);
NBA Finals

NBA Playoffs 2019: Raptors' NBA Finals berth erases years of heartbreak for Toronto fans

Kawhi Leonard holds the Eastern Conference championship trophy after clinching a spot in the NBA Finals.
Kawhi Leonard holds the Eastern Conference championship trophy after clinching a spot in the NBA Finals. (Getty Images)

It doesn't feel real. No matter how many times I replay the final seconds of the series-clinching win or how many times I check the boxscore, it doesn't feel real.

The Toronto Raptors are Eastern Conference Champions - and they're on their way to the NBA Finals.

I'm 33-years-old, so I've been alive for the entire existence of the franchise. I remember where I was when the Raptor came busting out of the egg. I remember how excited I was that there would be an NBA franchise in our country. I remember where I was watching the Naismith Cup game between the Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies in their inaugural season.

To be here now 24 years later feels so surreal.

No matter how big or casual of a Raptor fan I ran into through the years, we shared one common bond - we loved the Raptors because they were ours, they were Canada's team.

Through the ups and downs, the rebuilds and promises of competing. Through heartbreaks and feelings of inadequacy as a franchise, they were still our team, they were still Canada's team.

Every Raptor fan has a story of heartbreak that they haven't been able to shake through the years. For some, it's Damon Stoudamire fed up with losing and asking for a trade. Others are still hurt by the way Vince Carter left. Chris Bosh's exit didn't feel as bad as Vince's, but at the time it felt like the franchise would never be able to keep their stars.

While losing star players sucks in any circumstances, it's the failed playoff runs that most Raptor fans grumble over. Carter's missed fadeaway against the 76ers in the Conference Semifinals was sandwiched between two first-round exits that very few grieve over. Most Raptor fans were just happy to be there and at the time, it felt like we were just getting started with the Carter-era.

Bosh's run as the go-to guy gave the franchise their first division title, but it never truly felt like the Bosh-Jose Calerdon led Raptors would ever compete for a championship.

The last five playoff runs have probably taken years off of our collective lives. The old savvy Nets taught the Raptors a lesson in how to win a playoff series - or at least we hoped. The next season a clean sweep at the hands of the Wizards left the fan base filled with anger and disappointment.

How could we have such regular season success and be embarrassed in the postseason that way? The 2016 playoff run finally brought some hope and light. After battling through two grueling seven-game series, we finally made it to the Conference Finals. LeBron James was there standing in our way and even though most predicted a sweep, the Raps found a way to win two games.

We had arrived - or so we thought.

The next two runs ended the same way. Great regular seasons, filled with so much promise. The team saying all the right things heading into a battle with LeBron and the Cavs, only to be swept and left wondering if it would ever happen. Would we ever break through?

Last summer may have been the most confusing as a Raptors supporter. Dwane Casey was no longer the team's coach - and no matter where you stood on the decision, we can all agree there hasn't been a better coach in the franchise's history. Then the face of the franchise, the guy who wanted to be here, the only one who stayed when he could've left, was traded away.

It was the first time the Raptors franchise had given up their best player when he wanted to stay in the city. Very few things can be compared to the connection between the city and franchise player. This was different, it wasn't just a city that loved DeMar DeRozan, it was an entire nation. We loved DeMar and he loved us back, so to see him leave and the way he did was tough.

But in return, Toronto got back one of the league's best players. Kawhi Leonard's mere presence on the roster - without even playing a single game - made him pound for pound the best player the franchise had ever had. But it didn't take long for the Toronto thing to happen. You know that fear that the wrong decision was made? That fear that Kawhi had one foot in, one foot out? Reports came out seemingly seconds after the trade was announced saying he had no desire to play for the team - and we believed them.

82 games went by and you were either on one side or the other - Kawhi is a Raptor and let's enjoy the moment or he's going to leave. There was no in-between.

What we've witnessed as fans this season is the most dominant season in Toronto sports history. More dominant than Josh Donaldson's MVP year in 2015 or Roger Clemens' Cy Young season. More dominant than any season from Toronto FC's Sebastian Giovinco. Neither Doug Gilmore nor Mats Sundin has had a run quite like this.

Kawhi's regular season output gets taken for granted because of the load management storyline, but his numbers were MVP-calibre. His run so far in the playoffs is amongst the best in NBA history - yes, history!

Kawhi may very well be the best player in the league today, bar none. He's up there with Steph, KD, Giannis, Harden, you name it. Having him on this run has been the biggest blessing Toronto sports has ever had. Period.

It feels like Toronto has already won. The celebration after the final horn felt that way. I'm sure I'm not the only one who got teary-eyed knowing the Raptors made the finals. I thought about all the down years, the heartbreak, the false hope and the fact that through it all as a fanbase, we were right there. No matter how disappointed we were, we kept coming back.

That's what it meant to be a Raptor fan.

I also think about the many fans across Canada. Some who traveled from every single part of this great nation to see one game a year. Some who pay regular season ticket prices to watch a preseason game.

The many kids who picked up a basketball wanting to one day play in the NBA. The many fellow journalists who cover this game so well in this country who will finally get to cover an NBA Finals sleeping in their own beds.

We've come a long way as a basketball nation. Thursday night the spotlight of the basketball world won't just be on Toronto, Ontario, it will be on the entire country.

When our national anthem hits before Game 1 of the NBA Finals, it will be for the first time. If you're anything like me you'll probably shed a few tears.

We may never have thought we would make it, but here we are.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA or its clubs.

More from NBA.com

getimage.ashx-31.jpeg
Raptors face Kawhi Leonard for the first time as a Clipper
Scott Rafferty
og-111119-ftr-getty.jpg
Anunoby (eye) will not return
Scott Rafferty
parker-ftr.jpg
Sights, sounds from Parker's jersey retirement
Scott Rafferty
#Curry
Curry expects to return this season
Benyam Kidane
walker-smart-ftr.jpg
Celtics win 8th-straight vs. Mavericks
Kyle Irving
What are your impressions of the Toronto Raptors three weeks into the season?
What we know about the Toronto Raptors after the first 10 games
NBA.com Staff
More News