He was offered free food from dozens of restaurants across the city, a luxury penthouse, a houseplant and undisclosed millions.
But once Kawhi Leonard decided not to re-sign with the Raptors, the Toronto businesses that joined the Ka’wine and Dine campaign in an effort to keep the NBA finals MVP in town maintained that it was all worth it in the end.
“I don’t think it was a failure at all,” said Raj Singh Ghuman, the owner/manager of Bombay Bhel in Thornhill. “We got our championship.”
Ghuman was quick to put up a Ka’wine and Dine sticker at his restaurant and said it was a big conversation starter as entire families of Raptors fans came in to eat. Ghuman even streamed the playoff games on his tablet for the kitchen staff during the finals.
“My staff was very passionate about the Raptors during the playoffs,” he said. “Everyone was in a good mood. Not only Toronto, but all of Canada.”
A longtime Raptors fan who travelled to Milwaukee, Wisc., and Oakland, Calif., to see the Raptors during their playoff run, Ghuman would have loved if Leonard had stayed, but doesn’t see his departure as the end of the Raptors’ success.
“What’s that saying? In Masai we trust. I’m sure he’ll make the right moves,” said Ghuman of Raptors president Masai Ujiri. “We’re creating a culture of excellence. That’s what winning does.”
When Michaela French arrived at work on Saturday, she got word from her manager at the Rex on Queen St. W. that the Ka’wine and Dine stickers had to come down.
“It was with a sad face,” said the hotel receptionist. “We did it especially because we were right around the corner from the Raptors parade and we were hoping he’d come in.”
While Leonard himself was a no show, the concert venue and hotel did have a Raptors giveaway for fans who came in wearing team gear.
“It was really fun. We were excited for sure,” French said. “That’s what it’s all about.”
Most restaurateurs the Star spoke to acknowledged that Leonard, already a multimillionaire, was unlikely to get swayed in his decision by a bunch of free food. But that wasn’t really the point, said Zarar Siddiqi, co-founder of the Raptors fan blog Raptors Republic, which started the Ka’wine and Dine campaign.
It was more about creating a community and capturing a moment, he said, giving Raptors fans a way to wink at each other in their daily lives, even if they weren’t wearing a jersey.
“The campaign was first and foremost about the fans showing their appreciation for Kawhi Leonard and the season the Raptors had. It was about rallying the city together, forming a sense of community and getting behind something. It was a great success,” said Siddiqi.
“All we wanted was Kawhi to notice that the city loved him.”
Raptors Republic, one of the most popular fan blogs for Raptors fans, has been organizing basketball tournaments and watch parties for years, but this was their first foray into a citywide campaign, and it blew up in a way they hadn’t anticipated.
“This spring, we saw people who had never watched basketball, never followed the game, watch the eastern finals and the NBA finals — and they were nervous. Every possession, they were living and dying even though they had never heard of any of the guys,” he said.
“The city came together. You couldn’t go to work without talking about the Raptors; you couldn’t eat at a restaurant without talking about the Raptors.”
Siddiqi says the championship run has created thousands of new Raptors fans and many of them will be hooked for life.
Looking forward, the future’s still bright for the Raptors, said Siddiqi, and Raptors Republic will be ready with the next campaign, though he can’t say what it will be.
“These kinds of things are context-specific. You can’t plan for them. You just have to feel the atmosphere. It all depends on what happens on the court.”
While restaurants from Mimico to Markham offered up free meals, Simon Mass, CEO of The Condo Store Realty, took Ka’wine and Dine to the next level, offering Leonard a luxury penthouse condo in one of four top-end buildings in the city.
“I wanted to do something significant and substantial to have (Leonard) feel there was more to staying (with) the Raptors than just a team contract … there was true intent to have him see the love from the city and the country,” said Mass, emphasizing the offer was 100 per cent sincere.
“My partner and I had allocated $2 to $5 million for the purchase,” he said. “We were ready to go with the paperwork and even up until (Friday) night we were confirming the legitimacy of the offer with management.”
Mass, who attended both home and away games during the playoff run, said now that Leonard has made his choice, he doesn’t want to see any negativity.
“Community building was definitely achieved no matter how disappointing it is today to know that (Leonard) isn’t returning to the Raptors,” he said. “Consider what the (fan base’s) answer would have been a year ago if they were asked the question: ‘Would you be OK with (Leonard) coming to the Raptors for one season and ensuring a championship?’”
“We know we would have all said: Yes and a big thank you!”
Bombay Bhel’s Ghuman, who was up late when the news broke about Leonard signing with the Los Angeles Clippers, said he vented his frustration with friends on WhatsApp. But when he woke up the next morning, he was at peace with Leonard’s decision to leave Toronto.
“That reminds me — I should probably take that Ka’wine and Dine sign down.”
Sarina De Villa, whose mother owns Lola’s Kusina in Rexdale, said as soon as she heard about the campaign, there was no doubt they would join.
“My family is a big fan of the Raptors. We watched every single game. So we just thought it would be fun to participate,” she said.
Now that Leonard is gone, she’s not sure if there’s a way to acknowledge him and Raptors fans in a different way.
“I don’t have any creative ideas right now,” she said. “We’re still grieving.”
Marco Chown Oved is a Toronto-based reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @marcooved