On Wednesday some of the city was briefly turned into a lovestruck 13-year-old. A little more than two weeks after the Toronto Raptors championship parade, Kawhi Leonard was back in town to meet with the team as part of his Waiting For Godot approach to free agency. And the city went a little nuts.
It was a measure of the joy and pride and at-times embarrassing fever that has boiled over here after Toronto won the NBA title three weeks ago. Kawhi, of course, is a free agent. He is deciding between the Raptors, the Los Angeles Clippers and perhaps even the Los Angeles Lakers. The city had millions in the streets for the championship parade, and millions more watched the clincher on TV.
So Kawhi’s arrival was tracked by amateur flight enthusiasts. CP24’s helicopter filmed the deplaning and followed the black SUVs all the way to Yorkville, narrating this bizarro O.J. Simpson chase as they went. Crowds had formed outside a hotel where team president Masai Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster had breakfast. TV cameras were set up outside.
Nobody outside the hotel absolutely saw Kawhi and the meeting was apparently not there, but that didn’t stop reporters from producing TV clips and newspaper quotes that will age into hilarious time capsules of a slightly embarrassing, if probably harmless civic mania. Man Recorded Man Whom He Thinks Was Kawhi On A Balcony. Woman Came With Dog To See If Kawhi Has A Dog, And To See How Tall He Really Is. (He is six-foot-seven.) You know those old clips that get dug up 25 years later and you laugh at everything about them? Well, it’s a renewable resource.
It was a little much. As mentioned here last week, this city needs to calm the hell down. Kawhi Leonard is not the type to enjoy this kind of attention; how often was he seen out on the town this season? Let’s be cool, Toronto.
The important thing to remember is that the Raptors are not Toronto, and have approached this with much more caution and ease. Yes, Toronto has a proud recent history of tracking local celebrities with helicopters. Well, perhaps proud is the wrong word. Back when Rob Ford was mayor — we’d never repeat that mistake in this province, no sir — and his scandals were multiplying like exploding dandelions, there was at least one CP24 helicopter chase. Ford called police, who had previously followed his worship in a spy plane. Simpler times.
But within the madness, this organization has approached this entire negotiation with discipline and self-assuredness. Kawhi will surely weigh how much he can win in any situation — it’s a primary focus of his life. The Raptors can win, and the Lakers with LeBron James and Anthony Davis can win, and the Clippers would be a notch or two below.
Location matters, but there are those who believe that with Kawhi, winning may matter more. Yes, he loves Los Angeles. He also deeply enjoyed being the focal point of a championship team and said after the title it was the most fun he had ever had playing basketball. With the Lakers, LeBron can promise to defer all he likes. But with LeBron, Davis and Kawhi the hierarchy — and primacy — is not as clear.
And then there is the question of trust. Of the three teams left, the Raptors are the best positioned in that regard. One source familiar with Kawhi’s thinking indicated last week he had been concerned about the evident dysfunction of the Lakers; the questions he asked the Lakers were leaked and detailed by Broderick Turner of the Los Angeles Times. Turner told an L.A. TV station they included the portable superstar stuff — can I bring in my own medical people — but also indications of what he wondered about. The questions also included the recent and long-term dysfunction and whether the Lakers tried to trade for Kawhi when he was in San Antonio.
He wanted to be valued, maybe. Similarly, the Clippers spent a year preparing for their meeting with Kawhi, but it is a challenge to establish trust with a player in a few hours. It seems clear Kawhi felt betrayed by how things went down in San Antonio, when he was sidelined with a quadriceps injury and did not agree with how he was treated by the organization or even his teammates. He’s making a big decision now.
And then there are the Raptors. The details of any meeting were, as in both cases in Los Angeles, a closely guarded secret — the Raptors have done an exceptional job of not leaking during the process. Again, with Kawhi, it is a matter of trust. Ujiri has been preparing for this closing argument all year, but the whole year has been the argument. Toronto’s madding crowds are one thing; Kawhi can trust the Raptors. There are indications he is getting closer to a decision. He must be, by now. Toronto seems to make the most sense, on the most fronts. But he has to make that call.
We are down to the final strokes, now. Kawhi Leonard came all the way back to Toronto for a meeting, and left early in the California morning to do so. He will make a decision and it will change the course of this franchise, of other franchises, of their cities, of the league. The city isn’t chill; the franchises involved can’t be, either, but they can pretend. Almost there.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur