Playoff basketball returned to Toronto for the first time in 1,045 days on Wednesday night, when the Raptors played host to the Philadelphia 76ers in what many considered a must-win game. And while the Raptors ultimately suffered a heartbreaking 101-104 overtime loss, falling into a 3-0 series hole that no NBA team has ever dug itself out of, it was still a celebratory night for some of Canada’s most hardcore basketball fans, who finally got to return to a place they call home: Jurassic Park.

Fans of all shapes, sizes, ages, and ethnicities lined up outside of Maple Leafs Square beginning three hours ahead of tipoff to take part in the pregame festivities and to get a good spot to take in the action on the big screen. They dressed for the occasion, donning their very best Raptors gear and face paint, greeting long-lost friends as they made their way to the front of the stage, where hosts were doing giveaways and playing interactive games with the crowd. 

Raptors fans gathering at Jurassic Park
Image via Getty/Steve Russell

They cheered “Let’s go Raptors!” and “We the North!” and broke out into impromptu dance circles, chasing each other around the square before the game as they released the pent up energy of a passionate fan base that was forced to watch too many games in isolation at home. 

While the hundreds of Jurassic Park attendees were there in theory to watch the Raptors try to get a win and fight their way back into the series, they were really there because they missed it. After almost three years without playoff basketball in Toronto—and a pandemic to boot—they missed being alongside like-minded individuals who are passionate about the Raptors as they are. After a seeming eternity of being forced to watch alone at home due to the pandemic, the experience of being back in Jurassic Park was cathartic for many.

“When I was at home in isolation, all I could think about was: I wish I was at Jurassic Park,” Bill tells Complex Canada in his retro purple and white Raptors jersey.  “I love this place. I love the environment and I miss it. Like, I’m so happy it’s back this year.”

Part of the reason that returning to Jurassic Park is so special is because many of these same people were together here during the Raptors championship run in 2019. And now, for the first time in almost three years, they have returned to see familiar faces again. 

“You make friends here. Like, everyone is your friend here. The thing that unites us is the Raptors and we all have such a passion for it. And so that’s what brings us together,” Bill says. “You see some of the same faces, to be honest. I’ve seen quite a few people here that I’ve seen before and seeing them again, it’s just amazing. You feel it’s a family kind of thing.”

Raptors fans in a snowstorm at Jurassic Park
Image via Getty/Steve Russell

Bill’s friend Jasmine, who met some of her best friends at Jurassic Park over the years, says that she was one of the hundred or so people who stuck it out during the snowstorm during Game 2 on Monday, where she says the “real fans” stayed from start to finish.

“The playoffs don’t feel the same without Jurassic Park,” Jasmine says. “I’m really excited for these new fans and the fans that have been here before. It really brings everybody together and really is part of what makes the Raptors fans who they are.” 

After all, these are some of the most hardcore fans in the country. And while some of them might not have the means to pay hundreds of dollars for a playoff ticket to watch the game inside, many of them would actually prefer to watch it outside in Jurassic Park. Because the atmosphere outside the building is one of a kind, and the only way to know it is to experience it for yourself. 

“The fans, man. The fans are crazy here,” Mahama, who has been coming since 2019, tells me. “I always say that I’ve been inside, but I love it out here more than going inside. Because I feel like the energy is so much better. Everyone’s jumping. You don’t wanna be sitting in there with so many people. You want to be out here.”

“We’re hardcore,” Jazz, who was at Jurassic Park for every game of the championship run with her daughter and stood through the snowstorm on Monday, tells me. “It’s just the camaraderie, the atmosphere. When you’re sitting inside, you can’t really hug people and just run around and dance and sing. But everyone does that here.”

On cue, an impromptu “Let’s go Raptors!” chant breaks out behind us, as if the people 20 feet away were listening in to our conversation. Inside, in-arena announcer Herbie Kuhn had to ask the Raptors fans to get loud several times during Game 3. But that wasn’t the case in Jurassic Park, where fans needed no encouragement to cheer on Canada’s team.

“I think in terms of interest in the game, it definitely varies between inside and out: There’s obviously a lot of diehard fans in the stadium. But I think most of that crowd that stays out here are the people who are watching all 82 games a year, the people that are there through thick and thin,” Arjin says about the difference between inside the stadium and outside. “They may not always be going to the games, especially now since they’re so expensive, but they’re definitely here at Jurassic Park.”

“The environment is incredible. Like the fans here. These are the real fans,” Bill says. “It’s incomparable. It’s beautiful. Everyone’s on the same wavelength. Everyone’s having so much fun. And no one’s afraid to get too loud.”

Toronto Raptors fans gather in the snow at Jurassic Park as they play the Philadelphia 76ers in game two of their first round NBA playoff series
Image via Getty/Steve Russell/Toronto Star

During the game, everyone stands close together, piling up against the gate nearest the big screen in order to not only get the best view of the game, but also to feel the warmth of one another on a cold Toronto night. They’re shoulder to shoulder, cheering in unison, and they wouldn’t have it any other way. 

“It’s definitely a lot more intimate out here. I mean, It’s very Toronto: you’re shoulder to shoulder with every walk of life. Raptors fans in the city from Rexdale, from York, anywhere like that. So I mean, it’s just a whole huge combination of everyone who loves basketball,” Nate says.

“It’s been way too long. I mean, It’s just great to be back here. It’s one of the great things about the city: being able to get together and enjoy sport. And where else to be but Jurassic Park?”

As Joel Embiid hit the game-winning shot and the buzzer sounded to mark the end of overtime and the Raptors third straight loss in the series, there was sadness in the air in Jurassic Park. But it wasn’t because the fans were disappointed in the team. In fact, everyone that I spoke to was proud of how the Raptors played this season and excited about the future regardless of the outcome in Game 3.

Rather, it was because a loss meant that the season would likely be over sooner than later, and that another year would have to go by before they could all see each other and watch Raptors basketball together again. 

“It feels like it’s something everybody in Toronto should experience at least once. I hadn’t gone at all before and then during the pandemic I felt like I really missed out on this experience of being a fan,” Arjin says about Jurassic Park.

“I love the energy and I love watching the game with other fans. I just love being here. It’s invigorating.”