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To Those Raptors Fans, Have We Forgotten NBA Players Are Human Too?

If we can't remember that, we've lost what it means to be fans of basketball.

I’ve heard the excuses.

That Raptors fans were actually cheering for their man Serge Ibaka stealing the ball; that the media is ignoring how fans cheered for the Golden State Warriors’ Kevin Durant; or that it was only “rich” fans cheering when he suffered an apparent Achilles injury.

Obviously, this ignores that Raptors fans in Jurassic Park cheered louder when KD went down than when Ibaka made his steal; how fans in bars across the country specifically cheered on the injury; or that it took Raptors players like Kyle Lowry to help calm fans down before KD could earn a standing ovation.

But none of that matters.

If we, as Canadians, care so much about being seen as “nice” and want to feel smug about sharing that Jimmy Kimmel video of Raptors fans politely failing at trash talking, then our only reaction should be remorse. No excuses, no claims of bias, and no whataboutism.

Our reaction to Kevin Durant’s injury is shameful. The ability of the Golden State Warriors to rally without one of their star players — and win — shows how they deserved that victory. It also shows how we, as Raptors fans, deserve this loss and should reflect on how we got here.

“It felt like fans think the team’s only purpose was winning — if they couldn’t perform, they were worthless.”

I live in Edmonton and remember how difficult it was to get any given sports bar to play a regular season game on even one of their 20 TVs. I also remember watching the first round of this playoffs run without sound because of a hockey game.

But as the Raptors picked up momentum, more fans climbed on board. Bars were soon full of fans, new and old, and you’d hear loud cheers whenever a big shot was made. It is something I haven’t really experienced before.

It felt nice, at first, but I soon started feeling uncomfortable.

A toxic attitude

I remember some fans completely giving up on the Raptors when they were down 0-2 to the Milwaukee Bucks, and I remember overhearing patrons loudly tearing apart a player just because they missed a couple shots. It was disturbing and moved way beyond the fair criticism or expectations that fans can have of players.

It felt like fans think the team’s only purpose was winning — if they couldn’t perform, they were worthless.

Kawhi Leonard is the perfect example of this. Last season, as part of the San Antonio Spurs, he was vilified for missing games to focus on recovering from an injury. Fans would eventually label him a “traitor.” The hatred was palpable.

It later turned out that Spurs doctors were pressuring Leonard to play — against the advice of his own medical team. While we don’t know for certain if Leonard would have re-injured himself if he had played more that season, we do know that taking time off to rest and recover is what made him an invaluable asset to the Raptors’ playoffs run, and now the finals.

This toxic attitude of treating NBA players as commodities whose only value in life is to play and win — their career and health forgotten — is the kind of thinking that leads to fans cheering on Kevin Durant’s injury.

I can understand that emotions were running high, considering the impact Durant has had on finals so far and the Raptors’ chances of winning it all.

But now, Durant’s path to recovery is uncertain. His next season and future plans are completely thrown off, right in his prime. We should step back and remember what Durant has been through to get to where he is in the NBA, as he so eloquently reminded us in his 2013-2014 MVP speech.

A good time for reflection

Growing up, I spent my summers on the local basketball court. We’d fill empty 2-litre pop bottles with water and spend the entire day shooting around or watching games.

For many other Black kids, basketball is often seen as the only way out, or one of the few places where we can see prominent Black representation. It’s because of this that many kids dream of making it in the league. I know I did. I even remember watching Like Mike and dreaming about finding a special pair of sneakers.

For kids who grew up like me, it is tragic to see your idol — someone who made it — get injured in such a terrible way. It is even more awful to see other basketball fans cheer on their misfortune. Remember, college players only have a 1.2-per-cent chance of making it in the NBA. This statistic alone should demonstrate how tragic Durant’s injury is.

KD and basketball players are human. If we forget their humanity, their hard work, then we have lost what it means to be Raptors fans and fans of basketball. Basketball is about more than winning, and players should never feel like they have to “shut up and dribble.”

I hope that we — Raptors fans — are able to reflect on this before Game 6 on Thursday.

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