- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 6, 2019

If you’ve watched a second of the NBA Finals, you’ve seen the Toronto Raptors push the Golden State Warriors. After Toronto took a 2-1 series lead Wednesday, maybe you’ve even entertained the possibility of the Raptors winning it all.

And then, if you think about it a step further, you might start to wonder: Would the Raptors — given they’re based in Toronto — visit the White House or go to the Canadian equivalent? Would they be honored by Parliament? Is that even a tradition in Canada?

The Raptors, after all, are not only looking to become the NBA’s first-ever Canadian team to win a championship — they’re looking to become the first Canadian team in 26 years to win a championship in one of four major sports. (Apologies to CFL enthusiasts.)

In a statement to The Washington Times, a Canadian official said the government is on board with honoring the Raptors

“All Canadians are behind the Toronto Raptors, and we are cheering them on every step of the way,” said Eleanore Catenaro, a spokeswoman for the prime minister’s office.  “The team has already made history, and we would absolutely be honoured to invite them to Parliament.”

There is precedent for a Canadian team to be honored in both countries. In December 1992, the Toronto Blue Jays met both president George H. W. Bush at the White House and prime minister Brian Mulroney at Rideau Hall, the official residence in Ottawa of the Canadian monarch and their representative.

But Canada doesn’t have a storied tradition of honoring championship teams like the U.S. does at the White House. The Blue Jays appear to be an outlier.

For example, from 1984 to 1990, the Edmonton Oilers won the Stanley Cup five times. But the Oilers did not visit Parliament or Rideau Hall to honor any of those victories, an Oilers spokesman told The Washington Times.

When the Blue Jays repeated as World Series champs in 1993, they were invited to Rideau Hall, but did not attend. That was the last Canadian team to win a championship.

“Part of the answer, I think is everything in Canada is more understated than the United States,” said Eric Zweig, a Canadian sports historian. “We don’t make a big deal about anything the way you guys do make about most things.”

This, at least based on newspaper clippings, might be true. While Toronto’s visit to Rideau Hall in 1992 received coverage in the Ottawa Citizen, there was another story on the page with the headline: “Does Mulroney play favorites?” The article pointed out that the prime minister met with the Blue Jays — but not that year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner. “Mulroney’s social priorities have been questioned in the past,” the paper wrote.

In the U.S., sports teams have a long history of visiting the White House. According to ESPN, the tradition dates back to at least 1865, when president Andrew Johnson hosted the Brooklyn Atlantics and the Washington Nationals amateur baseball clubs. The 1924 Washington Senators are believed to be the first World Series winner honored, invited by then-president Calvin Coolidge. John F. Kennedy was the first president to welcome an NBA team, inviting the Boston Celtics in 1963.

Under President Trump, an NBA team has yet to visit the White House — putting the Raptors‘ chances of being invited in doubt, if they were to upset Golden State.

In 2017, Trump rescinded an invitation to the Warriors a day after star point guard Stephen Curry said he didn’t want to go. Golden State was not invited after it won 2018, and instead, members of the team spent part of their visit to the District with former president Barack Obama in January.

The Raptors, meanwhile, have been embraced all throughout Canada — from politicians to everyday citizens alike. During their playoff run, the country has become enamored with basketball. Murals of the Raptors have gone up all over Toronto, and the team has a devoted watch party — appropriately titled “Jurassic Park” — outside the arena.

Two days after Toronto advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, Ontario politicians even showed up to work wearing Raptors jerseys over dress shirts.

“Basketball in Toronto and in Canada is really like hockey has been in the States,” Zweig said. “You’ll find your core group in any city that loves the team to death and can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t, but now the Raptors on this playoff run have really taken the whole country the way the Blue Jays did, too.”

Now, the Raptors need just two more wins to make visiting Parliament a reality.

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