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A personal goodbye to Kawhi Leonard

Kawhi Leonard announced he wouldn’t re-sign with the Toronto Raptors on the morning of my wedding. I awoke to the news. I didn’t have the time or emotional energy to think about it. I spent too much of the day of my wedding telling old and new family members no, I don’t really want to talk about it. I absolutely didn’t want to talk about it. I had more important business at hand. But now with the dust settled, and a new regular season about to begin featuring the Raptors as defending champions, it’s time to talk about it.

This summer was the best and luckiest stretch of time of my life. I married my favorite person in the world. And somehow, I found myself as a credentialed media member for all the Raptors’ playoff home games. Simply by temporal similarity, those two things are going to be inextricably linked in my memory for a long time.

Being credentialed for the Raptors, for the first time, during this first season of real success, was unspeakably fortuitous. When all the Toronto media members were moaning after the DJ Augustin game to begin the playoffs, saying same old same old, I was awestruck to even be in attendance. I wrote my Kawhi-Leonard-is-a-basketball-god-unlike-any-previously-employed-in-Toronto gusher after the second game of the playoffs, firing valuable ammunition well before it was necessary. I wrote a love letter to Kyle Lowry after the fifth game of the playoffs. In hindsight, it was clear that my positivity – even thought the Raptors were playing well and clearly about to win a playoff series – was more boisterous than the situation deserved. Blame the fact that I was mesmerized to even be there.

As the playoffs continued, Kawhi Leonard carved his name into the soul of Toronto. He exorcised the demons of Vince Carter and spawned countless murals across the city in one four-bouncing moment. When Leonard dunked the soon-to-be-named MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo into a million broken fragments, I could only compare the moment, and the game that contained it, to one long drug-fueled carnival ride.

The Finals were, for me, eerie, a macrocosm of the spooky moment in game five when Kevin Durant re-injured his leg. It was strange that the Raptors were even in the Finals. It was strange walking into the press room and seeing sports writers whom I’ve idolized for years, and it was even stranger having to compete with them for time with the microphone during post-game media availability. Yet the Raptors won the title, and it meant everything.

Leonard enjoyed his victory lap. From partying with teammates, to the millions of parade attendees, to the self-aware laugh during the parade speech, the Board Man seemed as natural to Toronto as TTC closures in the summer time.

And then he left.

It’s ok to be upset about that. I am. The 2018-19 playoffs, for Raptors fans, was idyllic. It was already too good to be true after the Philadelphia series, and then the Raptors kept on making it better. Sports aren’t always more than the game itself, but Kawhi Leonard’s game seemed bigger than basketball, at times. He did things that no one ever has, and he did them in and for Toronto. Toronto is a city, I shouldn’t need to remind you, that outside of a few blips, hasn’t had a whole lot of sports success for a very long time. Toronto latched onto him. The city offered Leonard free food, drink, housing, and a million other extracurriculars through the Ka’Wine and Dine campaign. The city cheered for Leonard in a way I haven’t seen with another athlete in my lifetime. And Leonard turned it all down. It’s completely understandable that he made a personal choice for himself and his family, but it’s equally understandable that there’s a Kawhi Leonard-shaped hole in the heart of Toronto.

As for me, Leonard’s departure coincided with the happiest day of my life. I didn’t have time to mourn his departure, was too emotionally invested in myself to react to basketball news with any real intensity. In other words, I was sort of forced into looking at the whole thing with perspective.

Leonard’s time in Toronto was the sports equivalent of a shooting star: a flash of awesome brilliance, extinguished before viewers are ready. It always had a shimmering, too-good-to-be-true quality. I’m still shocked at my good fortune to have covered the 2018-19 Toronto Raptors. And though I will continue to write about the Raptors, I will almost certainly never have a chance to cover a team like that again. The 2019-20 Raptors are exciting, of course, and there’s countless narratives deserving of coverage and attention, but it’s unlikely that this team will win a championship this season. That’s the reality of Leonard’s departure. Even if the Raptors shock the world again, the franchise can only win its first championship once. Point being, no matter what happens in the future, 2018-19 was unique.

My first real season writing about the team was more than I could have imagined. The team and its players, the franchise and its fans, combined to offer more thrill and intrigue than the final season of Breaking Bad. The season ended with ultimate success, which was followed almost immediately with unexpected hurt. Seriously, the plot was so tight it could have been directed by Scorsese. And like the franchise itself, I can only have one first season covering the Raptors.

Kawhi Leonard’s gone, and I’m sad about that, and my family tried its best to use that fact to derail my wedding. But mostly, I’m just grateful that I got a chance to write about him in the first place.

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