SUMMERSIDE – Like all of Canada, Toronto Raptors’ fever has reached Prince Edward Island.
The Raptors will play in the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history on Thursday night when the Golden State Warriors visit Scotiabank Arena for Game 1.
“It’s not a Toronto thing, it’s a Canada-wide thing,” said Faro Halupa, head coach of the Three Oaks senior AAA boys’ basketball team.
UPEI men’s head coach Darrell Glenn is a native of Toronto and a longtime Raptors’ fan.
“I never thought I would live to see the day when the Raptors made it to the NBA Finals,” said Glenn. “It’s kind of an overwhelming feeling of happiness and surprise.
“I know the city is really stoked about it.”
The Raptors are the only team Basketball P.E.I. executive and technical director Trent Whitty has cheered for.
“Like any sports team you follow, it’s great when they are succeeding,” said Whitty. “There were a lot of disappointing years leading up to this, so you train yourself to think this day may never come.
“It’s cool to see. I love the way this particular team plays.”
Finn Turner, a Grade 11 student and shooting guard on the Three Oaks senior A boys’ team, started cheering for the Raptors in Grade 7.
“It’s easy to cheer for them when there is just one team in Canada,” said Turner in explaining his decision to cheer for the Raptors.
Matt Enman, a senior point guard with the Three Oaks senior AA boys, has followed the Raptors for a long time.
“There are a lot of bandwagoners,” chuckled Enman. “A few years ago, when they weren’t so hot, they weren’t as popular, but there is a lot of talk about the Raptors now.”
There is no disputing the Raptors’ success will only enhance basketball in Canada.
“We’ve seen so much growth in this country and this will only help,” said Halupa. “We know the Raptors are a major part of why basketball has become the second biggest sport in this country. It’s another level up for us when you have that spotlight.
“There are more kids who are going to watch basketball because of excitement. You are talking to people if you walk down the street who are barely casual basketball fans, or if you go to school and another teacher will say, ‘Did you watch the Raptors’ game last night?’
“You are like, ‘What, you are watching the Raptors’ game at 11:30 at night?’
“It’s such a huge event as a country and everyone can get onboard.”
Island Storm head coach Tim Kendrick said the Raptors success will have a far-reaching impact.
“I think it’s great for basketball in Canada,” he said. “It can’t do anything but be a great thing for basketball in this country.”
He saw the impact the Vince Carter-era Raptors had on the sport in Canada at the turn of the century and the initial spike when Toronto and Vancouver joined the league as expansion teams in 1995.
The growth was apparent as he recruited players from the Greater Toronto Area, who had grown up watching the Raptors, for UPEI.
Whitty agreed with Kendrick.
“It reminds of when Vince Carter is there and Toronto had its first taste of success,” said Whitty. “That was the early 2000s and now you are getting to see how much of an impact it had.
“It will take a little while because if a 10-year-old starts playing basketball because they were inspired by the Raptors, you may not see that result for eight years.”
Glenn, who describes the Raptors’ Kawhi Leonard as “the best two-way player on the planet,” also credits Carter with playing a big role putting the team on the map.
“I always use him as the sparkplug because he was really the player who put the franchise on the map, especially in Canada,” said Glenn, who describes the Raptors as the best defensive team Golden State has faced in the post-season. “We finally had a local hero who anyone who loved the game or wanted to play the game could aspire to.
“Since the success of that team getting to the playoffs and him missing that shot in the conference semi, there has been momentum building slowly towards the growth of the game and more kids of the game.”
Local fans' predictions for NBA Finals:
“I’m saying Raptors in six, hopefully. Kawhi (Leonard) drops 50, Game 6!”
“Raps in seven, win it at home.”
“I’m going to caution to not say too much about it. I’m looking forward to seeing the Raptors playing more basketball. I haven’t seen the Raptors play in June before, so that will be nice.”
“Golden State is so good, with Durant or not. Toronto has tons of experience so they are not going in blind. There are lots of teams when it’s their first finals would be going in blind, but they have guys who have been there, won championships and Kawhi is their leader because he has been an MVP of the finals before. Kawhi has been there, Danny Green has been in the finals and won before, (Marc) Gasol has been to the conference final and they have some experience. But to knock off the champs is not easy. If they can get them to seven, maybe! The longer it goes the better chance they have, I think. If they can get it to seven and have a seventh game in Toronto with that crowd would be crazy. If you can get to Game 7 everything changes, but I would think Golden State would win in six.”
“My money is on the Raptors. I’m going to go with the hometown team all the way.”
“Golden State is awfully good, but I’m going Raptors in seven. It’s hard not to root for the Raptors right now, being a Canadian, and myself being able to (be coaching) in a pro league right in our country.”