OAKLAND, Calif.— It’s why you miss birthdays and anniversaries, why you know hotel beds better than your own. It’s why it feels like you spend more time in the air than on the ground, why you have to settle for FaceTime calls instead of hugs and kisses.
It’s the back-to-backs, the late nights in cities across the country. It’s never knowing what day of the week it is. It’s taking photos of your hotel room number because they all jumble together.
It’s why you grind through 82 games, why you put up with the sprains and strains, the bruises and the breaks. It’s why you deal with the internet trolls and the trade rumors.
You do all of that because when things break just right, when you get moments like this. The journey can end here, the smell of champagne following your every step because you’ve just bathed in it.
It’s worth it because now you get to call yourself champions.
The Toronto Raptors capped their journey Thursday, slamming the door on Oracle Arena —and Golden State’s quest for a three-peat — clinching their first NBA title with a 114-110 victory in Game 6.
Their journeys began all over the globe — the executive from Nigeria, the coach who worked in England, the players from three different continents. None were picked in the top 14 of the NBA draft.
As soon as the final horn echoed, Kawhi Leonard lifted his hands to the sky while he opened the NBA’s most closed mouth, a howl of celebration and vindication.
A year ago, he was an unhappy member of the San Antonio Spurs, someone who wanted to be traded, preferably to Los Angeles. He had a reputation to rebuild, a mysterious calf injury limiting him to only nine games in his last year with the Spurs.
“Last year, a lot of people were doubting me,” Leonard said, his second NBA Finals MVP trophy nearby. “They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team. That was disappointing to me that that was out in the media, because I love the game of basketball. Like I always say, if we’re not playing this game, if we’re hurt, I mean you’re down.
“So me just going through that, and I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else. And I have to trust myself.”
Leonard, fittingly, iced the championship from the free-throw line, scoring the final points in this Raptors’ season. His 732 this postseason were the third most, trailing only Michael Jordan (1991-92) and LeBron James (2017-18).
In Game 6, though, it was his teammates that did the most damage.
Kyle Lowry, who had his series-winner blocked in final second of Game 5, opened the game by hitting four three-point shots in the first quarter. And Pascal Siakam, who Nick Nurse benched at the end of Game 5, responded with 26 points and 10 rebounds, playing all but 110 seconds of Game 6.
The Raptors’ proficiency just pounded and pounded on the Warriors, who couldn’t handle all of the obstacles put in their way.
Just like Kevin Durant one game earlier, Klay Thompson also had to leave the arena early on crutches, a left knee injury putting an abrupt end to his 30-point night.
Despite being down two starters, the Warriors still had a chance to win Game 6, but Stephen Curry’s game-winner missed between the rim and the backboard, allowing the Raptors to make history.
“How? How has this group of guys put themselves in position to do it?” Warriors coach Steve Kerr asked himself. “And then when Klay goes down and is out for the game, it’s just sort of, ‘You got to be kidding me.’ Like this has to stop. But it’s just the way it’s gone.”
And it might be the way it ends. Thompson, like Durant, is a free agent this summer. Durant has already undergone surgery. Thompson, who reportedly tore his ACL, will undergo it soon.
But as he walked past the party in the visiting locker room, Kerr, who has won and lost more NBA championships than almost everyone and just had his bid for a third-straight extinguished, stopped and answered a question with the most obvious answer.
Was it — the nights away from home, the physical and mental pain, the sacrifices — all worth it?
“Oh yeah. Yeah. Absolutely. It’s so worth it,” Kerr told the Los Angeles Times. “What else could be more gratifying than competing as a group with people you love and like being around and doing it at the highest level? Doing that every day for a living? We’re the luckiest people on Earth.
” … Hopefully the journey isn’t over. But it’s pretty special. “
You could hear it the Raptors’ celebration. You could see it on their faces, the disbelief. You could smell the champagne with 20 yards of the locker room. They grabbed phones, posed for pictures and took videos.
Getting to this, no matter how you came, is pretty special.