TORONTO — Kyle Lowry was awakened around 2:30 a.m. by the buzzing sound of his phone. He moved too slowly to answer, being careful not to disrupt the sleep of his younger son, Kameron, who managed to sneak his way into the bed that July evening. But before he could be upset about the missed call, Lowry saw that DeMar DeRozan was calling again and knew it had to be something serious. Lowry picked up in a panic, “What’s up, dog?”
DeRozan was sitting alone, in the parking lot of Jack In The Box, shocked, angry and despondent upon hearing that the Toronto Raptors were trading him to the San Antonio Spurs after dedicating all nine years of his career with one organization. DeRozan shouted, “Yo…” into the phone and Lowry sat quietly, giving DeRozan all the time he needed to vent. If he hadn’t gone through his own experience with the heartache of NBA business early in his career — when the Memphis Grizzlies drafted his replacement at point guard, Mike Conley, after his rookie season — Lowry might’ve handled the situation differently. But he rationalized that by expressing his own disappointment, he would “add fuel to the fire,” instigating more rage and sadness.
“He’s the guy that emotionally, we were invested, like that’s my dog,” Lowry told The Athletic after a recent practice. “What can you say? I was just like, ‘Damn. Crazy.’
“It was a tough moment for people to understand because you’ve invested so much time and emotion, business, and family into an organization and they trade you. That’s when you really know it’s a business. I got my taste of the business early, my second year in the league, but he’s never had to deal with that.”
An hour after that initial, mostly one-sided conversation ended, Lowry — still unable to get back to sleep — sent DeRozan an encouraging text message while grappling with his own sorrow that the Raptors had exiled his partner in elevating the franchise from ignored, Canadian novelty into a team that could basically handle any squad in the Eastern Conference that didn’t have LeBron James.
Four months since a trade that altered the direction of the Raptors — with general manager Masai Ujiri raising to legitimate championship contender the ceiling of the organization through a potential one-year rental of former Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard — Lowry has attacked this season as if he’s determined to show that Toronto also acquired a better version of himself this season. The motivation is not revenge, who’s gone, or who’s arrived, only a desire to be better. He’s older but smarter. Far from satisfied.
“I’m more hungry than I was my first year,” Lowry said. “Because it’s about wanting more for yourself. I never want to settle for being mediocre or me not giving every ounce of blood, sweat and tears for my job. We don’t get to play this game for a long time at a high level. I think that’s where we are. We only get this thing for a short amount of time, after that, then you can go be lazy. For me, it’s all about being the best basketball player you can possibly be. Why settle?”
Any bitterness or sadness that Lowry might feel over having his “dog” shipped out or over how the situation was handled — DeRozan claims he was misled; Ujiri has apologized for any miscommunication — has been mostly kept inside, reflected only in his continuation of a pregame handshake ritual with an imaginary DeRozan. Lowry hasn’t spoken with Ujiri about the move, nor does he plan to ever discuss it with him.
“It’s no point now,” Lowry said. “He did it. He made his decision. That’s his choice. All I can do is go hoop. Take that however you want.”
Lowry has moved on, mostly because he said DeRozan has “made peace with it.” Even if he wanted to hold a grudge, Lowry couldn’t hold one for too long with the Raptors organization because Ujiri is still the one who challenged him to ditch the sour attitude to avoid becoming a disgruntled journeyman, still the one who gave him his first big contract in 2014 and still the one who handed out another for nearly $100 million three years later despite the absence of another serious free-agent challenger for Lowry’s services.
“It was a dried up summer. Dried up quick,” Lowry said with a smirk. “But they made a commitment and they secured me more money than I ever thought I would make. And yeah, I’ve proven it on the basketball court and I just continue to keep improving and that I’m worth the amount of money and salary that I make. The city has been great for me. The organization, I’ve made them let me be me.
“I’m not saying that in an arrogant way. But they gave me a chance. They didn’t have to pay me. I’ve done everything you wanted me to do. I’ve made the team get better and they’ve put me in a position where I’ve made them make a decision whether they wanted to keep me or not. They chose to keep me and I appreciate it.”
Six-plus seasons in Toronto have been good for Lowry, giving him the platform to become the perennial All-Star caliber player he’d always envisioned in previous stops in Memphis and Houston. His demanding style can make him hard to play with sometimes but never difficult to rally behind. And he has taken his leadership to an even higher level following a summer that featured the most upheaval during his time with the Raptors, with Dwane Casey — the coach with whom he butted heads before earning his trust — also being let go for his former assistant, Nick Nurse.
