Huge crowds gather in downtown Toronto for Raptors parade, rally

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard holds his playoffs MVP trophy as he celebrates during the 2019 Toronto Raptors Championship parade in Toronto on Monday, June 17, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

TORONTO:  Jubilant Raptors fans decked out in the team’s gear cheered and chanted as a parade starring the newly crowned NBA champions began in Toronto on Monday, the first such celebration in more than two decades.

A sea of people stretching for several kilometres turned out to be part of the moment while a square outside city hall where the parade was to end was filled with fans of all ages. Members of the Raptors smiled from open top double-decker buses, some splashing the crowds with champagne, as the parade inched forward.

At one point, Kyle Lowry, the longest-serving member of team, was seen hoisting the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy while some of his teammates smoked cigars. Canadian rapper Drake, one the team’s most famous supporters, was alongside players on one of the buses, smiling broadly.

Many fans said they decided not to go to school or work so they could attend the massive celebration.

Cypher Sabanal, 15, said his mom let him skip school to attend the parade.

“I actually have exams this week but being here is worth it,” he said, adding that he’s been a Raptors fan his whole life.

John Moreira, meanwhile, had called in sick to work so he could be part of the crowd.

“I told my boss I wanted to be at the parade and he said there wasn’t much he could do if I called in sick so that’s exactly what I did,” said the 31-year-old. “I’m looking forward to seeing the whole team. They all work so hard and deserve all the fans being out here.”

For several people, the parade marked a historic moment.

“I’m so happy to be here,” said 28-year-old RJ Salvador. “I haven’t seen anything like this happen in the city before so it’s great to be apart of it.”

Some in the crowd had camped out all weekend in the hopes of nabbing a prime spot along the parade route or at Nathan Phillips Square outside city hall.

Parents with strollers tried to make their way into the dense crowd of fans, but some gave up. Across the sea of red and black shirts _ the team’s colours _ some fans held up signs and enlarged heads of their basketball idols like Kawhi Leonard and Fred VanVleet.

Several hoisted signs urging Leonard, who will become a free agent in the off-season, to stick with the team he helped rise to the top. “Stay,” one read.

The parade slowly made its way through the streets, at times coming to a halt due to the crush of people. Police took to Twitter asking the public to clear a path.

“Please do not impede the parade route. Stay off the road and allow the players and the floats to pass,” they wrote. “All viewing areas close to capacity. Be patient and safe.”

Some at Nathan Phillips Square appeared to grow impatient, chanting “bring the parade!” As excitement mounted, a handful of people climbed a pair of concrete arches spanning the square before being ordered down by officials.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was scheduled to be among those celebrating, with a brief visit to Toronto planned for later in the day.

Ontario Premier Doug Ford was expected to watch the festivities from Nathan Phillips Square. His press secretary said Ford wants the day to be about the fans and players, not politicians.

Mayor John Tory declared Monday “We The North Day” in Toronto, after the NBA champions’ slogan. Dressed in his now-famous black-and-gold Raptors blazer, the mayor urged all fans to come celebrate the team’s historic win.

“To all employers out there, please let your staff go to the parade. I tell you, if they’re Raptors fans, they’re going to work twice as hard when they get back to the office,” he said.

Meanwhile, GO Transit said it was setting up a designated spot at transit hub Union Station’s lost and found for any children who may get separated from their group or family.

Many who couldn’t make it downtown watched the festivities from afar. Several schools in the city showed the parade in classrooms and some held their own victory marches for students.

“Today’s history lesson in room 137! Watching the ?Raptors first victory parade! I told them that one day their children will ask about where they were during the parade and to tell them that the awesome Miss Latchford put the parade on for them in class!,” one educational assistant tweeted.

The last time the city held a sports celebration of this magnitude was after the Toronto Blue Jays won the World Series in 1993. That parade saw fans climbing trees and statues on city streets to catch a glimpse of a team that included Joe Carter and Roberto Alomar.

Then-premier Bob Rae took part in those celebrations, flashing a sign that read “No speech today _ Hooray for the Jays.”

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