If YOLO is a word, YOLAFCPO should be one: You Only Live A First Championship Parade Once. Toronto lived its yesterday, and made sure it was an affair to remember.
The city of Toronto estimates 1.5 to 2 million people were present at the streets at the Raptors' homecoming party. If you think about it, watching a championship parade is, literally, bandwagoning. It is about being a part of something big, no matter where you join. You may start queuing on the Nathan Phillips Square the night before for the closest spot to the stage, or you may arrive at noon to get a glimpse of the winners. It does not matter how far you are, it is about celebrating. It is about being with the team to the point that you become a part of it.
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The parade started off at Exhibition Place and continued through the Lake Shore Boulevard before taking a turn north to the York Street, continued to University Avenue and reached the Nathan Phillips Square, Toronto's centerpiece, with the City Hall looking down on it. On paper, it would take them two and a half hours to reach their final destination, but instead, it took five. We are talking about a five-kilometer route here, but with literally millions on either side of the road, it is normal that the usual distance/speed formula would not work here.
One thing that is not working with the parades is an all-encompassing story. If we were possibly two million people out there, there is a good chance that there would be two million different experiences. Waiting for the players to show up on the stage for five hours is a one thing, or catching the parade early and then going to catch the later bits on television is another.
Me, I was a little in between both. I was on the Queen Street West - University Avenue intersection, the corner leading to the center stage. The Nathan Phillips Square was announced as full early Monday morning, and people were advised to take up different spots on the way. Finding a spot near the road was an arduous task, but it dwarfed compared to staying there for many hours. It was a hot June day and you keep dehydrated, sunburnt and vertigo at the same time, your feet slowly making sure you remember you are not treating them well. And it is crowded, getting more crowded by the minute. It is nothing compared to playing an NBA playoff game with a dislocated finger, or with seven stitches and a chipped tooth, (I'm looking at you, Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet) but it is an endurance test anyway.
Again, your experience could have been infinitely different than mine, but extreme crowds, hot weather and hours of waiting is usually not a good mix. On Monday, it was mostly happy people enjoying themselves. When Drake, the team's Global Ambassador, urged people to hug a stranger, it was a beautiful moment reminding everybody what this was all about. A city united by a team, by basketball.
Speaking of people, even looking at their jersey choices were telling. My observation was that Kyle Lowry jerseys were outnumbering them all, which was fitting Toronto's story with their longest-serving player. Then came Fred VanVleet, the choice of those who appreciated true grit, the underdog who could, the undrafted player being the X Factor in the NBA Finals. Of course there were lots of Kawhi Leonard's, by those who are attracted to the star power. DeMar DeRozan's I saw were far more than Kawhi's, though, meaning, lots of people were still appreciating not only the title, but also "the friends they've made along the way." There was the odd Bosh or Calderon, who took it one step further and made sure they are not on the bandwagon. And of course, there were people with purple, dinosaur-clad jerseys with Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady on the back - I'd rather say they are not particularly in the stands back then, but rather attracted to the late nineties/noughties iconography.
And it was only fitting that Kyle Lowry had one of those actually worn by Damon Stoudamire on, while he was holding the Larry O'Brien trophy on top of the open-top bus. It was a fitting tribute to how far the franchise has come, how long the fans had to wait for this inaugural NBA title. He also had the biggest share of ovation, but Marc Gasol was by far the liveliest. We all knew Kawhi would eventually steal the show, and he did, when he would hold the microphone onstage at Nathan Phillips Square, with "the last laugh."
HE'S A FUN GUY! pic.twitter.com/oKiMp9uzKw- Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) June 17, 2019
A few months ago, Drake made a memorable speech after receiving his Grammy for best rap song, drawing the differences between sports and art, which is "not the NBA where at the end of the year you're holding a trophy because you made the right decisions or won the games."
The Raptors won just that, for sure. But Drake went on to add that "you've already won if you have (…) people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow." On Monday, people from all walks of life, from kids to the elderly, Toronto in all its cultures, languages and ethnicities, came together to celebrate a historic achievement by their dear Raptors.
This was the first ever, and there will never be a first time again. But the North will remember this.