TORONTO — Something that often happens to the Toronto Raptors on the road happened the other night in Washington.
The Raptors and Wizards got in a mild tussle, and some members of the D.C. crowd started chanting, “U-S-A! U-S-A!” Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A., then came on the PA system, since the Wizards’ game operations crew is apparently oblivious to the fact that most of the Raptors are, themselves, born in the United States, and that the song is a Vietnam War protest song.
But this is the thing about the Raptors: there are at once a truly international team, heavy on Americans, but with key players also from Europe and Africa, and yet they are very much a team of Canada. It’s why Americans shout pro-American things at the Americans who wear Raptors jerseys: they see this team as representing Somewhere Else.
And so, when that somewhere else was shattered by tragedy on Monday afternoon, the Toronto Raptors, the team from everywhere, spoke up for their adopted home.
“Everywhere I go I brag about this city,” said Masai Ujiri, the team president from Nigeria who played and worked in Europe for years and is on his second front-office stint in Toronto. “It’s the safest place in the world, it’s the best city in the world, and it’s going to continue to be the best place and the best city.”
Ujiri said he was in a meeting on Monday afternoon when texts and messages from around the NBA started flooding his phone. He turned on the television to see the reports of dead and injured pedestrians struck by a van on a Yonge Street sidewalk. He’s travelled enough to have been close to mass-casualty events before, and he said he’s had times when his mother has been worried about some of the places he’s gone for his job. Once, she gave him grief over such a trip when he was back home in Denver, where he was working at the time. Days later, a movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado, Denver’s nearest Eastern suburb, was the scene of a mass shooting.
You could be anywhere, Ujiri said, and these things could happen. ”We must continue to live our lives and not be afraid,” he said.
Kyle Lowry, the star guard, said he thought about his children when he saw the “sickening” news. It could have been them, he said, echoing a thought shared by millions in this huge city in the hours since the news broke and everyone thought of the times that had walked that same sidewalk, in a busy stretch in Toronto’s north end. Lowry said he was amazed by the video of the police officer who apprehended the suspect without firing a shot.
“I think in America he would have been shot up a few times,” he said. “Kudos to that officer.”
And, as the Raptors prepare for a crucial Game 5 at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday night, they acknowledged that the events of Monday put recent playoff struggles in a different light.
“It was just this weekend I was talking to people in Washington about how safe Toronto is,” said coach Dwane Casey, who grew up in Kentucky during the civil-rights era, a time that was scary for different reasons. “It does put things in perspective. There are things much bigger than sport that are going on in the world, and right now in Toronto,” he said. “Hopefully sport can give a relief, a reprieve, some joy in our lives a little bit. It should lighten things up.”
If nothing else, it will be a distraction. The Maple Leafs served that role on Monday night, winning a home game to extend their playoff series, with Game 7 coming in Boston on Wednesday, as the Raptors will be tipping off at home against Washington. The Blue Jays are playing a couple of blocks away, too, and Toronto FC will be chasing a championship in Mexico on the same night. MLSE announced on Tuesday afternoon that there would be a joint Leafs-Raptors-TFC viewing party in Maple Leaf Square, outside the Air Canada Centre, on Wednesday night.
It won’t help with the suffering of those involved, or with answers for why it happened, but all those games, one big cathartic party, will provide something else for Toronto to think about.
And for the Raptors, beset by questions after a two-game losing streak, Monday’s events were a reminder that one can only get so worked up about aggressive defence and limiting turnovers.
“What we do doesn’t really matter sometimes. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be on that sidewalk,” Ujiri said. “My drive home, it’s all I thought about was that, and the heaviness of it, but the next thing I thought about was I still know who we are, I still know what this city is.”
Ujiri may not have been here as long as some, but his pride in this place is evident. He said he knew it would carry on: “I still know that those kinds of things can never put a city, a country, like this down.”
• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: @scott_stinson