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Late on a shadowy afternoon in Oakland, Roberto Alomar hit the home run that changed everything for Toronto sports.
It was the jumpshot, before Kawhi Leonard hit the Game 7 arching jumpshot. It was the singular moment in Blue Jays history that convinced a good team that couldn’t win — let’s be honest, something of a choking team — that they could win when it mattered.
They won the World Series in Atlanta in 1992, but without the Alomar home run off ace closer Dennis Eckersley, the betting here has always been it wouldn’t have happened. And one year later, the more famous home run, the Joe Carter smash.
Around the baseball world, that’s the homer people remember, the replay shown over and over again. But you don’t get to one place — one championship — without the kind of home run the great Alomar hit against the great Eckersley and the sneering Tony La Russa.
And you don’t get to Game 6 tonight — the first opportunity in the history of the Raptors to get to the championship round of the NBA — without Kawhi Leonard doing Kawhi Leonard things.
Truth: The Raptors have been a reasonably good team since Masai Ujiri took over here six years ago. They had a short run of hope before that with Vince Carter and not much else.
But two things stood in the way of the Raptors. No. 1, there was LeBron James at his best. And the Raptors, bless them, led by DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry, weren’t good enough to get past that wall.
They never did beat a great team in a playoff round. They needed an Alomar signature moment, like we first had in 1992, a Kawhi over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid, no time on the clock, the basketball bouncing on the rim, the greatest time-has-stopped sports photograph in recent history — and then all the possibilities followed.
Leonard won them the Philadelphia series, and is one game away from winning them the Eastern Conference final. He is doing what no Toronto team athlete has ever done before, and it shows almost every night with the Raptors.
He makes players better. In one series, Fred VanVleet looked like he couldn’t play playoff basketball. The next round, the new daddy is draining shots from all over.
In one series, Norman Powell, looked like the walking personification of a bad contract, and against Milwaukee, in one game, he took more shots than he’s ever taken in an NBA game.
The baton has been passed, night to night from Marc Gasol, to Serge Ibaka, to a coming-out party for Nick Nurse as an NBA head coach, the respect growing for Kyle Lowry that is long overdue.
That’s what happens when teams get this far in the playoffs, this close to the big NBA dance. Pat Borders won a World Series MVP in 1992 and was nowhere near the best Blue Jay at any time. It was Alomar and Joe Carter and Devon White and Dave Winfield and John Olerud and so many more on that great Blue Jays team. The next year Olerud, Alomar and Paul Molitor finished top-three in American League hitting.
Since 1993, the Jays had a few playoff sniffs and nothing more. Sure, the Argos have won and Toronto FC has won and the Rock has won and the Marlies have won. But those aren’t major-league sports, no matter what the soccer league calls itself.
Four times the Leafs have been to an NHL semifinal since the expansion of 1967. Only once in those playoff series against Los Angeles, Vancouver, Carolina and Buffalo were they ever in position to advance to the Stanley Cup final.
Since the Carter home run, the Blue Jays made the playoffs only in 2015 and 2016 and really weren’t in position to beat Kansas City or Cleveland in the American League Championship Series either time.
This is where Kawhi Leonard is different, even if this is a one-and-done scenario with the Raptors, because, frankly, Toronto has never had a professional athlete like him before. Alomar is the greatest of all Blue Jays. He’s in the Hall of Fame. Dave Keon was named the greatest of all Maple Leafs. A very, very, good player, also in the Hall of Fame, but he’s a not a Gretzky, an Orr, a Lemieux.
Leonard is 1-2-3 the best player in the NBA today. Right there with Kevin Durant and LeBron. Better and more advanced than Giannis. Maybe, because of his defensive play, the best all-around player in the game. And you can make the argument he’s the best Toronto professional athlete we’ve ever seen.
Josh Donaldson and George Bell won MVP awards. No Leaf in our lifetime has been an MVP or Norris winner. Roger Clemens may have won two Cy Young Awards in his two seasons with the Jays, but neither year the team competed for anything important.
That leaves Kawhi all by himself. The basketball weightlifter, the mystery man, who does almost all of his talking on the court. He has changed the Raptors the way the Alomar home run changed the Blue Jays way back.
The difference being, should the Raptors win once more against Milwaukee, they have the dynastic Golden State Warriors waiting to play.
The championship is getting to play for one. That means something. It matters.
Everything after that is gravy.
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