A year-long campaign to keep superstar Kawhi Leonard in Toronto has come to a screeching halt. The two-time NBA Finals MVP is heading home to California, leaving in his wake a team and fan base revelling in their first-ever championship, but also wondering what might have been.
It’s been a dramatic, turbulent and frenzied week in Toronto, with free-agent theatrics over Leonard reaching a fever pitch on Wednesday.
Raptors fans were twitterpated as they awaited Leonard’s decision. Twitter was buzzing with rumours and unfounded reports, and a local TV station used its traffic helicopter to track a private plane owned by the group that operates the Toronto Raptors as video footage led people to speculate that Leonard was one of the passengers on that plane.
These haven’t been normal times in a city that was starved for a championship, so when Leonard delivered, delirium ensued.
The King of the North is heading south, ending a year-long reign that saw his star rise at exponential speed.
Bookended by laughs
In his first public appearance ever as a Toronto Raptor, on Monday Sept., 24, 2018, Leonard was asked to describe himself to people across Canada.
“I’m a fun guy,” he proclaimed.
Then he laughed. Oh, that laugh. Jarring. Awkward. Endearing.
Perhaps it was fitting then, in his last public appearance as a Raptor, with a couple million fans in the streets at the championship celebration, Leonard left fans with one last laugh.
During that same opening news conference, Leonard was pressed over and over about whether he wanted to be playing in Toronto at all — the same question was asked too many different ways.
“If you’re looking to the future you’re going to trip over the present,” Leonard finally said.
Fitting, because it’s exactly what he was able to do all season long with the Raptors — stay present. And there weren’t many missteps along the way because of it.
It was a wild and wicked year for the Raptors and their rabid fan base. In fact, it was almost a year ago to the day that the franchise was mired in more questions than answers after firing coach of the year Dwane Casey and trading away fan favourite DeMar DeRozan.
The team was coming off a franchise-best 59-win regular season. Their long-time nemesis LeBron James left for the L.A. Lakers. The stars seemed to be aligned for the Raptors to finally break through — and they blew everything up.
Some fans were left seething.
DeRozan was adored by fans. He once famously said “I am Toronto.” He poured his heart into the Raptors. And he was gone. Just like that.
The blockbuster deal saw Leonard and three-point specialist Danny Green come north; DeRozan, backup centre Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 protected first-round draft pick going to the San Antonio Spurs.
Kawhi who? Some of the fans couldn’t even pronounce his name properly, and he only played nine games the previous season with a nagging right quad injury keeping him out of the lineup. He was the NBA Finals MVP in 2014 after leading the Spurs to a championship, but there were a lot of questions about how productive he could be coming off a major injury.
Having grown up in Los Angeles, there were numerous reports Leonard wanted to return home as quickly as possible — there was a dark, ominous cloud hanging over the superstar and the Raptors from the beginning about whether he would stay or go after his one season in Toronto.
That doubt, whether Leonard actually wanted to be in Canada, was taken as a challenge by Raptors fans who quickly made it their sole goal to romance Kawhi throughout the season and prove Toronto a worthy home for him.
Playoffs go to a whole new level
While the regular-season dating game was rather tame between Leonard and the Raptors fans, it escalated in a hurry as the team started its playoff journey.
With each win, with each Kawhi block, shot, steal, slam and bounce-around-the-rim buzzer beater, the fans’ flirting and courting ramped up to an entirely different level. The Ka’Wine & Dine campaign ran rampant across Toronto restaurants — free meals for life for the superstar at local establishments. He was promised penthouses and property. The #HeStay movement went viral on social media. The full-court press was on.
There has never been a Toronto Raptor in the history of the franchise to play the same calibre of basketball as Kawhi Leonard. He single-handedly took the Raptors over the top, getting them to the pinnacle of the basketball world just like Toronto president Masai Ujiri had imagined when he made that bold move.
Nobody will ever forget Kawhi’s Game 7 heroics against Philadelphia — that ball seemingly still bouncing around the rim right now, only to improbably drop.
There was also the night Kawhi changed the complexity of the Raptors playoff run. Down 2-0 in the Eastern Conference final, he logging a career-high 52 minutes and willed the team to a Game 3 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks. Had the Raptors lost that game, the season was more than likely over. Clearly injured and hobbled, Kawhi persevered and guided the Raptors to that win. They never lost to the Bucks again.
And perhaps most noteworthy was the calm Kawhi brought to the team in the NBA Finals against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors. There was a level of perspective and poise exuding from every Raptor. After they left the court in Game 4 having won both games inside Oracle Arena, the team marched off the court, stoic and unemotional.
Kyle Lowry, Serge Ibaka and the rest of the team talked about Kawhi’s nature — he kept them all grounded.
We may never truly know what drives Kawhi Leonard. People will project their own ideas of who he is onto him, but there will always be an air of mystery surrounding the superstar, which is probably exactly how he’d want it.
But there is something to be said about the rare moments when Kawhi did reveal parts of himself to a fan base reading into every smile and laugh along the way.
He’s a self-proclaimed fun guy that likes to win.
He won in Toronto, a crowning moment provided by the King of the North that will forever be etched into the minds of sports fans across Canada.
Now, he’ll try to do it with the Clippers, too.