I have a bit of a confession to make today, something I need to get off my chest. And I suspect I’m not alone, either. There are many people just like me, across this great country of ours, waking up and likely feeling the exact same way.
Here goes: I've fallen for you. You've swept me off my feet. And I need you in my life.
Hey, I’m as surprised as anyone. I really thought I could get by without you. Sure, there’d always been a bit of a passing interest, at least from a distance. But we weren’t exactly close, you know?
I had hockey, my first true sporting passion, to keep me company. And baseball. And football. And golf. You were, to be honest, quite far down my list. I’d really only make time for you as a last resort, to be honest. My dance card was already pretty full. Don’t take it personally. It wasn’t you. It was me.
But that all changed over these last few weeks, when I really got to know you. And it's all thanks to what amounts to a blind date, really, when Free Press editor Paul Samyn and sports editor Steve Lyons set me up to head to Toronto to cover the NBA Finals for the paper.
A dream gig, for sure, even if I didn’t know what to expect.
But as I was glued to my television Thursday night as the final seconds ticked down in Oakland — which ended with the Toronto Raptors capturing their first championship in franchise history — I couldn’t help but think of how far we'd come in such a short time. It was a true awakening.
How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
• The athleticism. The men, and women, who play the sport at the highest level are truly genetic freaks. And seeing them up close, as I got to do while covering Games 1, 2 and 5 in Toronto, gave me a real appreciation for all the tools they have. It’s not just the sheer size that grabs your attention, but also the speed with which they move up and down the floor, how they whip the ball around with power and precision and leap through the air with elegance and grace. They are a mix of gladiator and acrobat.
• The physicality. There’s a heck of a lot more aggression and contact in basketball than I realized, which isn't always obvious to a casual observer. You quickly realize it’s not for the weak. Players take a pounding, and the intensity was often off the charts, especially with the stakes at their highest. You can't help but be drawn in.
• The stars. Watching Steph Curry, Kevin Durant (albeit briefly before he got reinjured), Klay Thompson, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, among others was a delight. These guys are masters of their craft, supremely confident and not afraid to flaunt it. Watching them go back and forth, toe to toe, trading big shot after big shot on the biggest stage, was all quite intoxicating. And then listening to them break it all down — the NBA makes the biggest names available to media on a daily basis — helped keep the drama going.
• The spectacle. The NBA sure knows how to sell entertainment. From beginning to end, watching a game in person was non-stop sensory overload. From the famous anthem singers to celebrities in the crowd to musical performances during TV timeouts and at the half, there’s never a dull moment. It’s easy to see why this is the coolest sports league in North America, catering especially to younger audiences.
• The inclusiveness. You won’t see a more diverse, multicultural sporting crowd — and that’s truly something to celebrate. Whether it was inside Scotiabank Arena or the thousands gathering at Jurassic Park outside, how refreshing to see fans of all races gathering together for a common cause.
• The grassroots growth. One of the byproducts of Toronto’s success is how the sport is really taking off in Canada. I had the privilege of speaking with a number of people involved in various levels of the sport in past weeks and got a real sense of how popular it’s becoming, including right here in Manitoba, especially among recent immigrant families. It’s exciting to think of where things may be in another decade or two, with another major boom period likely on the way. And while there's no NBA team here, we have plenty of solid options in town, including university hoops and a growing youth program at various levels. The seeds have been planted for major growth.
• The payoff: I had no rooting interest, other than loving a good, juicy story. And the Raptors capping off a magical season by dethroning a dynasty in Golden State, bringing Canada the first championship in one of the four big North American sports league since 1993, certainly qualifies. Not to mention seeing how the bandwagon grew from coast to coast, including major viewing parties in several cities, generating a feel-good sense of unity and pride.
Is basketball perfect? Of course not. No sport is. The officiating is as up and down as the action itself, with the men in stripes often having far too much say in an outcome. The final couple minutes of most games take far too long. There’s perhaps almost too much reliance, at times, on individual play over team success. There are too few underdog-type stories, with the favourites almost always winning in the end. The season drags on too long, and there's too much time between games in the finals.
Still, I can safely say these last couple weeks have hooked me and reeled me in, opening my eyes to what I’ve been missing. The record-breaking Canadian television ratings, which have increased with each passing game, suggest I'm far from being alone.
"I watched zero NBA games ever prior to two weeks ago. I feel now I’m hooked. WOW!" a follower told me on Twitter late Thursday night, perfectly summing up what I suspect many others are feeling in the aftermath of what was some truly compelling theatre between Toronto and Golden State.
Unfortunately, with the season now over, we have to go our separate ways, for now. In this case, I’m sure absence will indeed make the heart grow fonder.
However, I look forward to getting back together in the fall and hopefully finding that spark again.
Your new pal, Mike.
Mike McIntyre grew up wanting to be a professional wrestler. But when that dream fizzled, he put all his brawn into becoming a professional writer.