It was the biggest roar of the crowd since Jose Bautista’s bat flip in 2015.When Toronto Raptors superstar Kawhi Leonard, a newly minted hero in the land of the Maple Leaf, sailed through the air for a monstrous dunk that put his club ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks for good in the deciding game of the National Basketball Association’s Eastern Conference final on Saturday, sports fans erupted in bars across the Lower Mainland.“The place was rumbling,” said Luc Frost, a bartender at Colony Bar on Main Street in Vancouver. “It was the biggest sports event here since the bat flip.“I have a friend who lives in a building across the street and he heard the cheers inside his place.”This on the heels of Leonard’s heart-stopping four-bouncer that seemingly took forever to fall good and eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers in the previous round.“For that one there was silence for a few seconds, then pandemonium,” said Frost.
Manager Phil Saxe ( L ) watches as Bartender Luc Frost ( R ) pours a beer at Colony, 2904 Main St, Vancouver May 28 2019.
Gerry Kahrmann /
The hoops crowds are mostly in their late 20s and early 30s, too young to remember the dismal history of the short-lived NBA Vancouver Grizzlies — one of the worst-managed teams in North American professional sports history — who left for Memphis in 2001 after six dreadful seasons.It gives rise to, however faintly, hope of the NBA someday returning to Vancouver: League commissioner Adam Silver told CBC two weeks ago he wished Vancouver had a team, that Canada can handle two NBA franchises.Bandwagon effect or no, on Twitter Vancouver has been the No. 1 city outside of Toronto with tweets about #WeTheNorth, the Raptors’ slogan, as the club gets set for Thursday’s Game 1 of the NBA final against the Golden State Warriors.Meanwhile, national viewership of the deciding Game 6 against Milwaukee on Saturday averaged 3.1 million viewers on Rogers Sportsnet, with a peak of 5.3 million and an aggregate of 6.8 million watching some or all of the game.That, Sportsnet said, was 77 per cent higher than the viewership for the 2016 Eastern Conference final when the Raptors lost to the Cleveland Cavaliers in six games.One of the best spots to catch the finals in Vancouver will be Red Card Sports Bar + Eatery, which has boosted business by playing Raptors games all season with the sound on.General manager Matt Kittle, a fan himself since the “Vince Carter days” of 1998 to 2004, said the bar has been at capacity for playoff games. About 150 fans turn up each night — a good mix of locals, people who used to call Toronto home and visitors from back east — most of them wearing red, he said.Seating is first-come, first-served and for the last semifinals game, the place was packed an hour before tip-off, Kittle said.“It was electric in here,” Kittle said. “People were crying, people were screaming. Glasses were being broken by accident because people were cheering so hard. It was great.”This week, Red Card is decking the place out with “We The North” flags. It’s been talking with local beer firms about Raptors swag giveaways.“It seems to be Canada’s team, so it’s cool that everyone’s coming out for it,” Kittle said.
Manager Phil Saxe ( L ) and Bartender Luc Frost ( R ) behind the bar at Colony, 2904 Main St, Vancouver May 28 2019.
Gerry Kahrmann /
Evan Morse, 32, and Trevor Kennedy, 33, regularly watch the Raptors at Red Card. Both also travelled to Portland to watch them play against the Trail Blazers last December, and attended an exhibition game between the teams last September.Morse, who grew up in Vancouver, said he was a big Grizzlies fan as a child but became a serious Raptors fan as a teenager.“When (the Grizzlies) left Vancouver, I was a little sour on the NBA for a few years, but when Vince Carter kind of took off, I got back on board and have been a Raptors fan ever since,” he said.The team’s performance in the playoffs has been “incredible,” he added.Kennedy, who moved to Vancouver from Toronto six years ago, went to Raptors games with his dad as a child.“I started to become a fan again about four years ago, right before they last made the Eastern Conference finals,” Kennedy said. “We had a winning team, we had some solid players again.”Kennedy said it’s been exciting to watch the team gain popularity locally over the past two years. He welcomes all the fans who joined during the playoffs.“This is a huge change in Canadian basketball history, so the more people the merrier,” he said.Vancouver city hall officials looked at the logistics of either hosting or funding a Jurassic Park-type of street party, but decided there was not enough time to plan nor a viable location.“The City will not be hosting or providing funding for an NBA Finals viewing event in Vancouver,” a spokesman said.“Events of this nature require adequate lead time to plan and execute successfully, and while we reviewed plans for a potential viewing event, we were not able to identify a location that was suitable and available for a series of up to seven games.”Mayor Kennedy Stewart said he hasn’t had enough time to watch much of the NBA playoffs so far, but he’s glad to see Canada’s only team doing well.“This is great for (Toronto), but also great for the whole country,” Stewart said.With files from Dan Fumanogordmcintyre@email@example.com/nickeaglandCLICK HERE to report a typo. Is there more to this story? We’d like to hear from you about this or any other stories you think we should know about. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.