For the first time since winning an NBA Championship, Kawhi Leonard will make his highly anticipated return to Toronto.
For many Toronto Raptors fans and followers, the return is a conundrum of sorts. On one hand, Leonard was the superstar piece that propelled the Raptors to its inaugural NBA championship in franchise history.
But not even a month after the fact, Leonard would end up leaving Toronto to go home and play for the Los Angeles Clippers. Leaving a Raptors fan base filled with an amalgamation of mixed emotions.
As the two-time NBA champion receives his ring tonight, there is no doubt that ScotiaBank Arena will be electric. Leonard, declaring himself the “Fun Guy” at his first press conference as a member of the Raptors, was the centre piece on a team that eventually developed the tenacious identity to win an NBA Championship.
The two-time NBA Finals MVP’s legacy goes far beyond securing a championship for the Raptors. Kawhi’s season is etched among the great sporting moments that Toronto has produced in its city’s history.
Well before the Toronto Raptors existed, the Toronto Maple Leafs dominated the sporting conversation in the city. Winning four Stanley Cups in the 1960’s was the high point for a hockey franchise enviable to replicate that kind of success in the present day.
As the Leafs began to struggle, the Blue Jays began to capture fans not just in Toronto but across the country. It took 15 years since the franchise’s birth in 1977 to bring home Canada’s first ever World Series championship. A year after, Joe Carter’s walk off, World Series clinching home run would be the second of its kind, producing one of the most dramatic moments in postseason history.
What separates Kawhi Leonard’s accomplishment with the Toronto Raptors is the years of heartbreak the Raptor fan base had to endure before basking in the championship glory. When the Raptors franchise began in 1995, there were doubts whether it could survive. Years of losing seasons, stars like Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and Chris Bosh leaving, dampened the idea of the Raptors ever becoming a competitive, yet-alone championship calibre team.
But the Raptor fans who stuck by the team during their losing years and never gave up, were finally rewarded with the arrival of Kawhi Leonard.
In the 2010’s decade, Toronto sports teams experienced star players to come play for them. Josh Donaldson, who won the 2015 American League MVP for the Toronto Blue Jays, comes to mind, bringing a passion and grit to the franchise’s two playoff runs in 2015 and 2016. But Leonard arrived with an enigmatic persona, backed up with his stellar play in the 2014 NBA Finals en route to the San Antonio Spurs winning the championship.
The mysterious, business-like temperament in which Leonard approaches basketball was used to elevate his “Fun Guy” brand during his tenure in Toronto. In the age of enhanced player branding and social media marketing, Kawhi soared in popularity across Canada, from his iconic laugh to saying “What it Do Baby!” Among athletes in 2019, Leonard was the fifth most searched, demonstrating the marketability he brought during his time with the Raptors.
For a city starved of championships, it was Leonard’s performance in the playoffs that elevated his superstar status. His buzzer beater to beat the Philadelphia 76ers, known as “The Shot” was the first Game 7 buzzer beater in NBA Playoffs history. A moment that rivals Joe Carter’s walk off because of his dramatics and surpasses Jose Bautista’s bat flip in the events that would follow.
Down 2-0 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, Leonard would score 36 points playing 52 minutes and visibly hobbled, carrying the Raptors to a 118-112 double overtime victory. The former Raptor would play a pivotal role in shutting down Giannis Antetokounmpo, propelling the Raptors to a six-game series win and a berth into the NBA Finals.
For the entire playoffs, Leonard would average 30.5 PPG, 9.1 RPG and 3.1 APG on 61.9 true shooting percentage. It was a performance that rivals the giants of basketball history such as Michael Jordan. And his winning, all-business approach permeated to the rest of the Raptors, who now carry on his legacy with a championship mettle of their own.
It is easy to be prisoner of the moment when it comes to Kawhi. Toronto has seen its share of great sports moments, from hockey and baseball to now basketball. But given the personality, the popularity he brought to the sport and how his performance unified the team and the country of Canada as a whole, there was no one like Kawhi Leonard.
As Leonard gets his ring tonight, celebrate, appreciate and never forget the unforgettable memories that the Fun Guy made as a member of the Toronto Raptors.
A player that is forever in the annals of Toronto sports history.