In the hours before Kawhi Leonard was presented with his NBA title ring Wednesday night, Doc Rivers, Leonard’s newish coach with the Los Angeles Clippers, attempted to describe the depth of the connection that’s formed between a championship team and its city.
Rivers spoke of it as an eternal and sacred bond. A “blood transfusion,” he called it.
“It really is. You’re connected for life when you win a title. Not only with a fan base but with those players in the organization you won it with,” Rivers said.
In that sense Leonard, Rivers reasoned, will be connected to Toronto “for the rest of his life.”
There’s no arguing with that. Rivers, who won an NBA championship as coach of the Celtics back in 2008, knows of what he speaks. You stack up the title banner, Leonard’s remarkable post-season stats and his Finals MVP trophy and there’s no denying he’ll always be Kawhi Legend in this town.
Still, there was an unmistakable coldness to Wednesday’s long-awaited Kawhi Night — and it wasn’t simply the Raptors’ dismal 22 per cent three-point shooting in a 112-92 loss. As I watched the ceremony from the lower bowl in the arena on Bay Street, I read tweets from people watching on TV describing it as “fantastic” and “emotional.” Maybe that’s what it looked like on the screen. But it wasn’t my sense of the pre-game ceremony as it unfolded below me. It was nice, don’t get me wrong. It was the right thing to do, no doubt about it. And you couldn’t detect even a hint of a dissenting boo directed at the man of the moment.
And why would there be? Leonard, to review the record, was the product of the greatest trade in Toronto sports history. In leading the Raptors to their first NBA title he authored one of the great individual playoff performances in basketball memory; only Michael Jordan ever scored more points in a single run to a championship than Leonard scored for the Raptors in the playoffs last spring.
Still, Wednesday’s standing ovation was more polite than deafening. The crowd’s embrace was respectful, but it hardly oozed warmth. And the production from the home team felt as obligatory as it did celebratory. There was a sub-two-minute tribute video, not dissimilar to something a returning second-pairing defenceman might get at a Maple Leafs game.
The ever-stoic Leonard hopped through quick greetings with a receiving line of former teammates and Raptors suits, as at a factory wedding. And there was a ring exchanged, too — Kyle Lowry bestowing Leonard with that impossibly shiny bauble of hard-won jewelry and its 640 diamonds.
But it said something that the Raptors didn’t even provide Leonard with a microphone when he accepted his ring at centre court, opting instead of have PA announcer Herbie Kuhn assure the audience that “Kawhi thanks you.” Given Leonard’s reputation as basketball’s boldest negotiator, one assumes the public speaking fee was too rich for Toronto’s blood.
Leonard’s entourage, given the run of the joint last season, got modest respect. Jeremy Castleberry, a longtime friend of Leonard’s who spent a year on Toronto’s coaching staff based on that friendship and followed Leonard to the Clippers, was presented with a ring. And as for Leonard’s now-mythic uncle Dennis Robertson — he went home without one.
So this wasn’t exactly a tear-jerking love fest. It was a show of appreciative respect. You know some of the reasons why. After the lunacy of free agency at times covered via helicopter, Leonard used the Raptors as leverage in talks to land with the Clippers while successfully beckoning fellow all-star Paul George to demand out of Oklahoma City. And fair enough. Leonard’s a Californian by birth and upbringing. Going home is going home.
If he’d stayed in Toronto, he could have owned the place. As it turns out, his time was so short here, he seems to know it as well as we know him — hardly at all. In the lead-up to the game, to wit, Leonard incorrectly predicted he’d receive an inhospitable greeting in his first trip to Canada since the parade.
“I mean, there will be some cheers but definitely I think more boos because they want to win the game,” Leonard told reporters. “They’re not going to be cheering for a player that’s on the opposing team.”
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Maybe Leonard figured he’d hear some boos because he’d heard the stories of Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter and Chris Bosh — all one-time Raptor heroes who were booed here after spurning the franchise in various ways. But classing himself as a “player that’s on the opposing team” tells you a lot about how he views his job. Leonard clearly sees Toronto as nothing more than another name on the list of the teams he’s been a member of, like the Spurs and San Diego State.
He sees it as one of two cities in which he’s won a title and an NBA Finals MVP. And that’s the extent of the link. While Toronto spent part of this week debating whether or not the Raptors should build him a statue or retire his number, he’s still deeply ensconced in the business of counting up conquests.
The Clippers, don’t forget, are the current Las Vegas favourites to dethrone the Raptors as NBA champions next spring. Which means there’s a not-outrageous chance Leonard, come June, could be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy as the linchpin of a third separate franchise.
That doesn’t diminish Leonard’s accomplishment here. It doesn’t take any shine off the ring or the banner or The Shot, and the stories that’ll be handed down through the generations. But it explains the feeling in the building as Leonard collected his reward on Wednesday night and proceeded to score 23 points to lead the Clippers to a clinical win. Rivers described the connection between a championship team and a city as a blood bond. But the extent of Leonard’s relationship with Toronto feels a lot like a notch on a mercenary belt.
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