3:56am. This is THE ideal time to begin to write my debut piece for Upwords, right? My mom is just about to head off to the airport for a small trip, and I mistakenly thought that I was going to be the one to drop her off at this early hour. Honestly though, it was hard falling asleep after witnessing the absolute beatdown that the Milwaukee Bucks put on my team, the Toronto Raptors, mere hours ago. Being awake now just feels unerringly right. I have some thoughts. That’s right, I’m going to be writing about the Toronto Raptors…total shocker. And so much more. Maybe now that I’m physically home in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, I’m finally allowing myself to mentally come home, too. What good is a homecoming without a heavy dose of nostalgia?
For those of you that have the grave misfortune of following me on Instagram (@rybreadviola by the way ;)) you will have seen my countless story updates about this soft-spoken, and at times distant superstar basketballer by the name of Kawhi Leonard. He is my hero, and has been my favourite basketball player for years and years. On a fateful summer day (July 18th of 2018) the Toronto Raptors shocked the NBA world by shipping off one half of their star duo, a charismatic Compton phoenix named DeMar DeRozan, in exchange for the enigmatic Leonard, of the San Antonio Spurs, affectionately known to many as the Klaw. It was truly a controversial and blockbuster trade: Toronto had just jettisoned perhaps the most loyal and beloved player they had ever had for a chance to woo Leonard for one year, and push all their chips to the center of the table for a title run. LeBron James, who had singlehandedly tortured the Raptors for the previous three playoff runs, departed for sunnier skies into the open arms of the Los Angeles Lakers and the Western Conference. This presented additional incentive to take control of the Eastern Conference, and perhaps the acquisition of the Klaw would finally erase the Raptors’ “runnin’ through the 6ix with their woes.” To top all that off, Dwane Casey, Toronto’s stalwart yet polarizing tactician, got fired fresh off the heels of winning “Coach of the Year.” Things were changing, and changing quickly. This would be like if the Philadelphia Orchestra sent music director Yannick Nézet-Séguin to the Boston Symphony in exchange for Andris Nelsons. Am I the only one who dreams up weird hypothetical conductor trades?!
In any case, the trade set the Twitterverse on fire. Many fans were absolutely fuming about the news, and thought that the trade was cruel, reckless, and unwise. DeRozan WAS the Raptors, and had brought the once laughingstock franchise, along with running mate Kyle Lowry, to great heights, excluding all of those excruciating letdowns against LeBron James. We don’t talk about those in this house. The city’s own brand of nostalgia was rearing its head, fearful of change, focusing on DeRozan’s veteran leadership on the team rather than his troublesome playoff shortcomings. It was a big deal. I, on the other hand, was jumping up and down in gleeful disbelief in my tiny bedroom! My favourite player was now on my favourite team, at least for this season! I didn’t know what was about to take shape, and pretty much every day since the trade I have posted Instagram stories broadcasting my infatuation with the cornrowed mercenary. I regret NOTHING.
Fast forward to last Sunday. I had been visiting Vancouver for a few days before continuing the eastward trek back to my home in Saskatchewan. There I was, sitting at a sports bar in the Gastown neighbourhood, clutching my drink in absolute agony as I watched the Toronto Raptors duke it out with the Philadelphia 76ers in a Game Seven win-or-go-home playoff matchup for the ages. Just the previous morning, I had moved away from Los Angeles, my sunny and dreamy home of three years, and the day before that, graduated with an Artist Diploma from the Colburn School. Even if I didn’t show it, it was really hard for me to say goodbye to so many amazing friends, my viola teacher, and especially my Upnote family! It was also bewildering to bid adieu to the school that had undoubtedly moulded me over a transformational period in my life, rife with serious ups and serious downs. Everything was happening too quickly for me! Also, does anyone actually look good in a cap and gown? How can we fix this for future generations of classical musicians on their big graduation day?
Throughout my final Californian days, I was repeatedly reminded of my penchant for nostalgia while I was packing up all of my things, in preparation of shipping them back up north. There was the dress shirt that I wore when I auditioned at Colburn, and later soaked in aromas of chicken-tikka poutine at the nearby restaurant, Badmaash, in a solitary yet celebratory feast. There was the GameCube that my lovely roommates and I used for hours to perfect our drifting in Mario Kart and hone our Super Smash Brothers takedowns. There was my loop pedal, a device that had allowed me to risk, explore, and to innovate, specifically when I felt like I had little to offer the music world. There was even the touching birthday card that my now ex-girlfriend had written for me. A lot had happened throughout my time in LA, and to the chagrin of my large shipping Tupperware boxes, now busting at the sides like a raccoon that ate too much, I just couldn’t bear to throw some things out. Take that, Marie Kondo!
Why do material things matter so much to me, especially when I wish that they did not? Why do I always feel more sentimental than many of my peers? Is it because I am a violist? I strangely think it’s because of music. I have worked so hard to get to this point, and have now amassed so many experiences and memories in great cities like Saskatoon, Vienna, Montreal, New Haven, and most recently LA. Often these experiences seemingly transform into physical objects that encapsulate many of the feelings that I can’t cleverly put into words. Perhaps this way, I can compartmentalize my life when I simply don’t have time to ruminate. I’m not saying it’s perfect, but music school can get pretty busy, yo. Playing on a box of expensive wood, hopefully at a high level, has propelled me around the globe, and I never want to take that for granted.
