The fourth and most recent installment of the Toronto Raptors Iranian night proved to be rousing event. With Toronto Raptor star Rudy Gay hosting his former (only traded last month) team Memphis Grizzlies – a formidable team in its own right – the Air Canada Centre (ACC) was completely sold out. This meant discounted tickets earmarked for the Iranian community were limited. That didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of fans, as over 400 members of the community attended the game, cheering their favourite team on.
“This is a great atmosphere, and it’s amazing to see so many of our community here,” says Ali Reza, attending his third Iranian-night Raptors game. “In the past we were more scattered, but this year you can tell there’s larger cluster’s of us together.”
Most of the Farsi-speaking crowd was congregated in section 321, as well as sizable chunks in section 107 and 307.
“A lot of people in our community are basketball fans, so this is a natural fit,” explains Ehsan Pirooz, who has attended many games in person and also plays basketball. “It’s only getting bigger each year.”
With proceeds of the discount tickets going to the Tirgan festival, many in attendance for the February 20th game are heavily involved with the popular annual event highlighting Persian culture and art. As part of the festivities, Iranian children wearing Tirgan shirts had the privilege of walking on the basketball court during halftime, exchanging high-fives with NBA players.
“It was awesome!” shouts eight year-old Tayaz. “The best part was to say hi to (Raptors shooting guard) DeMar DeRozan!”
While many fans were still anxiously wondering about Iranian-born Hamed Haddadi – the only Iranian in the league – who along with Gay was traded to Toronto in January. While he was still in the United States due to visa complications, the following day the Raptors traded Haddadi to the Phoenix Suns, ending hope of Haddadi playing for Canada’s lone team.
“It’s not too surprising, but the way Iranian basketball is progressing it might be not too much longer before we see more players from our community breaking through into the league,” says Karan Makvandi, who also was present at the basketball clinic four days prior. “But this event is truly a great idea.”
While the Raptors lost to the Grizzlies 88-82 in a close defensive battle, the game had a playoff-like intensity, and the fans were loud.
The loss won’t deter fans of the team, as the Raptors are relevant again in this city with renewed optimism about the franchise’s immediate and long-term future. And if last week’s Iranian contingent at the ACC are any indication, the Raptors have a lot of backers from this burgeoning community.