Yesterday’s Toronto Raptors Championship parade capped off the most tremendous playoff run of any major Canadian sports franchise in the past quarter-century. An estimated north of 2 million people lined the streets of downtown Toronto and packed Nathan Phillips Square, waiting hours to see their heroes and hear them rejoice in victory.
It was a celebration shared by many across this country and a scene that will be hard to forget.
Why did so many people skip work and school, wait for hours in cramped and uncomfortable conditions along the route to see their champions atop open-air buses for a moment or two? Or the tens of thousands jammed into a small city square in front of city hall to listen to a few speeches from athletes and politician. But the question remains, what compels people to identify with athletes who rise to the top, and why do we all want to identify with them as “our team”?
When I tuned into Toronto sports radio yesterday, I heard similar themes that have been echoed over and over again during this run. Why did so many jump onboard and support this team?
Most analysts agreed that something important changed when Kawhi Leonard hit that miraculous buzzer beater in game 7 of the second round to eliminate the Philadelphia 76’ers. That shot, all its drama and significance reeled in people who would never care about basketball, and turned them into crazed and passionate supporters for the next three weeks as the Raptor’s chased championship glory.
I wrote about that shot and it’s meaning and argued that we needed to look to the deepest ideas of meaning to truly understand the gravitas of that shot. “But those [surface level] meanings pale compared to symbolic extrapolation of what the shot tells us about our collective humanity. Struggle over adversity, doing the impossible, finding a miracle, executing in the moment, and reveling in momentary perfection.”
It seemed a prophetic observation, the momentum only grew. Over 7.7 million Canadians tuned in on average to watch Toronto clinch champions’ gold against the Golden State Warriors, with 15.9 million tuning in at one point. If you add the tens of thousands in the 59 Jurassic Parks across Canada, the number reaches close to 50% of the Canadian population engaging in the same activity at the same time, and importantly with the same motivation and goal. Clearly, something deeper than a sports victory is pulling people together.
Sport Philosopher Robert Novak highlighted the etymological root of the word fan in fantastic, which relates to the Greek word fanum meaning loosely meaning Temple or Sacred Place. Sport offers us a chance to not only participate but for the spectators to invest themselves in these dramas of our collective humanity.
Sport’s transcendent nature is not just for the participants, but also for the spectators. The insistence upon fans as participants in the actual contest relates an important unique element of sport as a cultural institution.
We can actually participate with our heroes, we do not follow along with them in stories, but we actually journey with them as the story unfolds. Think of the crowd’s affect on the opponent’s and referee’s at a home game as a great example. Unlike actors, writers, poets, and artists, all involved in the sport environment participate in the action and thus experience and live its symbolic lessons in real time along with the hero.
It’s why broadcasters, for example, sound more like giddy fans on parade day than objective observers.
How could they be? No other cultural institution allows this type of participatory potential with the heroes of the story. As the athlete or the participant, sport offers humanity the experiments to touch the height of human perfection and taste the bitterness of constant and recurring death.
That’s the power of sport. It unites people in a drama they will relive forever. How many young Canadians are streaking down the right side of the basket and putting up Kawhi’s miracle shot, trying to recreate the moment? Canadian broadcasters replayed Game 6 on the radio and television over the weekend, allowing fans to bask in the glory one more time. Toronto Mayor John Tory immortalized this team by declaring parade day, June 17, as “We the North” day. This team did not just win a championship, they incredibly united millions of people around a possibility.
You can just look at the numbers to see it’s true. But even deeper than the numbers, people united around sports for its transcendent purposes. Many narratives are being written about how basketball, a global and diverse sport, is bringing together the new diverse Canada.
Yes, we can look at people’s superficial identifiers and note how the Raptors crowd is highly textured. That’s a good thing. But it’s not the important takeaway into why so many fell in love with this team.
If anything, the Raptors reflected a Canadian attitude independent of diversity. A hard working, no frills, yet confident and humble group. Fans saw in the team a sense of what unites Canada.
If we had a diversity of values in this country, we wouldn’t see the same type of unified affection for the team. We might look differently, but that’s not important.
What’s important is what brings us together.
Sports’ transcendent nature allows a society to broadcast and reaffirm important cultural values.
The Raptors’ hard work, dedication, sacrifice, execution, and excellence are virtues that Canadians still hold dear.
We may be split on politics, music, literature, art, and television, but sports provide us a place to celebrate together. It’s that message that should resonate from the Raptor’s victory.
It’s more important to share in the values that sport affirms, and that’s exactly why millions of Canadians lost themselves in the fever of the past few months.
We won’t soon forget this run, and we should remember it for all the right reasons.