Jeffrey H. Baer’s
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In case you missed it, the Great White North is now home to something few people expected—an NBA title. The Toronto Raptors plowed through the 2019 playoffs, including tough opponents in the Milwaukee Bucks and Golden State Warriors, to remain standing after Game 6 of the Finals. The credit went to first-year coach Nick Nurse and prized acquisition Kawhi Leonard, who hoisted the Larry O’Brien Trophy to the delight of Scotiabank Arena visitors.
Then the rumors over Leonard’s future began. And when it ended, Canucks were out in the cold.
Actually, the speculation started somewhat earlier, enough to distract the team and make fans nervous as they rolled to a title. We’ll never know whether all that yapping inspired him to join the L.A. Clippers near his hometown of Montero Valley, but the Scotiabank Arena and Jurassic Park (the nearby gaping expanse where fans watch games on a giant screen) may not be warm to the coveted free agent when the Clippers go north of the border.
Hey—it happens. But maybe it happens in Toronto more often than it should.
Toronto is well-stacked in terms of sports. Naturally, the NHL takes precedence there as it does throughout the mainland, although the Maple Leafs haven’t won the Stanley Cup in nearly 80 years. The city also embraced the Blue Jays and a major league soccer team. And while residents won’t see an NFL team, the Argonauts won a whopping 17 Grey Cups between 1914 and 2017.
Basketball, however, was trickier for the country. It began promisingly when two Canadian teams joined the NBA in 1995—the Raptors and the Vancouver Grizzlies. Long story short, the Grizzlies’ struggles forced then-owner Michael Helmsley to move them to Memphis, whose citizens rallied around the NCAA’s Tigers. More losing sparked hearsay about the team being contracted along with the Charlotte Bobcats (yes, I used that awful word), but it never happened.
Somehow the Raptors dodged all that worry since they entered the league, but they had trouble keeping their All-Stars. Damon Stoudamire, the team’s first draft pick, landed in his hometown of Portland after his rookie contract. UMass legend Marcus Camby didn’t stick around much longer, eventually going to the Knicks for Charles Oakley. Vince Carter, the big hopeful draw, was shipped to New Jersey, possibly because 1) he didn’t defend well enough for the coaching staff, and 2) the league wanted him someplace—anyplace—in the United States. Then Chris Bosh left at LeBron James’s behest to play in Miami, only to retire early due to a clot in his lung. And last season the Raptors traded DeMar DeRozan for…? You guessed it—Kawhi Leonard.
After 24 seasons, one might think Ontario’s capital isn’t a magnet for skilled players. Indeed, the Raptors entered the league with some ghosts to exorcise; the Toronto Huskies were one of the eight charter members when the league started in 1946. As you might guess, the Leafs got the attention from citizens and media at the time, and the Huskies folded after one season. So winning an NBA title should mean Toronto is a viable market for basketball after all, eh?
Well, maybe Leonard saw it a little differently.
Some athletes in all sports come down with homesickness despite living out their wildest dreams. The NBA has had its share recently, with Derrick Rose being drafted by the Bulls, and Some athletes in all sports come down with homesickness despite living out their wildest dreams. The NBA has had its share recently, with Derrick Rose being drafted by the Bulls and Deron Williams, calling it a career after two seasons with the Mavericks. So Leonard had no qualms playing for nearby San Diego State for two years. Then Leonard was drafted by the Indiana Pacers and sent to another former ABA team, the San Antonio Spurs. Just three seasons later, he was named the Finals MVP after the Spurs dispatched the Heat in a rematch of the previous season’s tilt. He made his first two All-Star appearances after that and went into 2017 as a lame duck.
With everything he accomplished up to that point, staying in San Antonio seemed like a forgone conclusion. But after Leonard injured his quadricep during a team scrimmage before the 2017 preseason, the city itself became nervous about his status for near-future games.
Leonard actually made his season debut on December 12, looking like his old self. But after nine games, he was ruled out indefinitely, and the NBA landscape trembled at the notion of him missing the entire season. One thing led to another as the months progressed, and it turned out Leonard was unhappy with Coach Gregg Popovich. The injury may not have been fake, but his recovery took more time than doctors said it should.
The Spurs punched Leonard’s ticket out of town to Toronto, of course. Those directly involved didn’t welcome the trade entirely; DeMar DeRozan probably felt his loyalty to the team that drafted him meant nothing to the front office, and Leonard and fellow Spur Danny Green shook their heads at the news. Nobody knew the rest would be history for Canada and the NBA, but everyone north of the border hoped for a legacy as the confetti trickled down to the hardwood.
Under the circumstances, we can’t blame Canadian fans for thinking Leonard used Toronto as a stepping stone on his journey back home. But some athletes and their entourages believe only large markets are worth their talents for the obvious reasons—visibility, endorsement deals, and a formula for racking up titles. But since those athletes don’t have to explain themselves after lading on a massive stage and bringing home fat paychecks, they’re accused of having colossal egos when the free agency becomes an issue. The athletes don’t seem to care when they decide against the fans’ wishes, and you can figure out the rest.
I think everyone needs to get over it. It happens all the time, and complaining about it changes nothing, As of this writing, the Raptors still have plenty of weapons and are in better shape than anyone expected in the wake of Leonard’s departure. NBA fans outside my hometown should know teams can’t complete the deal as soon as the rosters are set, but rather when the players know the fan base shows support and patience for the franchise’s efforts to win a title. And besides, an All-Star leaving the ranks paves the way for another player to contribute to the team’s future success.
Ultimately it’s all about sportsmanship, which can be tough to muster in the heat of competition. This chapter of Leonard’s career shows us how free agency in the sports world can knock out the joys of playing or even rooting for our favorite squads. It’s happened in decades past and will continue for decades to come, so we need to get used to it. In retrospect, everyone will realize it’s a beautiful way to go.