TORONTO — There were no dancing bears. No jugglers, clowns or acrobats. But make no mistake: the circus rolled into town here Wednesday, complete with all the sizzle you could pack into Scotiabank Arena.
In case you've been living under a sporting rock and haven't heard, the Toronto Raptors have made it to the NBA Finals for the first time ever, taking on the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in a best-of-seven series that tips off Thursday night. And that meant the public relations high-wire act known simply as Media Day was held north of the border for the first time, as well.
And what a show it was. The NBA is in the entertainment business, and it puts on a master class in how to market both the on-court product and the big-name personalities who help give the league the most diverse and widespread audience in North American sports.
I can think of at least one league that might want to be taking notes. Where the NHL seems to almost take a bizarre sense of pride in allowing their best players to be cut down to size through hooks, slashes and holds on a nightly basis, the NBA knows it's the stars who make its world go 'round.
And so, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry and company held court for the home club Wednesday, while Steph Curry and Draymond Green and crew did the same for the visitors.
They're so well known, even to casual observers of the sport, that they're often referred to by first names only.
"I think once this is over, it's still between the lines. You're playing five-on-five. We're still playing basketball. We have a scheme. Just focus on that and don't focus on the outside attention," said the main attraction, Leonard, who is arguably the best basketball player on the planet right now in leading the Raptors to basketball's Promised Land.
'We know what we need to do here inside this locker room every day, so don't pay attention to people who are not in your locker room' – Kawhi Leonard
"We know what we need to do here inside this locker room every day, so don't pay attention to people who are not in your locker room."
Good luck blocking out all the outside noise and pressures, especially to a group about to experience it for the first time.
"Obviously you want to say so much that it's going to be a regular day, that it's going to be, yeah, it's just another day, but it's just not another day. It's the Finals. It's an exciting time of the year. I think all the eyes, everyone is watching. I mean, it's an important moment," said Toronto power forward Pascal Siakam.
No kidding. To millions of fans around the globe, these players are not just instantly recognizable, but living legends. One quickly got a sense of the reach of the NBA just by surveying the massive media horde Wednesday, which could be counted in the hundreds.
The whole event got so crowded at one point, security had to tell some of the reporters to take a few steps back, because they were stepping onto the court while Toronto players went through their final shooting drills near the end of practice, with all of us invited to watch them up close from the sidelines.
It was quite a sight, almost hypnotic, watching Leonard drain bucket after uncontested bucket from the three-point line, while standing just a few feet away from him as he did it.
There were all the usual American media heavyweights here, of course, including Jimmy Kimmel's late-night talk show doing a bit for television. Kimmel's sidekick, known simply to fans as Guillermo, got shooting guard Norm Powell of the Raptors to pound back a shot glass filled with maple syrup.
Other comedic moments included a question posed to Golden State shooting guard Klay Thompson about what he'll do if a Drake song comes on his playlist. Drake, of course, is a Raptors' superfan.
"If it's a bad song, I'll skip it. But if it's one of his hits, I'll play it. I've been a Drake fan since I was in high school. He's a great artist. Do I like him as a Raptor fan? No. But I like him as a musician," said Thompson.
All joking aside, there was an international flavour to the day not in evidence covering any other of the continent's major sports. A reporter in front of me waiting in the long line to pick up credentials, had just flown in from Spain. I watched broadcasters and print reporters from Brazil, Japan and the Philippines asking questions, doing live hits and shooting photos and videos to send back to their various audiences.
It shows what a huge deal this is. Especially for hoops fans in both Toronto, and across Canada, who have jumped on board the bandwagon and now have a major spotlight pointed in their direction. And that goes for back home in Winnipeg, where basketball continues to surge in popularity, especially among new Canadians.
"It says a lot that the first NBA Finals outside of America is being played here. Maybe one day it will be real world champions or something, but this is what we dream of," said a wide-eyed Masai Ujiri, the England-born, Nigeria-raised, 48-year-old architect and president of the Raptors.
"I can tell you it's going to be crazy. It's going to be crazy here tomorrow. It's going to be crazy here on Sunday (for Game 2). It's going to be crazy here for a few days because that's the mentality of our fan base. We know it's across the world. That's something special about here. We can reach the world easy from here, from Canada, and we're happy to be the global team that represents the NBA."
'I can tell you it's going to be crazy. It's going to be crazy here tomorrow. It's going to be crazy here on Sunday (for Game 2). It's going to be crazy here for a few days because that's the mentality of our fan base' – Raptors general manager, Masai Ujiri
And there's perhaps no greater example than this Toronto squad, a true melting pot of cultures and personalities.
"It's really brought us together, and I think it says so much because that's how our city is, that's how the country is, that we can all relate to the multicultural or the diversity of Toronto and Canada and that's how our team is. They talk in different languages on defence, they talk in different languages in the locker room, and it's like that in our organization," Ujiri said.
That was on full display later in the day as Siakim, who was born in Cameroon, fielded media questions in both fluent English and French.
All of this is old hat for Golden State, of course. They're in the finals for the fifth (yawn) straight year, but seem to recognize the importance of this one starting in unfamiliar territory after facing the Cleveland Cavaliers in the previous four, winning three of them.
"I think that the sense now that we have as a team is we can understand, we can feel how important this is to the whole country. So it's a different vibe. It's a different feeling. It's exciting. It's great for the game," Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
And there will be a bit of extra giddy-up in the step of Golden State's Curry, whose father, Dell, played three seasons with the Raptors.
"I lived here for a couple years, went to school out here. My wife grew up in Markham, right down the street. So a lot of family history, and that side of the family still lives here," Curry said. "I look forward to coming back here every regular season, and now to be in the NBA Finals, it's something I've even been looking forward to if they ever made it. So it's here and I'm going to enjoy it."
No doubt Raptors fans hope he doesn't enjoy it too much.
In case you're looking for a last-minute ticket, well, you might want to go speak with your financial adviser. The games are all sold out, but secondary online sales are going for in excess of $20,000 per seat.
No, you won't get to sit courtside with Drake. But at least it gets you under the Big Top for a first-hand look at the show, which promises to be a spectacle unlike anything we've ever seen before in this country.
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.
Updated on Thursday, May 30, 2019 at 5:12 PM CDT: Fixes typo