It took Fast Eddie Felson finding his lover Sarah’s body in a hotel room in Louisville to learn who he was. Eddie was full of dreams — so full it hurt — in The Hustler. It lost him his money, his pride, his thumbs (for a stretch) and eventually, Sarah. When he finally gave up and accepted his reality, only then was he able to beat Minnesota Fats. But it was a pyrrhic victory in its hollowness. He’d sold more than he could ever win back on a pool table.
The Toronto Raptors and Kyle Lowry always knew they were headed for a split. Eulogized once already, Lowry lived his final months in Toronto as a ghost, haunting the organization with his presence as much as with his absence (and also, of course, because he wasn’t even in Toronto to end his fabled tenure). Toronto no longer fit for Lowry. He couldn’t compete for a championship with a team that finished at the bottom of the conference, and his once-protégé in Fred VanVleet had already ascended to the status of locker room leader. Toronto could never pay Lowry $30M per year without destroying the tightrope its currently walking in roster building. We all walked around during the height of pandemic lockdowns in a daze at points, wondering at the solidity of our existence. Even though Lowry was surrounded by teammates towards the end of his stay in Tampa Bay, I’m sure he shared moments of doubt just like us.
Losing Lowry was always going to be a requirement for Toronto to go forward and eventually win again. Call this a chronicle of a loss foretold. Once upon a time, the Raptors tried to sign Steve Nash for big money for off-court reasons. They were saved from themselves and eventually settled on the younger Lowry as the point guard of the future. The end of Lowry’s career is a poetic bookend, in that his loss — like his entrance — may devastate the team off the court, but it’s a logical boon for the product on it.
That doesn’t make the off-court loss sting and burn any less. How you feel about Lowry leaving Toronto hints at the heart of fandom in your own chest. More or less every moment of pure joy and significance in the history of the franchise has come with Lowry at the controls. We watched him grow from cantankerous to celebrious. We watched his friendship with DeMar DeRozan blossom on our televisions. We watched that era end, heartbroken yet giddy, as Lowry and the team evolved from family to champions. We watched him lead a team that lost a superstar into being one of the best in the league, a chip-on-its-shoulder-defending-champion, the perfect metaphor for Lowry himself.
If you watch sports purely for the joy of watching your team succeed, then you’ll understand Lowry’s leaving. You might even celebrate it. But Lowry brought us so much more than success. He brought us relevancy, legitimacy, and joy far beyond his impact on the court. He was the soul and heart of the team, and now he’s gone. The Raptors may be playing with lower stakes than Felson against Fats, but losing one’s soul in the chase for competitive improvement is a bitter pill to swallow, no matter your dietary preferences.
Like Felson, the Raptors had to lose to win. They had to lose their soul to grow — indeed, sell their soul in the form of a sign-and-trade. Felson beat Fats, but there’s no such guarantee for Toronto. The Raptors will now trust VanVleet as a full-time point guard and Pascal Siakam as the team’s offensive fulcrum, both jobs that Lowry filled in the past. Scottie Barnes is about as athletic a prospect can be, with great intelligence for the game, and a skill-set not close to being suited to the role Toronto will eventually ask of him. Toronto is a more flexible team because Lowry is elsewhere. They’ll receive assets in return for facilitating his departure. They’ll have more minutes to offer promising sophomore Malachi Flynn. They’ll have monetary flexibility with which they can chase improvement elsewhere. Toronto can pivot away from Lowry towards any number of directions. In that sense, if Toronto was once symbolized by Lowry, hard-nosed, grimy, brilliant, defensive, and proud; perhaps Barnes and his uneven yet endless potential now symbolize the future of the team.
It’s hard to know who the Raptors are as they walk away from the pool table now that Lowry is on his way to Miami. Will the team still be a simulacrum of Felson, bitter in victory, heartless and directionless? Will the team be Fats himself, sitting with a wispy smile playing on his face, seeming to enjoy what could be his first ever experience with loss? No one walked away from the table a winner in The Hustler. That’s more or less what Toronto is tasting right now.
The Raptors were quite recently a team with a clear and purposeful direction. As of Lowry’s announcement that he’ll join the Heat, the Raptors are set adrift. That’s best for them. But it doesn’t make it any less painful.