TORONTO — Danny Green is the only 76er with fond memories of the hardwood corner he pointed to while sitting inside Scotiabank Arena ahead of Monday’s preseason opener against the Raptors.
It’s where Kawhi Leonard crouched directly in front of him, seemingly willing the ball into the basket after four bounces while dashing the Sixers’ hopes with one of the most dramatic playoff knockouts in NBA history. The 2019 series-clinching game-winner became such a cultural touchstone in the city that a giant photo of the moment greets visitors just after clearing customs at the Toronto airport.
“Everybody sees it, and they hate it,” Green said of his Sixers brethren. “I feel bad for them. But, at the same time, not too bad.”
Green was back in Toronto as a visiting player for the first time since winning the NBA championship with the Raptors. The lengthy absence was directly tied to the significance of Monday night. It was the first Raptors game held in Canada in 584 days, since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the league for months and then sent the Raptors to Tampa to play a condensed 2020-21 season.
“There’s nothing like it,” Green said of the Toronto atmosphere. “I expect it to be crazy for preseason because it’s been so long. They’re very passionate about their sports here. … I’m excited for them, I’m excited to be back in this building.
“I’m excited to be back in the city, be back in the country, a place I consider home.”
Green and the Raptors agreed to hold off on his championship-ring presentation until they can celebrate with a regular-season, full-capacity crowd at a Dec. 28 matchup. Since winning that 2019 title, Green won another championship with the Lakers (their scheduled game in Toronto was after the March 2020 shutdown) and then played one season with the Sixers. The 2020-21 season ended in disappointment for Green personally and for his team, when a calf injury forced him to miss the end of the Sixers’ seven-game series loss to the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Throughout a strange 2020-21 season, Green said he kept in touch with former Raptors teammates playing in Tampa. They shared that they missed the fans “because there [were] times they were at their home games getting cheered against [while playing] other Florida teams and other teams in general,” Green said.
So Monday was a long time coming for a passionate Raptors fan base. Toronto has become an NBA hot spot in recent seasons with All-Stars Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, rowdy playoff watch parties at the outdoor Jurassic Park and a big-swing trade for Leonard in 2018 blooming into their first title.
Major League Baseball’s Blue Jays have been hosting fans inside the nearby Rogers Centre, including for a critical Game 162 Sunday afternoon, and the Maple Leafs’ Sept. 25 NHL preseason game against the Montreal Canadiens was the first event with paying spectators inside Scotiabank Arena since March 2020. But the Sixers were the first NBA team to cross the border to play the Raptors in about 19 months.
Like anybody traveling to the country, members of the Sixers’ travel party needed to download an app to streamline the process of providing documents such as a vaccination card and negative test. Proof of vaccination and identification are required to dine indoors, a step coach Doc Rivers said made “everybody [feel] safer.”
Behind the scenes, arena and Raptors staffers milled around the building finalizing logistics, and asked visitors to bear with any hiccups. The discovery of a photographer vest from the 2019 Finals provided evidence of how long it had been since basketball had been played in the building.
Ontario guidelines permitted Scotiabank Arena to be filled at half-capacity (about 10,000), with proof of vaccination required for all attendees 12 and older and masks required for all. A “Welcome back Raptors fans” video-board message greeted all who walked into the bowl. Big cheers erupted for starting-lineup introductions, any sub who checked into the game, or for big plays such as a dunk and scream from prized draft pick Scottie Barnes. The scene resembled the first day of school, with a bevy of hugs, fist bumps and waves shared between colleagues and friends who had been away from the arena.
“I feel like I’m sucking up to Toronto right now, but I just love the fans,” Rivers said. “They have this different energy. You feel like it’s a hockey-type of energy. Like, the crowd is into the game. I love how they approach the games.”
Green was among those participating in the warm greetings.
As both teams crossed paths at the arena for their Monday morning shootarounds, Green hugged Raptors staffers ranging from coaches to equipment managers to team security. When a throng of local reporters pulled out cellphones to capture Green taking shots at the end of the workout, Sixers assistant Dave Joerger called Green “a Toronto celebrity.”
Green stopped again multiple times on his path from the tunnel to the opposite end of the court for his pregame shooting routine about an hour before tip-off. When he finished his on-court work, he wrapped his arm around Raptors super fan Nav Bhatia while chatting under the basket. The crowd cheered when he was introduced as a Sixers starter. He finished 0-for-2 from the floor in 11 minutes of the 123-107 Sixers loss.
Green said he had thought about receiving his championship ring during the 2020 bubble restart in Kissimmee, Fla., or on the Sixers’ visit to Tampa last season, but decided against it. It might unofficially be the longest wait for a ring in NBA history, which Green quipped means “at least I’m in the books for something.”
In December, he will accept the hardware in front of many Sixers teammates and staff whose heartbreak helped pave the way for that Raptors title. And that harsh reminder will reappear any time the Sixers clear customs at the Toronto airport, with Green in the background of Leonard’s iconic crouch.
“It’s an interesting thing that I’m on this team that lost in that moment, that shot,” Green said. “I have to relive that moment with them, kind of on both sides of it.”