The ecstasy of waiting on a shot to fall: For three seconds the Raptors future hung suspended

For several seconds the future hung suspended. You can see it in the pictures, on a thousand faces and from a dozen angles at least. The ball is up and everything else is unknown.

It’s the longest shortest time in sports. The time between a shot going up at the buzzer — in game seven of the NBA playoffs — and the ball coming down. It lasted three and a half seconds Sunday night. But that literalism feels wrong. It lasted three and a half seconds, but those seconds encompassed worlds.

On Sunday night in Toronto, when Kawhi Leonard rose up over the enormous, outstretched arms of Joel Embiid, sports, ever so briefly, met science fiction. For three and a half seconds, the past and future of the Toronto Raptors existed in multiple realities and on multiple timelines.

As the ball arced up, impossibly high, old wounds were healed and reopened, old choices judged good and bad, while different futures — titles, tanking, the same old almost but never quite there — played out simultaneously in the open mouths and agonized eyes of everyone who counts the Raptors their’s.

Philadelphia 76ers centre Joel Embiid attempts to stop Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard’s last-second shot.

Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press

With 4.2 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of a tie game Sunday, Leonard, the flat-affect superstar the Raptors mortgaged the franchise future for last year, took an inbounds pass from centre Marc Gasol. With Ben Simmons, a 6’10 Australian prodigy, latched to his hip, he took off on a looping sprint toward the far corner of the court.

As Leonard hit the three-point line, Embiid leapt out to intercept him. Embiid stayed glued to the smaller man as the clock ticked down. With less than a second left and the baseline looming, Leonard pivoted and rose, releasing the ball over Embiid and into a region outside of time.

On Monday, after it was over, after the ball fell, sports fans in Toronto shared clips online of what happened next like they were bootlegs of a secret Jesus/Beatles crossover. They broke down each bounce. They gave them names. They overlaid music — the theme from Titanic, Kanye West’s Runaway — and watched broadcast feeds from all over the world. (For whatever reason, the Korean feed proved especially popular.)

Off-balance and with a giant in his face, Leonard launched the ball skyward like an ICBM. Up, up, up, it went before arcing toward the hoop. With an audible ‘thwump’ the ball collided with the side of the rim and careened up. ‘Thwump’, it bounced again across the net, then ‘thwump, thwump’ twice more in succession. It took Leonard almost four seconds to run across the court and into position. It took the ball almost exactly as long to fall.

The emotion of those seconds lived on in the photos printed Monday and posted and reposted endlessly online. Each one seemed to reveal a new depth to the anticipation and the agony of the shot. There’s Leonard, up in the air, the shadow of Embiid’s big hand visible on his face. A moment later, in a new frame, Leonard is on the ground, off the court, in a deep squat, his mouth open, his tongue poking out. In the same photo, Embiid still standing, cranes toward the net to get a better view, while the Raptors reserves hold each other back.

Players and fans watch as Kawhi Leonard’s last-second, Game 7-winning shot goes in to clinch the Toronto Raptors’ defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers, in Toronto on May 13, 2019.

Stan Behal/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

After the fourth bounce, in an almost anti-climax, the ball rolled in. The different realities folded into one. And for once, for the Raptors and their fans, everything ended in joy.

You could write a sonnet about any one of a hundred of the overjoyed faces captured behind and beside Leonard after his shot went in — the wealthy fans in their weirdo leisure gear, the backups, their mouths hanging in matching ‘O’s. Then there’s Leonard himself, his tongue strangely blue, his face full of the open emotion he so rarely shows, as his teammates mob him.

In the pictures, Quinn Lee, a Raptors staffer, stood just outside the huddle, her eyes closed, her head titled back, a scream of joy and relief on her lips. Her colleague, Helen Carluen, a team attendant in her 11th year with the squad, clutched a bundle of towels in her black-gloved hands as she pressed into the mob. A moment earlier, she’d been crouched beside Embiid on the baseline, her mouth open in an exact mirror of Leonard’s shock.

Players and fans celebrate after Kawhi Leonard’s last-second, Game 7-winning shot goes in to clinch the Toronto Raptors’ defeat of the Philadelphia 76ers, in Toronto on May 13, 2019.

Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

For three and a half seconds, they waited, united in the unknown — the players, the staff and the fans. And then everything popped. And for once, for the Raptors, it was good.

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