June 6, 2019

Training Camp Timing Tough On Raptors Fans

Some of the most passionate Toronto Raptors fans in Edmonton haven’t been watching the first two games of the NBA Finals.

The Canadian basketball buffs have been stuck in evening meetings during Eskimos training camp.

“It’s the worst,” said national receiver Natey Adjei, semi-seriously. “We get little breaks to use the bathroom or whatever and I’ll be in there checking the scores furiously.

“This year, we can’t have our phones in the meeting rooms, so I have no idea what’s going on, but once we get our break, I’m checking the scores, asking my wife to send me updates on what’s happening, so it’s definitely exciting times, but tough with Coach (Jason) Maas’s rules.”

Game 3 in the NBA Finals between the Raptors and Golden State Warriors, who won three of the last four championships, starts at 7 p.m. Wednesday. The series is currently tied 1-1.

“Before, we knew we were good, but we always knew that LeBron (James) would be there or somebody would be there, and we wouldn’t have a chance to win,” Adjei pointed out. “But we actually believe this year that we have a chance to win and that’s something we’ve never had before.”

“It means a lot,” said national receiver Tevaun Smith, the Eskimos’ first-round draft pick in 2016. “Not only for the Raptors and Toronto, but the rest of the country. You’ve got a guy like Kawhi (Leonard) and the whole country behind him, that’s something special. That’ll make the city of Toronto go crazy, honestly.”

“It’s history in the making right now,” Adjei said. “It’s Canadian history; basketball history. It’s the first time we’ve been in the finals. First time for literally having a superstar of Kawhi’s calibre on the team to cheer for. It’s brought exciting times, for sure.

“All of the guys from Ontario are pretty big Raptors fans,” he continued. “Blair Smith. Tevaun, we watch games together. Arjen (Colquhoun) is a pretty big Raptors fan. (Safety Jordan) Hoover.”

Linebacker Christophe Mulumba-Tshimanga, who grew up in Montreal, is also a huge Raptors fan.

“Oh, (quarterback) Trevor Harris, too,” Adjei said. “Yeah, I converted him this year. I’m going to get him a Kawhi jersey for his birthday (last week), but he’s a Raptors fan now. He loves the team.”

Fortunately, the Eskimos interested in Raptors’ results can play catch-up after their meetings.

“NBA TV does a good job of showing full highlights,” said Adjei. “I have a (NBA) League Pass so I can literally see all the highlights quarter-by-quarter.”

Adjei said he’s probably been a Raptors fan “since birth.”

“My dad watched everything in the Toronto area – Blue Jays, Raptors, Argos – so he exposed us to the Raptors pretty early. As soon as they got a team and Vince Carter came, it was like lights out for me.”

Mulumba, 26, started watching Carter, a fan favourite, and the Raptors around the turn of the century.

“Growing up, that’s the only team they were showing on TV,” he said. “That’s the only team we have in Canada, and it became my favourite team.

“I’ve been through it all,” he added. “I’ve been through the rough times, the times they didn’t make the playoffs. That’s why being in the final means a lot to us, the real fans because we’re more than just one year. It’s been something like 20 years.”

Mulumba observed that the Raptors made it to the championship final despite trailing in every playoff series – even losing the first two games to the Milwaukee Bucks in the East Conference Final.

“Not that we doubt (them), but it seems like it’s not going well and they end up coming with a big win,” Mulumba said. “That’s what’s surprising the most.

“Kawhi Leonard is playing to a whole other level that we’ve never seen before. It’s really nice.”

Tevaun Smith finally joined the CFL team this year after spending three seasons trying to make the grade in the NFL.

“When I was young, I always loved watching basketball,” he said. “My cousins always took me to Raptors games, and I was a Vince Carter fan. I’ve got Vince Carter jerseys. I try to watch as many Raptors games as I can.”

Smith played basketball as a shooting guard through high school and had a lot of people telling him he could play basketball or football at the next level.

“Once I chose football, that whole basketball thing went downhill,” he admitted. “I’m not as good as I used to be.”

Don’t tell anyone, but Blair Smith has actually been cheering for Golden State since the Warriors drafted star point guard Steph Curry in 2009.

“I loved Steph Curry coming out of Davidson (College),” said Smith, a linebacker who is one of the Eskimos stalwarts on special teams. “He was amazing in that (2008 NCAA) tournament.”

Davidson made it all the way to the Elite Eight before finally losing out.

“I’m definitely rooting for (the Raptors) to succeed,” Smith said. “Honestly, it’s easy for me to cheer for the Raptors right now. I have a Vince Carter poster – from the (2000 NBA All-Star Game’s) Slam Dunk Contest – in my basement right now, so it’s easy for me to say, ‘Go Raptors!’ Forget the Warriors right now, but I’ve been cheering for the Warriors the last few years.”

Smith, 28, said, “Vince Carter broke my heart a little bit some years back, so I wavered in my faith (as a Raptors fan).” He was referring to the game-deciding shot Carter missed from the corner with 2.0 seconds remaining in the seventh and deciding game of the 2001 East Conference Semi-Final series against the Philadelphia 76ers.

“It broke a lot of our hearts,” he said. “I obviously still enjoyed them over the years, but they’ve had some rough years there. The Toronto sports weren’t at their pinnacle through my adolescence, so it was easy to look for excellence elsewhere.

“I’ve kind of been watching them from afar the last few years, but guys like Natey and Christophe Mulumba, they are diehard Raptors fans. They live and breath it.”

We The North.