At our aforementioned commencement ceremony, I was lapping up every word of the graduation speeches, like a dog instinctively does when a piece of hamburger unexpectedly falls and hits the ground. I was bursting with pride to see my suitemates, Dominic and Anthony, perform and speak, respectively, with confidence, creativity, and elegance. Arnold Steinhardt, like THE Arnold Steinhardt, the same one who signed my copy of his book Indivisble by Four, was charming the crowd after receiving an Honorary Doctorate. Our Dean, Lee Cioppa, reminded us to simply be braver, if “being brave” was too daunting as we head out into the world. That little “r” tacked onto the end of the word changes everything. I was reminded of the many landmark musical moments that I had been a part of during my time within the campus and beyond, throughout the sprawling city that I was finally falling in love with. There was my first lesson, in which I shakily and nervously tried to impress one of the greatest violists of our time. There was that Mahler 7 concert, under the direction of Matthias Pintscher, where I somehow got to play all of the amazing principal viola solos and had a blast. There was that performance in Skid Row, with Street Symphony, at the Weingart Center, where I got to collaborate with an absolute genius wordsmith who was just released from prison six months prior. There was my fourth and final viola recital of my Artist Diploma, the audience filled with my family and friends, as I tried to make my remaining notes count for everything on the stage of Thayer Hall. After I had finished and headed backstage, a line of maybe 35 people had formed to hug me and congratulate me. I’m never going to forget that. I’m convinced that every musician has equally important memories, and I beg you not to throw them out!
Anyway, back to the fourth quarter of Game Seven of the Raptors vs. 76ers. Each team had been trading punch for punch, and one could argue that both teams deserved to advance and face the leviathan Milwaukee Bucks, eagerly awaiting the victor for a showdown in the Eastern Conference Finals. Kawhi Leonard was leading the charge, and had already proven a million times over that he was every bit worth the heartbreaking trade that sent DeMar DeRozan away. This was the biggest stage, and this was his moment. His crossovers were fluid, precise, and explosive. His mid-range game was truly artful, and he carved up whoever Philly would throw in front of him. There were shades of Michael Jordan in his lockdown defense. Still, the score was tied 90-90, and I couldn’t have been more on the edge of my barstool seat without crumbling to the ground in both adrenaline and dread. Dreadrenaline. What was about to happen to my beloved Raptors? Would the team and its masochist fans experience the classic gut-punch of playoff defeat that comes every year, without hesitation? And what would become of my dear Kawhi!?
With 4.2 seconds left on the clock, the ball firmly in the hands of Spaniard Marc Gasol, the Raptors inbounded to Kawhi. He forcefully dribbled from center-court to the opposite corner, with stout defender Ben Simmons draped all over him. Simmons transferred his defensive duties to Joel Embiid, the trolling, wildly-entertaining 76ers superstar, who has a good five inches and 30 pounds on our hero. As the clock cascaded downwards into fateful nothingness, Kawhi was corralled to the edges of the court boundaries, and heaved up a rainbow-arched jumpshot that flirted with the heavens. The possible outcome of this attritional series was in this spinning ball, now incredibly airborne. Embiid, one of the NBA’s best defenders, arms stretched out like a giant jungle cat mid-leap, could not have contested this shot any better. As the deafening buzzer sounded, the ball descended and clanked on the rim. “AHH!!,” I shouted loudly, thinking we were headed for overtime. But wait! The ball bounced on the rim again, and then AGAIN on the opposite side, and then one final time as it gently yet purposefully rolled through the mesh. KAWHI HAD JUST WON THE GAME AND THE SERIES 92-90, in front of a frenzied and hysterical Toronto crowd!!! I almost flipped my table as I jumped up and ran around screaming, to the delight of my few but fellow Raptor fans in the space, and to the confusion of the random Vancouverites who had picked the wrong bar to frequent on this momentous Sunday. This was absolute euphoria. The biggest moment in Toronto Raptors history. Maybe this is what it feels like to win a dream orchestral audition!? Nah, it’s even bigger than that, in my twisted world. Kawhi finished with 41 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, and the ONLY game-winning buzzer-beater in Game Seven NBA Playoff History. He erupted and was overcome with emotion, the exact opposite characteristic that he’s known for, as his teammates and the crowd mobbed him with adoration. I will stop gushing about it. You can and should watch it for yourselves: https://youtu.be/75iExVNvrWw.
Pretty crazy, right? I will never forget that moment for the rest of my life. Basketball, like music, and like life, has its maddening pendulum swings of elation and disappointment. The sting of failure seemingly ties to the triumph of success with an inseparable gravitas; one cannot exist fully without the other. As I write this, the Raptors are down 0-2 against the Bucks, and look overmatched. I have had to snap out of my weeklong Kawhi-reverie, recalling that he might leave the Raptors in the offseason! I can quickly recall several terrible and painful musical memories for every positive or ecstatic one. Ultimately, nostalgia has its place in life, yet we should not be afraid to look to the future and not be afraid to embrace change. I loved DeMar DeRozan as a Raptor, just as I loved my time in Los Angeles. I am still sad to have moved away. Nevertheless, as I gear up for my next big adventure—moving to Toronto to hopefully plant some serious musical roots—I am made aware of the balance of life. Not too much salt, and not too much sugar. And perhaps a spoonful of Upwords for breakfast. 7:19am.