It’s one thing to be cheering on the Toronto Raptors while swimming in a sea of red or white shirts at Jurassic Park, inside Scotiabank Arena or anywhere else with a We The North crowd. It’s a different experience altogether when you’re holed up with Golden State Warriors fans far away in enemy territory.
Ask Daniel Bray. The Canadian photographer who currently lives in Los Angeles was in San Francisco for work last Thursday and found himself in a bar full of Warriors supporters as Game 1 of the NBA Finals was being played in Toronto.
“The energy was really high, and the Warriors fans were certainly optimistic,” said Bray, who admits he wasn’t wearing any Raptors paraphernalia that would easily reveal his allegiance — he was only wearing a Sneaky Dee’s shirt, which certainly felt like representing Toronto in a “low key” way, he said.
As the series shifts to Oakland for Game 3 and 4 starting Wednesday, the Raptor-mania phenomenon that’s swept over the country could be descending on the Bay Area and fans such as Bray may no longer be alone.
Bray said he was not hiding his pride and passion for the Raptors during that Game 1 clash, especially as the minutes piled up and it became clear the Raptors had a good grip on the game. Warriors fans at the bar were generally polite, but they also didn’t shy away from letting their emotions out when opportunities arose, he said.
“When (Klay) Thompson dunked on (Marc) Gasol I heard someone yell ‘sit down Canada!’” said Bray, adding the comment took him by surprise.
“Like, does this guy have some vendetta against our whole country? I know a lot of Canadians see the Raptors as Canada’s team, but I didn’t realize that Americans also saw it that way.”
As one of the few Raptors fans in that part of the world, Bray said he was happy his team played well in that game, and by mid-fourth quarter the entire bar was silent — apart from him and another person he later found, who was proudly wearing an old Vince Carter jersey.
“It’s not hard to keep cheering (Raptors) on in this situation,” he said. “They’re the better looking team right now.”
Air Canada reported that there has been an uptick in ticket sales to San Francisco since the Raptors edged Milwaukee Bucks and booked their first trip to the NBA Finals. All daily flights from across the country — five from Toronto and Vancouver, three from Montreal, two from Calgary and one from Edmonton — have been pretty fully booked so far, said Air Canada’s senior director of brand marketing and sponsorships Jackie Harkness.
“It’s too bad that things in the airline industry aren’t as quick as to say, hey San Francisco, can we get a whole bunch more landing slots to send you more planes full of Toronto crazy Raptors fans?” she said.
She said she company posted a 15-per-cent discount for San Francisco tickets last week, which might have played a role in seats getting sold out fast.
Air Canada, which has partnered with the Raptors since 1995, recently launched a Fan Flight program through which team fans can win free trips to away games — plus game tickets and accommodation.
During this year’s regular season, 10 fans were flown to New York to watch Raptors take on Knicks as part of this program. And earlier this playoffs, six fans went to Orlando when Raptors played the Magic, according to Air Canada.
A total of 14 lucky fans were selected from a pool of over 1,900 applicants to head to Oakland and attend Game 4 Friday night against the champions.
It’s the opportunity of a lifetime, said Andrea Santi from Kitchener, one of those boarding the free flight Thursday morning at Pearson airport.
“It’s just unreal. Tickets to any playoff game is amazing, let alone the Toronto Raptors who’ve never been to an NBA Finals,” she said. “Going to Oakland to see this dynasty team is incredible, and I’m just really proud to be there as a Raptors fan.”
Santi said she and her entire family have been behind the Raptors since the beginning, and she played basketball in high school mainly due to the inspiration she drew from them. But being a dedicated fan of the Raptors has often lead to big disappointment — she was at Game 4 of the 2017 second round series against Cleveland Cavaliers, when LeBron James completed another sweep of the Raptors in Toronto.
But now as she packs Raptors jerseys and hats and tops on her way to Oakland, Santi said she’s full of optimism and knows the season has already been an overwhelming success no matter the outcome.
“People have asked me, you know, where are you sitting, how close?” she said. “I have no idea and it doesn’t matter. I’m just happy to be in the building and witness history. But I’m hoping the Raptors pull out a win, for sure.”
Gilbert Ngabo is a breaking news reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @dugilbo