Why Kawhi Leonard’s return to Toronto was so perfectly Kawhi

Yahoo Sports

TORONTO — It’s always special to watch a player receive a ring, Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers noted before the Clippers’ 112-92 victory over the Toronto Raptors on Wednesday, but he’d never quite experienced anything like this: The Finals MVP of a championship team collecting his ring while visiting from another team. 

That’s because it had never happened before. Few people would leave what Kawhi Leonard left: a championship team in which he was the clear alpha, in a culture that fit his sensibilities and a rabid, star-starved fanbase that adored him. It was almost perfect, but the modern superstar has the power and prerogative to make his own perfect, and Leonard just wanted to go home. So he spurred the Clippers to get Paul Geroge from the Oklahoma City Thunder and agreed to join the Los Angeles Clippers 21 days after winning a championship in his lone season in Toronto.

Because he left what he left, some Raptors fans will always treat his departure with ambivalence. He was the mercenary memory-maker who never wanted to be more. But he gave what he gave, too, so it was never a question that the crowd at the Scotiabank Arena would greet him with love. 

Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, right, receives his 2019 NBA championship ring from the Raptors' Kyle Lowry on Wednesday night. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)
Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard, right, receives his 2019 NBA championship ring from the Raptors' Kyle Lowry on Wednesday night. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

"It's like Maximus coming back as the gladiator," Rivers said before the game. "He was the champion and just did everything honorably and the right way."

Even Leonard, so laser-focused on the moment, couldn’t help but reflect when the crowd roared while Leonard greeted the teammates that took the journey with him in a circle in the middle of the court, before former teammate Kyle Lowry, at the end, presented Leonard with the ring that had been waiting for him since October.

“It kind of puts you back in those spots when you were on the floor or the locker room, when you were going into the game, and after the game — watching those highlights,” said Leonard after the game. “It was a special season for us, for me, for the whole city and country. I’m glad we were able to win. It was a blessing.”

The circumstances were absurd, but the tribute was simple: no dialogue, just basketball — fitting for both franchise and player — including an effort to recreate the greatest moment in franchise history: Leonard’s series-winning shot in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers. 

“The Shot Heard Around The World” read the video on the jumbotron, before all the lights in the building dimmed out and the screen turned black. In the quiet, pitch-black arena, a spotlight shone on the throwback court with the purple dinosaur — for when bad history is old and dead enough to be commemorated — retracing the steps Leonard took before unfurling the shot nobody needed to see in order to envision perfectly: a fadeaway, four bounces, pandemonium. 

The Raptors tried to recapture the shot’s most powerful element: the communal experience. I was in the building that night and the 4.3 seconds of pure quiet taught me why people go to church. Just ask the Happiness Lab: the feelings we experience are intensified when, without communicating, we share them with others. That’s why tapas are all the craze, and why you’re always sending memes to your group chat. Roaring crowds are fun, but silence — the fact that just one dissenting person can destroy it — confirms everyone’s participation in the ritual: On May 12, 2019, 19,000 people were all looking, anticipating, hoping for the same thing.

No tribute could recreate that. When the arena went black on Wednesday, the crowd murmured, was unsure where the action was and wondered where to look. Some people were on their phones. Others, I’m sure, were in the restroom or socializing. On that night in May, they knew to only look at Leonard. But the effort alone, to recreate a small measure of an immeasurably powerful memory, clarified what the whole enterprise is about: making moments, and Leonard, in a short span here, made a ton.

In one year, Leonard and the Raptors scratched every possible itch that makes fans crave superstars: a championship, a unifying signature moment, the evolution of an underdog, the privilege to witness the league’s best player in his prime dominate on a nightly basis, regularizing the quality of greatness, and most importantly, respect and redemption. Every championship run features a variation of these elements. Few have them all, and Leonard managed to give them all to the Raptors in one season rather than through the course of a career. 

That, in the end, is why everyone cheered and nobody booed. 

“I think that’s the difference there in the reception that Kawhi has versus other guys,” said Clippers guard and former Raptor Lou Williams. “He gave this city everything he had, and brought them something they never had before. So it’s kind of hard for a city or a country to jeer somebody for that.”

History can never be eradicated, but the way we see it can evolve. One shot and 4.3 seconds made the 25 years before them worth it. Leonard, who gave the Raptors story a happy ending, got his on Wednesday night. 

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