I was half asleep when the Raptors won the championship. I’d just returned from a long trip earlier that evening, and the jet lag was kicking in. Game Six, out on the West Coast, was just a little too late.
The couch was just a little too comfortable. As the Raptors forged an early lead through the second quarter, my eyes started slipping closed. I begged myself not to miss what could be the biggest moment in Canadian sports for decades.
Of course, there was no missing the final moment. When the buzzer went, the city around me erupted in a collective exhale of car horns and screaming fans. This was one of those events people remember forever. I instantly wished I had a better story.
That was undeniably the high point of the summer. As it turned out, the high wouldn’t last. Things got weird fast. First, there was the unfortunate business of Masai Ujiri being barred from the on-court celebrations by an Oakland police officer. Then there was the parade, overcrowded and poorly planned, capped off with a shooting at the far end of Nathan Phillips Square. And finally, there was Kawhi Leonard, who carried the team to the finals on his back, choosing to sign with the Los Angeles Clippers after weeks of teasing indecision.
Most basketball press — especially in the U.S. — has already written the Raptors off this season, declining the team the respect it worked so hard to earn. Now that basketball has returned, Raptors fans are left with a dilemma: how do you maintain the excitement of last year’s storybook season over the next few gruelling months? And can you build a dynasty that’s also a perennial underdog?
That question is what fuels Raptors guard Norman Powell, who we photographed for this issue. Though he played most of last season off the bench, Powell embodied everything there was to love about the Raptors. He was charming and personable; he played hard and, with a few key on-court moments, endeared himself to a hungry fan base.
Powell has played his whole career as an underdog. It’s clear in the way he carries himself on and off the court — even his clothing line is called Understand the Grind, a clear reference to the hustle with which he approaches every shift. He’s more than proved himself. This year, in the absence of a superstar, he’ll have the rare opportunity to become one himself before our very eyes. Underdogs are just more fun to watch. And that, in itself, is worth staying up for.