TORONTO (May 13) — Though it ranks among the most dramatic and breathtaking moments in the modern history of professional sport in this city, I’m not entirely sure what to make of Kawhi Leonard’s bounce…bounce…bounce series–winning shot against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday at Scotiabank Arena.
Right now, it resonates as the greatest moment in Toronto sporting annals; being so fresh and remarkable. The most–dynamic screenwriter in Hollywood couldn’t have crafted such a credible scenario — the best player to ever wear the Toronto Raptors jersey lofting a prayer into the night and watching, in a crouch that will become legendary, the basketball carom off the rim at least three times before finding net. Game 7 in an unfathomable series of playoff blow–outs by each team. That the NBA East semifinal should be decided with 00:00 showing on the clock only made the result (and the script) more implausible. But, it happened. And it sent Toronto to the Conference final (against the Milwaukee Bucks) for only the second time in 24 seasons.
Clearly, Leonard’s shot generated front–page stuff, as evidenced above. Stan Behal’s superbly–timed photo on the cover of the Toronto Sun will win national newspaper awards. It has everything — from the basketball in mid–air to the anticipatory expressions of Leonard (in the crouch) and his teammates on the Raptors’ bench. As perfect a sports image as any photographer can hope for. So, yeah, this was a Toronto moment that stands with any in the past 50 years. The question of where it ranks has no conclusive answer. It is purely subjective — governed by age and the level of interest in basketball. You can bet those in attendance at the arena will recall it for the rest of their lives; their physical perspective to the play burned into memory. Just as the people at SkyDome that watched Joe Carter’s World Series–winning home run, also against Philadelphia, on Oct. 23, 1993. Or, those at the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, N.Y., Apr. 29, 1978, that stared on, appallingly, as Lanny McDonald of the Leafs slid a perfect shot past New York Islanders goalie Glenn Resch in overtime of Game 7 to provide Toronto sports fans their biggest thrill of the decade.
Fairly or otherwise, Toronto somehow remains — foremost — a hockey city. That, despite the Maple Leafs failure to appear in the Stanley Cup final for 52 years and their now–mundane propensity to disappoint legions of die–hard fans. If, therefore, Sunday night’s moment had been John Tavares scoring at the buzzer to send the Leafs to the Conference final, this city would be upside down… not merely elated. Even the “bat–flip” home run by Jose Bautista of the Blue Jays in 2015, and the solo shot by Edwin Encarnacion that took out Baltimore a year later, seemed to resonate more over 24 hours than Leonard’s magical hoist. In no way does that diminish what Kawhi and the Raptors pulled off; it is simply a comment on professional sport in our town, where the NBA ranks beneath baseball and hockey. Not today, mind you, but in general.
LANNY McDONALD’S OVERTIME GOAL IN GAME 7 OF THE 1978 STANLEY CUP QUARTERFINALS PROMPTED DELIRIOUS FANS TO ASSEMBLE AT TORONTO INTERNATIONAL AIRPORT IN THE WEE HOURS TO GREET THEIR HEROES. THE LEAFS KNOCKED OFF THE FAVORED NEW YORK ISLANDERS.
Even the Argonauts of the Canadian Football League, who are largely ignored by local sports fans, carried the day in the past 50 years. I’ve yet to witness a scene such as that which occurred the night before the 1982 Grey Cup game here in town between the Argos and Edmonton Eskimos. After the Leafs and Winnipeg Jets had played at Maple Leaf Gardens — the crowd spilling out of the arena — Toronto police closed off Yonge Street between Bloor and Front to accommodate thousands of Argo fans romping back and forth with signs and team paraphernalia. Two days after the Argonauts defeated the B.C. Lions (in Vancouver) a year later to finally end their 31–year Grey Cup drought, more than 60,000 people lined Bay Street for a parade from Union Station to City Hall. Believe it or not, football and hockey stood side–by–side in that era.
IT WAS BEDLAM THE NIGHT BEFORE THE 1982 GREY CUP GAME AT OLD EXHIBITION STADIUM AS TORONTO FOOTBALL FANS CLOSED OFF THE DOWNTOWN CORE FROM BLOOR ST. TO FRONT ST.
It is difficult, therefore, to put into context — as a 60–year–old — Kawhi’s dramatic shot on Sunday. Nothing can possibly match Carter’s walk–off home run against the Phillies (only the second in World Series history), for it ended the 1993 baseball season and allowed the Blue Jays to repeat as champion. McDonald’s overtime goal against the Islanders was the lone bright spot of the abominable Harold Ballard ownership tenure (1973–90). Though it decided a quarterfinal round and the Leafs were subsequently demolished in four games by Montreal, the city went bananas on that April eve in ’78. A similar moment occurred just more than 25 years later (May 1, 1993) when Nikolai Borschevsky re–directed an overtime shot past Tim Cheveldae at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit, providing the Leafs another Game 7 playoff victory on the road. It, too, occurred in the opening round. Roberto Alomar’s solo blast to right–field off Dennis Eckersley at the Oakland Coliseum in Game 4 of the 1992 American League Championship Series remains the most critical moment in Blue Jays history. Without it, the club would not have likely advanced past the A’s and into the ’92 World Series, where it defeated Atlanta for Canada’s first Major League title. The Bautista and Encarnacion home runs provided the current generation of Toronto baseball fans their Alomar and Carter moments. As did the “Donaldson Dash” in 2016 that ended the American League Division Series at Rogers Centre; the Blue Jays third–baseman scurrying home after a slightly–errant throw to first by Texas shortstop Rougned Odor.
For sheer drama, Leonard’s series–winning loft on Sunday is unmatched. Hockey pucks do not bounce off the crossbar three times before entering the net. Nor do baseballs off the top of the outfield fence (though a single bounce off the bat of Kansas City’s Jim Sundberg in Game 7 of the 1985 ALCS at Exhibition Stadium effectively eliminated the Blue Jays from their first playoff appearance). Otherwise, it’s up to the individual to determine which of the aforementioned in this blog stands atop the Toronto sports mountain.