There's a passage in Philip Roth's novel "American Pastoral" that has been seared into my brain since I first read it. The narrator, Nathan Zuckerman, is imagining a speech to his former classmates at his 45th high school reunion.
"What is astonishing is that we, who had no idea how anything was going to turn out, now know exactly what happened," he thinks. "That the results are in for the class of January 1950 - the unanswerable questions answered, the future revealed - is that not astonishing?"
It's a simple sentiment, but one I've rarely seen articulated. We spend so much of our lives thinking about the future, all while living in a future our past selves could once only imagine. How often do we stop to take stock of all we've ascertained in the space between our imagining and our reality? We now know things that were once unknowable secrets.
That passage came to me again after Kawhi Leonard's buzzer-beating, series-winning shot dropped through the net after bouncing four times on the rim Sunday night. I was thinking about how extraordinary it was to be living in a moment when I knew that had happened. To the Toronto Raptors. Astonishing.
Sports spectatorship has a way of making people superstitious. When you make a habit of watching and investing in a game whose particulars you cannot control, and when the variance in so many of the micro-events within it are dictated by inches or millimeters or imperceptible shifts at the atomic level, it's all too easy to attribute outcomes to divine providence.
Before this season, popular sentiment held that the Raptors were cursed: doomed to an unending cycle of playoff failures and tortured what ifs and plaintive if onlys. It didn't seem to matter which group of players put on the jersey, only that providence was not on their side.
Even after the team's front office replaced its long-tenured head coach and traded its inherently limited franchise icon, DeMar DeRozan, for a transformational (if enigmatic) superstar in the offseason; even after Masai Ujiri and company further gutted the foundation of the last half-decade of Raptors basketball with the midseason swap of Jonas Valanciunas for Marc Gasol; even as Kyle Lowry was left as the lone remaining member of the 2013-14 team that kickstarted this improbable run; the ghosts of Raptors past still seemed to haunt the halls of Scotiabank Arena (née Air Canada Centre).
The remade Raptors still managed to lose their opening playoff game at home to an inferior opponent. They still laid a recognizable Game 3 egg in the second round that brought them to a familiar, fork-in-the-road, existential-angst-inducing Game 4 on the road. And in Game 7 of that second-round series against the Philadelphia 76ers on Sunday - as the Raptors clanked open 3-pointers, failed to create any scoreboard separation despite an inspired defensive performance, and surrendered a 16-0 third-quarter run just as they were threatening to pull away; as Leonard, who'd struggled with his shot all night, missed a free throw with 10 seconds left in regulation that quickly led to Jimmy Butler's incredible game-tying layup with 4.2 seconds remaining - the air was again heavy with the weight of the team's history. The North remembers, and all that.
It's not that the Raptors hadn't produced tinges of euphoria before, even in the playoff crucible that's been so unkind to them. There was the 13-point fourth-quarter comeback in Game 5 against the Indiana Pacers in 2016, a swing that likely rerouted the franchise's course in myriad ways. There was Lowry's masterful performance in Game 7 of the second round in that same postseason, when the Raptors blew out the Miami Heat to advance to their first-ever conference final.
There were the two stirring home wins that evened that very conference final against the Cleveland Cavaliers. There was DeRozan's series-clinching dunk in Game 6 of the first round against the Milwaukee Bucks the following year. There was Lowry's three-quarter-court prayer, the Greivis Vasquez shimmy, the Norman Powell games, and, to go back further, the Alvin Williams shot and the Vince Carter 50-point game. They'd had moments, without a doubt. Successes, even.
But the failures were more pronounced, as they tend to be. There was Chris Childs' misbegotten heave to end the decisive Game 5 against the Detroit Pistons in 2002. Jose Calderon's lob-turned-turnover in the dying seconds of a series-ending, one-point loss to the New Jersey Nets in 2007. Paul Pierce's block of Lowry's floater at the buzzer of another one-point loss to the now Brooklyn Nets in Game 7 in 2014. Pierce's Game 3 dagger that extinguished all hope in an eventual Wizards sweep in 2015. The four missed putbacks at the end of regulation that doomed the Raptors in Game 1 against the Cavs last year. LeBron James' running, one-legged, buzzer-beating bank shot that effectively ended their season two games later.
