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Fresh off completing his residency program in 2014, Shankar Sivananthan thought the best gift he could give himself was season tickets to the Toronto Raptors. He had followed the team since its inaugural season led by Damon ‘Mighty Mouse’ Stoudamire and finishing up his education meant he could devote the time he wanted to his team.
Masai Ujiri has given many a speech over the course of his tenure with the Raptors organization, and while “Fuck Brooklyn!” or “We don’t give a shit about it!” or even “We need a culture reset” might easily spring to mind, the one that played in Dr. Sivananthan’s head as the Raptors hoisted their first-ever Larry O’Brien trophy was a speech Ujiri delivered at a 2014-15 pre-season season seat holder event.
“I promise each and every one of you, the Toronto Raptors will become NBA champions.”
So, standing in Oracle Arena after the Raptors’ title-clinching Game 6 victory, it was difficult for Dr. Sivananthan—now a critical care doctor for the William Osler Health System—not to get emotional when Ujiri belted out those now immortal words: “I said we will win in Toronto, and we have won in Toronto!”
There was plenty of emotional equity on Dr. Sivananthan’s part that went into supporting the franchise through the ups and downs. The arrival and subsequent departures of Damon Stoudamire, Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and Chris Bosh, the excitement of reaching the post-season, the disappointment of those embarrassing exits. And so, for Dr. Sivananthan, making the trip to San Francisco and possibly witnessing history was a no-brainer.
He flew in the morning of June 13, 2019, with three friends who had nothing on the pre-game agenda except tacos, IPAs, and highlights from the current playoff run. Once nourished, the crew took the subway to Oakland for a round of chirping Golden State Warriors fans before getting the adrenaline fully pumped with other Raptors fans in attendance. By the end, it was the perfect night, singing ‘O Canada’ with hundreds of other fans, high-fiving Pascal Siakam, and popping a bottle of bubbly in the privacy of their own room much later.
"I had surgeons in their 50s rounding with me in the ICU like they were med students, trying to learn as much as they could just in case they had to step in if shit hit the fan."
Hopping on a plane at a moment’s notice, bar hangouts, fans in attendance at an NBA game? A world filled with complete freedom of choice is a distant memory, especially for frontline workers who have put their lives at risk to provide some semblance of regular life for everyone around them.
“Life was normal,” Terri Ritter, a registered nurse with 28 years of experience—currently at Trillium Hospital in Mississauga, said. “It was about the championship, it was about, ‘What was Kawhi going to do? Where is the team going from here?’” She was also in attendance for the curtain raiser to the 2019-20 season, unable to resist the opportunity to see the Raptors players receive their championship rings and see the banner for the first time.
“It was just such a sense of pride and joy,” Ritter said. “And then riding through the season with that incredible win record which nobody thought we would have. This is sweet, and life is just fantastic. All of a sudden, here we are.”
Ritter usually earns her living working in a cardiac catheterization lab that entails routine angiographies. When she’s not injecting dye into a heart’s arteries via the wrist, she’s consuming every bit of Raptors content out there from Open Gym to YouTube highlights to all the discourse that #RaptorsTwitter has to offer. Since the pandemic has reared its ugly head in Canada, though, Ritter has been redeployed to a newly created team at the hospital, the Emergency Airway team that’s responsible for dressing the part for a biohazard lab before putting breathing tubes into patients. It is regarded as the highest-risk component of caring for COVID-19 patients. Without a family presence in Canada, Ritter’s priority has become her two dogs, to the extent she made plans for who would care for them if anything were to happen to her.
“We had contingency plans and support for when things started to pick up but it was still no preparation for those first couple weeks when everything was new and scary,” Dr. Sivananthan said of the situation in Rexdale—the highest hit ward per the city of Toronto, along with Malvern. “Everything at the hospital was basically shut down and all efforts put towards ER and ICU. I had surgeons in their 50s rounding with me in the ICU like they were med students, trying to learn as much as they could just in case they had to step in if shit hit the fan.”
Home hasn’t been much of a relief either, as Shankar and his wife Mandy have had to cope with the challenge of maintaining some semblance of school life during the day for their two children, even coming to accept that there will be a couple blow ups daily over snacks and screen time. Mandy works as a nurse practitioner in a specialized clinic for patients with lung disease and the flexibility her boss provided has allowed her to stay home the weeks that Shankar is in the ICU while she goes in for virtual visits when he’s home.
"I’d like to try and see them stop us in the playoffs. I really would like to see them try."
When Ritter is able to exhale just a little, it’s still the Raptors who consume her time. She can’t count the number of times she’s watched the Kyle Lowry-inspired 30-point comeback against the Dallas Mavericks over the course of this lockdown, just trying to rekindle the feeling of watching the defending champions go about their business in a manner many ruled out. She looks back in admiration of the night the team pulled together so Lowry could grab the franchise’s all-time assist record as well as when they pulled out all the stops heading toward the All-Star break to ensure their coaching staff could make the trip to Chicago.
“These are the kinds of things that make the Raptors so incredibly special to me,” Ritter said. “You can’t make that up or buy it, we have a team full of incredibly amazing players all the way down to who they are. And when you put that all together, I’d like to try and see them stop us in the playoffs. I really would like to see them try.”
If everything goes according to plan, Ritter, Dr. Sivananthan, and Raptors fans across the globe will get that chance soon enough. The NBA has officially announced its plans to resume the 2019-20 season July 31 at the Walt Disney World Resort near Orlando, Florida with 22 of its 30 teams. The league is optimistic that its campus-like environment can minimize the risk of infection, but the numbers out of Orange County, Florida—where Disney is located—do raise cause for concern. Orange County has seen a 64 percent increase in the number of COVID-19 cases between May 5 and June 9, and Florida as a whole has seen a consistent raise in cases as it loosens restrictions.
“The NBA’s always been progressive but well grounded and I’m sure they consulted the appropriate experts in public health and epidemiology but they need to stay on top of it,” Dr. Sivananthan said. “Regular frequent testing, isolation, and willingness to stop on a dime—like they did the night of March 11—are essential to things going smoothly. Even though it’s restarting, we need to realize there’s a chance the Finals in October never actually happen.”
Talking odds, if those Finals do occur, both Ritter and Dr. Sivananthan like the Raptors’ chances a whole lot more than Vegas. Toronto getting written off, what else is new?
“We’ve always been the other team that nobody paid attention to or cared about, and we held that as a chip on our shoulder,” Dr. Sivananthan said. “Now we’ve got an actual chip on our shoulders and we’re not gonna hide that.”
“This team has so much grit and they’re not going to stop fighting,” Ritter said. “They have so much heart, and they have so much respect for each other, no one is interested in being that big numbers guy, that big iso player with the big numbers. Everyone is interested in taking care of the entire team, they work together. And the chemistry that they have is so special, that is something you can’t buy, trade for, or teach, and we have it. And that’s something you can’t underestimate in a playoff environment.”
That environment the NBA is hoping to create will provide the likes of Ritter and Dr. Sivananthan a bit of escape, just like the championship anniversary. After returning from her scheduled shift Saturday, Ritter has both the Canadian broadcast of Game 6, as well the recent re-screening that included Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet talking through it, lined up and expects to be just as vocal as she was when watching it live. Put another way, the neighbours will know she’s watching. Shankar’s plan is to sit down with the family (probably stand and jump for the big moments) and watch the championship DVD as well as catch the best of Raptors Twitter reminiscing about the night the NBA had a champion from Toronto, Canada.
A little, tiny escape from the reality of the global pandemic they’re forced to reckon with daily.