By Jesse Robitaille
A year before marking their 25th anniversary, the Toronto Raptors became the first non-U.S. team to win the National Basketball Association (NBA) championship, in part fulfilling the league’s global ambitions.
It was a season of “firsts” for the NBA’s second youngest franchise, which played its first game in 1995 before trudging through three seasons of relative disappointment. The “Vince Carter Era” brought moderate success around the turn of the century, but it was nothing like this June, when the Raps took home the NBA’s Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy.
(As an interesting aside, trophy namesake Larry O’Brien served as U.S. Postmaster General from 1965-68, before his time as NBA commissioner from 1975-84.)
This season, Toronto began with six straight wins – a franchise record – before setting another team record for the most wins through the first 20 games (they were 16-4). It only took another four games to reach the 20-win mark in a match against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who defeated the Raptors in the previous three playoffs – 2016, 2017 and 2018.
By the time the 2019 playoffs rolled around, the Raps were second in the league – behind only the Milwaukee Bucks – but there were more “firsts” to come for the team, the league and the country at large.
In game seven of the second round, the hero was Kawhi Leonard, who was traded to Toronto in the off-season for franchise player DeMar DeRozan. A dominant force throughout these playoffs, Leonard hit a game-winning buzzer-beater to give the Raptors a 92-90 win over the Philadelphia 76ers. It was the first game seven buzzer-beater in NBA playoff history.
In the next round, this against those league-leading Bucks, the Raps lost the first two games in Milwaukee before winning four in a row to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
They were up against the back-to-back NBA champion Golden State Warriors, who were making their fifth consecutive finals appearance.
After five hard-fought games, the Raps were up 3-2 in the best-of-seven series. On June 13 in California – and with tens of thousands of fans watching back home in “Jurassic Park” and at nearly 60 other viewing parties across Canada – the Raps became the first Canadian team to win an NBA title.
They are also the first non-U.S. team to win a championship in any of the four major North American sports leagues – the NBA, National Hockey League, National Football League and Major League Baseball (MLB) – since the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993.
For reference, when the Blue Jays won their first MLB championship in 1992, the ensuing parade was about one kilometre.
The following year, when the Jays won again, the parade doubled in distance.
But on June 17, four days after the championship-clinching game, the Raptors’ parade stretched five kilometres – and several hours overschedule – with upwards of 2.5 million people taking to the streets of downtown Toronto. The festivities began at Exhibition Place, traversed west down Lake Shore Boulevard, turned north down York Street and University Avenue and finally landed at Nathan Phillips Square on Queen Street. It was an unprecedented public celebration in Canada’s largest city.
While Canada Post didn’t issue a stamp to mark either Blue Jays championship, the Crown corporation did issue a die-cut baseball-shaped stamp in 2001 to mark the team’s 25th season. It’s one of four baseball-related stamps ever issued by Canada.
While we’re looking back, only a handful of basketball stamps have been issued by Canada Post – the most recent released in 2009 as part of a four-stamp set celebrating sports invented by Canadians.
But as the country’s biggest city – and perhaps even the country itself – transforms from a “hockey city” into a basketball city, what better way to mark this monumental cultural shift and special moment in Canadian history than with a stamp?
With this year’s success and next year’s 25th anniversary, I’m unsure there will ever be a better time for a Raptors stamp, but alas, it doesn’t appear to be in the cards.
“Like all Canadians, we congratulate the Raptors on their win. We have no plans at this time for a Raptors stamp,” Sylvie Lapointe, with Canada Post media relations, told me on June 18.