. That was how long it took the Raptors took it this far. It's all too new for the franchise, the city of Toronto and Canada. And they have been enjoying it a lot.

"Everyone's so excited," Samuel Prima said. "You know, we've been waiting 24 years for this. As fans, we've gone through so many years of mostly downs. And seeing the success over the last five years, and seeing the turnaround Toronto has been able to do this year with Kawhi [Leonard] and others stepping up has been… I've never experienced anything like this before."

Prima has mostly watched the NBA Playoffs games at home until today, but after the Game 6 victory over Milwaukee Bucks, he wanted to be at the heart of the action, to see the game in the big screens of Jurassic Park, the famous square where fans gather to watch the Raptors (and the NHL's Maple Leafs before they were eliminated) during the playoffs.

Standing next to him was Howie Huynh, and while I was chatting with them, I mistook them for friends. In fact, they just met this morning, as they happened to line up next to each other, sharing a half-day experience of queuing before the gates were to be opened.

Huynh also wanted to be at the heart of it and drove all the way from New Brunswick.

"There is a difference between watching on television and being in the crowd for sure," he told me. "That's what binds us right now. This excitement. That's why I came all the way. For the experience."

You can see the city is bound by this excitement since the Raptors clinched the Eastern Conference title. The collective joy was palpable on Saturday night: Thousands of people have poured onto the streets from Union and to Yonge-Dundas Square, and amid "Let's Go Raptors" chants and honking horns or the cars, you could see people sharing their euphoria with total strangers with high-fives and fist pumps.

Every jersey tells a story

The Raptors' gruelling journey to the NBA Finals could be traced from the jerseys of choice worn by the fans.

From the retro, purple jerseys with Barney the Dinosaur on it to current "North" ones with Leonard or Siakam, they mark the long and winding road the Raps had to take. You can read the whole story from 1995 to 2018 through the jerseys of Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady, who represent starts opting to leave sooner or later, or DeMar DeRozan, a Toronto faithful adored by the city but also one that symbolizes painful playoff exits.

Just like Kyle Lowry's unstoppable smile after the Game 6 versus the Bucks, they all seem to make being here sweeter for the Raptors faithful. For example, Chris Bosh showed up at Jurassic Park early in the morning and greeted enthusiastic fans.

The perspective is very different and in this current light, all is forgiven now.

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The New North

This is, as said, all new territory for the Raptors, and literally so.

Scotiabank Arena was redressed for the NBA Finals. The "We The North" paintings outside the arena were polished, "Eastern Champions" tag was conveniently added to the Raptors logo on the floor in the entrance and player posters were renewed with recent ones: On both sides of the main entrance door, there are gigantic photos of "The Shot" that knocked out Philadelphia 76ers on Game 7 - one with Kawhi taking the shot with 0.2 left in the clock, another one with teammates surrounding the hero after he sunk in the winner.

Those images are already part of the Toronto folklore now, as they are recreated in countless murals popping out in many corners of the city. But they are not only Instagrammable landmarks but also another symbol of the city breathing the Raptors. On Thursday, the TTC buses had "We The North" signs in it. The famous Toronto sign on the Nathan Phillips Square was lit in red and black. The Toronto District School Board called on the students to wear the Raptors colours to school.

"This is the NBA Finals, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Andy Nham, who is the Jurassic Park version of Raptors Superfan Nav Bhatia. Just like Bhatia is present at the Scotiabank Arena in every home game, Nham is ever-present at the Jurassic Park with his cheeky banners. For Game 1, he went with "Spicy P Hotter Than Curry," a nod to Pascal Siakam over Stephen Curry. But as funny and lively as he is, Nham is aware of the magnitude of the situation.

"Everything is different in the playoffs," he said. "It's intense."

If you count out the Toronto FC's MLS Cup run in 2017 out, this is the first time since 1993, when the Blue Jays successfully defended their MLB title, that a franchise from the 6ix is running for a major sports league title. So, it's only natural that the city revels in this frenzy, and it would only go higher if the Raptors manage to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy at the expense of the Golden State Warriors.

But whatever happens next, this will be an unforgettable set of weeks for the Raptors. Prima, just like every other person in the city, is aware of the occasion when he said: "Let's go all-in this one time and really have a good time to make the best of it."

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