Canadian athletes showing support for Toronto Raptors around the world

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) celebrates defeating the Indiana Pacers in NBA basketball action in Toronto on Wednesday, Dec. 19, 2018. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The Gotzis decathlon in Austria is a storied annual event, but another sporting topic keeps popping up at the track this week.

Seems the hotly contested NBA Eastern Conference final between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks is generating a bit of trash talk overseas heading into this weekend’s event.

“I wore my ‘We The North’ shirt to the track today and got in an argument with (decathletes) Lindon Victor and Rico Freimuth about (Raptors star) Kawhi (Leonard) going to L.A. next year,” Gar Leyshon, the coach of Canadian Olympic bronze medallist Damian Warner and a former high school basketball coach, wrote in a text message to The Canadian Press on Friday.

“We are playing close attention and a surprising number of athletes here are watching, too. My 80-year-old mother emails me updates (she is a huge Raps fan and calls all the players by their first names!) and I have made Damian into a Raptors fan this year.”

Miami Heat guard Rodney McGruder (17) defends against Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018, in Miami. Toronto defeated Miami 106-104. (AP Photo/Joel Auerbach)

In sporting arenas around the world, Canadian athletes are talking proud about the Raptors, who have a chance to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time in team history with a win in Game 6 on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena.

Star sprinter Andre De Grasse of Markham, Ont., woke up in the morning at his hotel room in Taipei, Taiwan to watch the visiting Raptors win Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.

“I was nervous watching the game because we came back … and we started missing free throws down the stretch in the fourth quarter, but I’m happy we pulled it out,” he said. “Big game from Kawhi and (Fred) VanVleet. We got to close out in Game 6 and protect home court and don’t let it go back to Milwaukee. One win from the NBA Finals, that’s crazy.”

In Slovakia, another Canadian sporting star this week is cheering for the Raptors.

Defenceman Damon Severson, who scored the tying goal for Canada with 0.4 seconds left in regulation in an eventual quarterfinal win over Switzerland at the world hockey championship on Thursday, says discussion often shifts to basketball during down time.

“The time change is a little difficult but the next morning, that’s kind of a topic of conversation,” said the native of Melville, Sask. “We’re all Canadian. That’s Canada’s basketball team, we all support the Raptors. Kawhi Leonard has been pretty amazing and for them to go ahead 3-2 the other night in Milwaukee was pretty cool.”

In France, Montreal teen tennis star Felix Auger-Aliassime broke into a grin when asked about the Raptors after his win in a Lyon Open semifinal on Friday.

The 18-year-old is trying to find time to watch the Raptors while gearing up for the French Open, which starts Sunday in Paris.

“I’m following them quite a bit,” he said. “I was pretty happy this morning to find out they won (Game 5). It’s fun that a Canadian team is so good at basketball.”

Another Canadian athlete preparing for a huge event in his sport also is finding ways to keep tabs on the Raptors.

Auto racer James Hinchcliffe of Oakville, Ont., who will compete in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, plans to watch Game 6.

“Been following the playoffs closely,” he said. “It sucked to lose Game 1 that way, but to go on the streak they’re on heading into what could be the game to get them in the Finals is awesome. Momentum is huge in these series, so we’ll be cheering loudly in Game 6.”

Across Canada, the reaction is much the same.

On an off night at the Memorial Cup on Thursday, Halifax Mooseheads assistant captain and Quebec Major Junior Hockey League leading goal scorer Samuel Asselin was watching Game 5 with teammates.

“It’s great and I love Kawhi,” said the native of L’Assomption, Que. “We were in the (hotel) room with a couple guys watching. It was getting late but we couldn’t turn off the TV.”

In Vancouver, Whitecaps midfidler Russell Teibert caught part of Thursday’s contest from the park-and-fly lot after his Major League Soccer team returned from a trip.

“They’re the Canadian team,” said the native of Niagara Falls, Ont. “You can’t help but support them.”

A Canadian pro athlete playing for a visiting team also caught Game 5 at a unique location.

San Diego Padres pitcher Cal Quantrill, who will start in Toronto on Saturday against the Blue Jays, returned to his hometown of Port Hope, Ont., on Thursday to watch the game with friends at Turtle John’s Bar & Grill.

“I wouldn’t say any of them are huge basketball fans, but when the team is winning you kind of want to be a part of it,” Quantrill said. “We were sitting there and I’ve never seen a group of us so engaged in a basketball game. Nobody was talking, no one was eating their food. It was just like, ‘Oh my God, they have a chance at winning this thing.’ They went down 18-4 to start and it wasn’t looking good. But those guys are legends.”

Back in Austria, Warner will be sleeping during Game 6.

“I’m competing in Austria this weekend so I won’t be able to see the Raptors close out the Bucks,” he said. “But we’ll be home in time to see Game 1 of the Toronto-Golden State final.”

_ with files from Lori Ewing in Milwaukee, Gregory Strong in Toronto, Gemma Karstens-Smith in Vancouver, Kyle Cicerella in Halifax, Stephanie Myles in Lyon, France, Carol Schram in Bratislava, Slovakia and The Associated Press in Indianapolis.