Kawhi Leonard drew a crowd in his return to Toronto on Wednesday.
While downtown billboards heralded his return for the first time as a Los Angeles Clipper, the 28-year-old faced a media throng at the morning shootaround.
Leonard’s five-minute scrum attracted 60-plus media members and a dozen cameras. An unfazed Leonard, who led the Raptors to their first-ever NBA title in his one season north of the border, said simply he was happy to be back.
Leonard, who will collect his championship ring prior to tipoff against the Raptors on Wednesday night, said he expected a mixed reaction from the fans despite the country’s past love affair with the close-mouthed NBA star.
“There’ll be some cheers but definitely, I think, more boos because they want to win the game,” he said, engulfed by media courtside at Scotiabank Arena. “They’re not going to be cheering for a player that’s on the opposing team. They’re still rooting for the Raptors.”
But Clippers coach Doc Rivers dismissed any thoughts of a negative reception from Raptors fans.
“He’ll get a great one … I don’t know if he promised a championship, but he fulfilled it anyway. I think it will be an amazing reception.”
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment laid out the welcome mat with tributes on giant video screens at Scotiabank Arena and BMO Field.
“Fun guy in town,” read the caption at the outdoor screen at Scotiabank Arena next to a photo of Leonard celebrating the NBA championship.
“Board man gets his ring,” read the caption on the BMO Field screen beside a picture of Leonard holding up the trophy.
At the downtown intersection of Yonge and Dundas streets, New Balance — a Leonard sponsor — and Leonard thanked the fans of Toronto on a giant billboard.
Leonard said he got “flashbacks” from the Raptors’ victory parade as the Clippers came to the arena Wednesday morning.
“Obviously it was different playing here for a whole country. They’re all going for this one team,” he said. “The ride [with the Raptors] was fun. I had a great time last year with the coaching staff, the front office and the players. It was a great experience.”
Leonard signed as a free agent with the Clippers in early July, less than a month after leading the Raptors to their first NBA title.
He said he took his time making his decision, and thought long and hard about staying in Toronto.
“I gave it big consideration … I talked to the front office in deep detail,” he said. “It was a hard choice to make.”
He returned to his native California after the Clippers swung a deal to get Paul George from Oklahoma City in exchange for Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari, plus five first-round draft picks.
“I’m happy to be there. Having a great time,” Leonard said of life in L.A.
Leonard signed a three-year max deal with the Clippers that could be worth nearly $110 million US, although the third season is at his option.
Asked what he had done with the championship ring he won with the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard offered one of his trademark no-nonsense replies.
“I wore it a few times and then kept it in a safe place.”
Leonard came into Wednesday’s game averaging 25.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 18 games with the Clippers.
He averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals over 60 regular-season games with the Raptors in 2018-19, turning it up a notch in the playoffs. Leonard averaged 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds in 24 post-season games to earn his second Finals MVP award.
A man of few words, Leonard became part of Toronto sports lore with an Eastern Conference semifinal series-winning shot in Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers that bounced on the rim four times before falling in.
Leonard had an uneven game Nov. 11 when the two teams met in Los Angeles. Struggling on 2-for-11 shooting in the face of double coverage, he finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and nine turnovers in a 98-88 Clippers win.
Toronto played without the injured Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka that night.
The Clippers have gone 11-3 and the Raptors 9-4 since that November meeting.