Above all, as the Raptors came out of their final timeout Sunday, there was the memory of Carter's miss 18 years earlier. It had happened at the same stage of the playoffs, against the same team, in virtually the same situation (though they'd trailed by one in 2001, rather than being tied): Raptors ball, sideline out-of-bounds, just a couple seconds on the game clock, one shot to send them to the conference finals.
Carter's shot caught back iron and bounced out as time expired, creating a moment of demarcation for the then-ascendent franchise. It marked the beginning of the end of Carter's relationship with the team, and the last time Toronto would even play past the first round for a decade and a half. From then on, there were the Pre-Shot Raptors and the Post-Shot Raptors.
Of course, none of that history had anything to do with Leonard, and he's always seemed impervious to external forces of any kind. Surely none of Vince, LeBron, Pierce, DeRozan, Calderon, Childs, or any other bygone Raptors tormentors or scapegoats were in the vicinity of his mind as he gathered in the corner to hoist an impossible fall-away jumper over Joel Embiid just before the horn. But to so many others who watched it leave his hands and sail toward the rafters before coming down for its miraculously soft landing, that ball carried nearly two decades of false hope, thwarted ambition, and dreams deferred.
So of course that ball had to hit the rim four times - twice on the front side, twice on the back - before plopping through the cylinder. After 18 years of delayed gratification, what's another second or two? In 2001, Carter had a chance to become the first player in NBA history to hit a walk-off shot at the buzzer in a Game 7. All these years later, it had still never been done ... until Leonard did it.
Toronto stopped hanging Atlantic Division banners last season. Apparently winning a franchise-record 59 games and capturing the East's No. 1 seed for the first time, only to get humiliated in a second-round sweep yet again, will reorient your priorities. The Raptors didn't need proof of concept, or vindication for the personnel decisions they made in trying to raise the franchise's ceiling. The Leonard trade justified itself the moment it was made. Acquiring a player of his caliber (the best player the team's ever had, without a doubt) was worth the risk, and the emotional cost, whether it worked out this well or not.
But for him to cap a blockbuster series - in which he averaged 34.7 points on 63.4 percent true shooting - by hitting the single greatest shot in franchise history and finally giving the Raptors a piece of playoff lore defined by triumph rather than trauma ... that was vindication all the same.
From the beginning, this season hasn't felt anything like the previous five Raptors campaigns, when so much satisfaction came from shattering expectations; when so much emotional capital was tied up in the personal growth of the players who'd been there for years, and in the Lowry-DeRozan friendship that we experienced vicariously. This season was always going to be more about the destination than the journey. The payoff would come at the end, or not at all. That was the bargain the Raptors made when they chose possibility over comfort, winning over sentiment.
But after witnessing Leonard's shot, his primal scream after watching it fall on bounce number four, the mob of teammates that swarmed him, and the countrywide explosion of joy and relief, it's clear those things aren't mutually exclusive.
Yes, the Raptors have been to the conference finals before, but context matters. Beating this star-laden 76ers team is a fundamentally different accomplishment than beating the aging, banged-up Heat squad Toronto overcame three years ago. And to win it the way they did? You wait your whole life as a sports fan to have your faith rewarded like that; to experience a moment that dramatic, cathartic, and improbable. Whether or not it's followed by a championship or even a trip to The Finals, Leonard's Raptors tenure has already delivered on every ounce of its promise.
There will assuredly be more heartbreak. So much more. Possibly as soon as next round. Leonard may well leave as a free agent this summer, which could effectively spell the end of the franchise's golden era. That might be the most heartbreaking reality of all, even if Raptors fans have been bracing for the possibility all season.
But let's leave aside the unknowable future for now. For now, Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor, and the Raptors are going to play the Bucks for a chance to advance to their first-ever NBA Finals. Even if he does wind up playing for the Clippers next year, Leonard will have hit that shot, and he'll have done it while wearing a Raptors uniform. Astonishing.