Hockey town? Passionate Raptors fans proving there's room for hoops, too

Rapper Drake, left, reacts during the Toronto Raptors Rapper Drake, left, reacts during the Toronto Raptors 94-87 loss to the Brooklyn Nets in Game 1 of an opening-round NBA basketball playoff series, in Toronto on Saturday, April 19, 2014. Photo Credit: AP / Chris Young

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept.

Toronto hosted the first game in the history of the NBA (then called the BAA), losing to the Knicks, 68-66, on Nov. 1, 1946. For the 67 1/2 years since, that has remained pretty much the most important pro basketball thing ever to happen there.

Sure, the Raptors have had their occasional moments since arriving in 1995, mostly during the Vince Carter years and to a lesser extent with Chris Bosh. They even won a playoff series once -- beating the Knicks in 2001.

Mostly, though, Canada's largest city has been an afterthought for most hoops fans south of the border -- and many sports fans north of it, where hockey still reigns, even if the Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967.

That is why the Raptors' playoff series against the Nets, still a mere one game old, already has been a revelation. It turns out that, much like hockey fans in the United States, Raptors fans are a relatively small but remarkably passionate group.

It also turns out that Canadians are not always as polite as their national reputation would suggest.

That was clear before Game 1, during which the mostly young fans who lined up to watch on a screen outside Air Canada Centre jeered and cursed at the Nets' bus, and again when first-year Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri got caught up in those same fans' excitement and aimed a pregame vulgarity at the visitors.

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Inside the arena, most fans wore white T-shirts, sang the Canadian anthem when the hired singer turned over the song to them and then spent the afternoon booing the Nets and repeatedly directing a vulgar chant at Kevin Garnett.

Perhaps it was a function of a Raptors playoff drought dating to 2008, or the fact that Canada had little else to do with as many teams in the NBA playoffs as in the NHL, where only the Canadiens qualified.

Regardless, it all was a bit shocking, even to Nets forward Alan Anderson, who played for the Raptors in the two seasons before this one.

"I had never seen the fans like they were [Saturday]," he said. "It caught me off guard, but it was fun."

The most fun was that the Nets won, after which Paul Pierce reveled in the venom directed at him by fans.

Coach Jason Kidd had warned his team, experienced as it is, that the Toronto faithful would make it interesting.

"This is a great atmosphere," he said. "I've been here as a player, so I had an understanding of what as a team we were going to be in for, and I thought the guys handled it well throughout."

The arena figures to be electric again Tuesday night for Game 2 -- even the shot clocks! -- but another Raptors loss will put a severe dent in the vibe established during a regular season in which they won the Atlantic Division title.

Such is the pressure that comes with expectations. You could hear it in the edge in coach Dwane Casey's voice when he was asked after Game 1 if he was concerned about "disappointing" fans who had waited so long.

"If our fans are disappointed, they're not true fans, they're come-lately fans," he said, "because this young team won a division and we're third in the conference.

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"We're going to fight our butts off to win this series, but this does not identify us as far as who we are if we don't come out on top. Again, it's one game. The series is not over, so let's get educated on basketball."

At least for one afternoon, Toronto fans already seemed to be well on their way.

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