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P.E.I. fans in Toronto today to see Raptors play

Nathan Clark, left, and Mark MacPhail arrived in Toronto Wednesday morning and are attending Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight with friend Chad Heron.
Nathan Clark, left, and Mark MacPhail arrived in Toronto Wednesday morning and are attending Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight with friend Chad Heron. - Contributed

This is the first NBA Finals game to be hosted outside of the U.S.

Nathan Clark was a Grade 6 student at Fort Augustus Consolidated School when the Toronto Raptors became his favourite team.

He grew up religiously watching the games on TV on Sunday afternoons. During halftime, he’d pull his portable hoop into the parking lot at his grandfather Dave’s neighbouring service station, Wakelins Gas and Grocery, and take shots.

Clark played for both the UPEI Panthers and Holland College Hurricanes basketball squads and has turned his hoops passion into a career as owner/operator of Courtside Sneakers with locations in Charlottetown and Halifax.

He was in attendance to see a 20-year-old LeBron James drop 56 in a loss to the Raptors – one of about 10 NBA games he has enjoyed – but nothing has prepared him for what he will experience tonight.

Clark and two of his friends will attend the first NBA Finals game to be played in Canada when the Raptors host the Golden State Warriors tonight. Game time is 10 p.m. Atlantic at Scotiabank Arena.

“I honestly don't know what it’s going to be like. I know it’s just going to be insane and I likely will never experience anything like it again for a sporting event,” he said Tuesday night.

“This is honestly a dream come true ... ‘Go Raps’.”

Clark and Mark MacPhail left early Wednesday morning for Toronto while Chad Heron is joining them today.

“It still hasn't hit me yet. I am going to be numb until probably I get home,” Clark said.

The trio won’t be the only Island connections at the game.

A couple of sections over from the trio will be Logan Dawson and his girlfriend, Lindsey Groom, who surprised him with tickets to the game for his 28th birthday.

“I had no idea. She caught me off-guard,” Dawson said Wednesday. “I was speechless. I had no idea how to respond.”

Logan Dawson and his girlfriend, Lindsey Groom, will be at Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight in Toronto.
Logan Dawson and his girlfriend, Lindsey Groom, will be at Game 1 of the NBA Finals tonight in Toronto.

Dawson, a Stanley Bridge native who was a multi-sport athlete at Bluefield and was part of the UPEI Panthers’ national bronze medal-winning soccer team in 2014, has followed the Raptors for years. This year’s run has been especially exciting, particularly Saturday’s Game 6 victory over Milwaukee that clinched the berth into the final. He watched while camping in Cape Breton, N.S.

“Throughout the playoffs, I kept saying how important it was to watch the game because this has never happened before,” Dawson said.

Clark was also watching the clincher and said during the game he was going to Toronto, if they won, regardless if he could get tickets.

When a Twitter follower, who is a Raptors’ season ticket holder, reached out and asked if he wanted to see if he could get a couple of extra tickets, Clark jumped at the offer.

It’s not cheap to be part of history, as Clark is paying $800 for his seat in the front of the upper bowl.

Dawson has been to NBA games in the past but never a playoff contest.

“It will be a cool part of history to experience,” said Dawson, who works as a student recruiter and adviser at UPEI. “It’s awesome they get to start on home court, and Toronto is going to be electric.”

Clark’s interest in the Raptors was ignited during the Vince Carter era, but he’s not a guy who has jumped on and off the bandwagon. He’s stuck through the highs and lows that come with being a true fan.

He has friends who cheer for some of the most storied franchises in the NBA, like the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers, and others who have hitched their wagon to the Warriors during their recent run.

“It feels weird for my team to be in the finals,” Clark said.

During the off-season, he knew the team had improved. A blockbuster trade sent DeMar Derozan to San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, immediately changing the team’s outlook.

When the Raptors got in trouble during the playoff run, and other fans turned the TV off, Clark stood behind his team.

“When we were down 0-2 (to Milwaukee), I was never concerned,” he said. “If any other Raptors team had gone down, it would have been like, ‘Oh, God, here we go again’.”

This team is different. And while it’s not a one-horse team, Leonard is a difference marker.

“Kawhi is just special,” Clark said. “Kawhi has established he’s not human.”

The Raptors had the better regular season record, but the Warriors are making their fifth straight appearance in the final and have won the title three of the past four years, losing the other in Game 7 to the James-led Cleveland Cavaliers.

After years of watching the finals, the wait is finally over for Raptors’ fans. The future is uncertain with Leonard a free-agent-to-be after the finals, but that is a worry for another day.

“The reason I wanted to make this trip was, although I am confident he re-signs, if he doesn’t, I don't know if we’ll ever get back here again,” Clark said. “So I wasn't going to gamble on that chance.”

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