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TORONTO (AP) — There's nothing quite like Jurassic Park anywhere else in the NBA.
The college vibe of the writhing, rowdy mass of bodies crammed into an area that covers about two city blocks to cheer for their beloved Raptors outside their downtown Toronto arena makes for one of basketball's best parties.
"It's so energetic," Raptors fan Katie Thiessen said of the atmosphere at Jurassic Park as she and friends visiting from Australia and New Zealand prepared to enjoy the festivities during the Eastern Conference finals. "Everybody is just so great. You have so many people, you make so many friends. The energy is just amazing, the atmosphere. It feels great to come together instead of watching at home."
And it's free.
With every playoff game, home or away, thousands gather to watch on the big screen fixed to the arena's west wall. Officially, it's called 'Raptors Tailgate in Maple Leaf Square,' but it's better known as Jurassic Park. On Thursday, when the Raptors host Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the mighty Golden State Warriors, the party will get cranked up to a whole new level.
It's Toronto's first trip to the finals since entering the league in 1995 and for those fans who can't get their hands on tickets, or can't afford them, Jurassic Park is a popular alternative. The fans who gather there are mostly young, in their late teens or 20's, and represent a cross-section of Toronto's broad ethnic diversity.
Rapper Drake, who sits courtside at Toronto games and holds a role as the team's "global ambassador," said the Raptors and their fans are reminiscent of a college team.
Toronto guard Fred VanVleet, who went to the Final Four with Wichita State, agrees with the four-time Grammy winner.
"I think there are some similarities there," VanVleet said. "Somebody was saying it's more soccer, like how those fan bases are so passionate. I just think we've got a really good fan base. I don't know what to compare it to. It's definitely unique in the NBA."
It's almost like Krzyzewskiville — Duke students camping out for basketball games — meets the "World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party" — the tailgating for the annual Florida-Georgia football game.
It's been so successful, Toronto suburbs Mississauga and Brampton are opening their very own versions of Jurassic Park for the NBA Finals. Outdoor viewing parties for Raptors playoff games first became a thing in 2014, when Toronto finished as surprise Atlantic Division winners and returned to the postseason following a five-year absence.
Whether intentionally or inadvertently, then-general manager and current team president Masai Ujiri helped establish a fiery tone for the nascent event when he went outside to address fans before Game 1 of the Raptors' series against the Brooklyn Nets. By the time the Nets earned a narrow Game 7 win over Toronto, the crowd outside was estimated at 10,000, about half as many again as the number seated inside.
Fast forward five years, and Jurassic Park has become one of the hottest spots in Toronto on game nights.
For safety reasons, and to keep traffic moving, fans are now split into five distinct viewing areas. The one right outside the arena boasts multiple food and beverage concessions, even a team store outlet. The event has an official corporate sponsor, a bank, and there's plenty more advertising plastered around.
While admission is free, fans come early; the official capacity is about 5,000 and crowds start gathering more than five hours before tipoff, waiting for the gates to open.
Even as severe thunderstorms drenched Toronto before Game 6 of the East finals, fans formed a line that encircled the arena and nearby Union Station, the city's main transit hub, stretching more than three quarters of a mile. With thousands still trying to get a glimpse of the action after the viewing areas had filled up, police closed part of the road one block west to allow more people to watch safely. The same could happen again in the finals, with even bigger crowds expected to attend.
One of the things that make loud and boisterous Jurassic Park such a popular destination is that people tend to play nice.
Jubilant fans spread out across downtown for an impromptu celebration after Toronto beat the Bucks on Saturday to move on to the finals. More than a dozen people climbed atop a city bus but no arrests were made, a fact Toronto Police spokeswoman Katrina Arrogante called "impressive."
VanVleet said he's touched by the support he and his teammates receive from Toronto's rabid fans, both inside and outside the arena.
"It's something that you really take to heart and you can't take it for granted as a player," he said. "Obviously there's a really good connection between us as players and our fans."
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