Kawhi Leonard’s historic game 7 buzzer-beater allows Raptors fans — and the city of Toronto — to take a long-awaited collective sigh of relief.
I was more-or-less on my way out of my mother’s womb when the Toronto Raptors franchise was born 24 years ago in 1995. Since then, I have been heavily invested in Toronto sports, as anyone who knows me at all will tell you, but I didn’t actually start following the Raptors closely until about six years ago. I grew up mostly watching the Maple Leafs and Blue Jays, two iconic Toronto teams that were usually good but rarely great throughout my lifetime. Through twenty-odd years of watching those teams, I was provided with many moments to cheer for and even more to be disappointed about. Except for maybe Jose Bautista’s bat flip in 2015, nothing came close to what happened on Sunday night.
I only started closely following the Raptors midway through high school at the start of the Masai Ujiri era, which is to say I wasn’t around for most of the years of suffering. I still feel like I was, though, in some masochistic but necessary way. Maybe because for myself Toronto sports blend together into an amalgamation of disappointment: None of the major Toronto teams have won a championship (or even made a finals appearance) in my lifetime, but they have all provided me with moments of genuine sadness. The last time the Jays won was in 1993. The Leafs won in 1967. And the Raptors have been to the Eastern Conference Final once in their 24-year history in 2016, although they never had a real shot against LeBron James that year anyway.
On Sunday night, Kawhi Leonard made us forget about our tortured past. He put a fan base in dire need of a win on his back and provided Raptors fans — and the city of Toronto — with the greatest moment in franchise history on the greatest shot in franchise history in the biggest game in franchise history. As Drake said: Nothing was the same.
I recently returned to Toronto after a six month trip in South America. There were many things I was looking forward to returning home: My bed, family and friends, a clean baño, a plate of food other than rice, chicken, plantain, and salad, Game of Thrones, and the playoffs, to name a few. That might sound sad to some of you, that I was looking forward to the playoffs more than, say, speaking English, but coming home to cheer on the Maple Leafs and Raptors with my friends was something I was genuinely excited to do. I have always been attracted to the power of sport: Its ability to bring people together is, in my opinion, unmatched.
Sport has another unique ability, though, much less obvious but sometimes even more important: Every so often it provides fans with a moment of clarity so big and important that everything in the periphery seems to fadeaway; as if everything is suddenly fine no matter what else is really happening in your life. After the Maple Leafs typically flamed out in seven games against the Boston Bruins, with the culture shock of returning home mounting, and the Game of Thrones writers seeming to forget everything that made the show great in the first place, and the continued rain in Toronto, I really didn’t think I was going to get one of those moments. I didn’t think WE were going to get one of those moments. And then Kawhi Leonard happened.
In the dying seconds of a tense game 7 between the Raptors and Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday night in Toronto, Leonard went to shoot 2 free-throws with just 10.8 seconds remaining and the Raptors up 89-88. A career 85 percent free throw shooter, Leonard had to sink both shots in order to put the Raptors into a comfortable situation: up 3 with 10.8 seconds remaining and the 76ers without a timeout. Instead, Leonard bricked the second shot, everyone tried to get the rebound instead of running back on defense, and Jimmy Butler made a quick layup to tie the game 90-90 with 4.2 seconds remaining. It was shocking and yet not surprising at the same time: Raptors fans are used to these moments where everything seems to be going our way and then suddenly turns for the worst. Think about the end of game 1 against the Cleveland Cavaliers in last year’s Eastern Conference Semi-Final, or LeBron’s buzzer-beater in game 3 of the same series, or Vince Carter missing a shockingly similar buzzer-beater to lose to the 76ers 18 years ago, or losing game 7 to the Brooklyn Nets in 2014, or any other time the Raptors disappointed us.
Raptors fans specifically, and Toronto sports fans generally, have been subject to torture time and time again. We have grown so pessimistic that we actually expect the worst thing to happen in the most critical moments. That’s why Butler tying the game when it didn’t seem possible felt normal. And that’s why with four seconds left we didn’t think it was possible for Kawhi to give us a moment we’ll never forget. But he did: running around the arc, shooting a 15-foot baseline jumper high over the outstretched hands of 7-foot-0 center Joel Embiid, the ball hitting the rim four times before finally falling through the mesh as the buzzer sounded. For Raptors fans it was a feeling of elation so foreign to us that we hardly knew what to do with ourselves.
The historical significance of that shot cannot be understated: Leonard became the first player to hit a game-winning buzzer-beater in a game 7 in NBA history and the second one in a winner-take-all game alongside Michael Jordan’s “The Shot.” But the personal significance? That can’t be described in words.
All I know is that Kawhi provided Torontonians with a moment so shockingly beautiful most of us will remember it for the rest of our lives. At least I will: I’ll remember gathering around my friend’s TV, watching a gimmicky stream that could have given out at any moment, surrounded by some of my best friends and some of the biggest Raptors fans I know, all of us on our feet holding our breath until the ball finally fell through the net. We were jumping and screaming and hugging each other until it felt weird, and even then we couldn’t understand the significance of that moment.
Ian Karmel recently wrote something for The Ringer that really stuck with me. He wrote: “I’m tired of being right; I just want to be happy, and that’s why I’m for the moments… They may never hang a banner for the things that make you really love a team.”
I could immediately relate because most moments in my life blend into one another like a Vincent Van Gogh painting, but there are a few that stick out: moments I randomly remember that put a smile on my face no matter where I am or what I’m doing. Kawhi’s shot is one of those moments, and for a fan base as tortured as Toronto’s, it’s one of few we can hang on to. It doesn’t matter if the Raptors lose to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals. It doesn’t even matter if Kawhi leaves Toronto in the offseason and signs in Los Angeles. All that matters right now, in this very moment, is that Kawhi gave us a moment we can be proud of. Toronto was finally on the right side of sports history. How can anyone be mad about that?