“I haven’t really thought about the newness,” said Lowry, who trails only Jonas Valanciunas in tenure with the ball club. “I’ve kind of been going with the everyday flow. This summer I was in my own world. I did my thing. I came back ready to go and just was open-minded to whatever happens is going to happen. It didn’t put me in [an awkward position] because I’m an adult. I’m able to sit back and don’t say anything stupid.
“For me, it was about coming in and really being a pro. Do your job. You’ll be fine. You know how to play this game. You don’t want to give anyone a reason to say anything about you and that’s how I approach it. I’m doing my job.”
In a season defined by incredible parity throughout the league and confusion over which teams are real and fake, Toronto has been one of the few teams to separate from the pack. The absence of James, the presence of ring-rocking veterans Leonard and Danny Green and the emergence of youngsters Paskal Siakim and OG Onunoby, who used last year’s embarrassing second-round sweep to motivate their offseason workouts, have raised the expectations for a Raptors team that won a franchise-record 59 games last season.
But so has an improved Lowry, who is playing some of the best basketball of his career. He’s settled into the role of playmaker to help his new and emerging teammates get comfortable and stepped into MVP-mode whenever Leonard needs to sit for maintenance. Toronto is 5-1 without Leonard.
“Whatever team I’m on, I always feel like I have a chance. We’ve had a chance the last few years and we ran into that train called LeBron James and I’m just being honest with you,” Lowry said. “We’re not the only team that lost to Bron. He beat everybody. I always felt like, last year we could’ve won and the year before that, we could’ve won. This year is no different.”
So much of Toronto’s future beyond this season hinges on whether or not Leonard decides to re-sign next summer. But the team — and Leonard — have kept the situation from being a distraction to their immediate goals. Lowry describes his first few weeks playing alongside Leonard as “cool” and said that since that first initial conversation, there has never been any awkwardness between them. True, Leonard was swapped for his friend but they both have the same motivation to win. And, to help expedite the connection between the two, the Raptors coaching staff made sure early on that Lowry and Leonard were on the same side for every drill and scrimmage.
“Me, how I am, I want to make sure he’s comfortable,” Lowry said of Leonard. “He’s the most talented player that we have. He’s our best player. He’s got a ring. Why not? Danny’s been great, too. Nothing is ever awkward because this is a small brotherhood. We all respect what we do.
“I always think about the next kill, not kill, but the next thing to do,” he continued. “I feel people are always going to say something. All I can I do is keep it moving and eat. And make sure everybody else eats. I always want to help everyone else eat and if I help everyone else eat, I’m happy.”
Before Lowry arrived, the Raptors had famously won just one playoff series in franchise history, at the height of Vinsanity. Toronto has made five consecutive playoff appearances since, winning three series and advancing to the conference finals in 2016. That summer, Lowry joined DeRozan as a late addition to the US Olympic basketball team in Brazil, where the Americans captured their third straight gold medal. Lowry dribbled out the final seconds of the game and — despite the heroics of Kevin Durant and the conclusion of Carmelo Anthony’s decorated international career — went back home with the ball. “That’s my only championship,” Lowry said with a grin about the ball. “I got it at my house. I knew I was keeping it from the rip.”
Lowry is now seeking a ring and won’t let his friendship with DeRozan cloud how he approaches the opportunity that lies ahead.
“Everything happens for a reason and that’s just how you have to look at things. Only time you really ask why is when you’re sick or someone passes away,” Lowry said. “For me, it’s about winning championships. And if this is the situation that helps me win a championship, then I’m happy to be here.”
Playing or working with someone with whom you’re extremely close is a delicate balance because brutal honesty could jeopardize the friendship, while uncomfortable silence could threaten the success of the team. Lowry said he and DeRozan weren’t afraid to speak their minds to each other, argue and hash out disagreements. But he also acknowledged the challenge of recognizing when to confront or fall back. No such boundaries exist now, with Lowry pushing DeRozan harder in San Antonio than when they were teammates.
“You’ve got to remember, me and him, we talked about anything. We said whatever we wanted to. We both understood when we both messed up. Like cut it out. So it wasn’t hard to be real with each other,” Lowry said. “But it is hard to say, ‘Man, you’re fucking up.’ But it happens. We’ve got to go on court. We’ve got to do our jobs. But afterwards, after games, nothing matters because friendship is bigger than the game.
“I’m tougher on him now,” he continued. “I watch the games. But it’s easier for me to see it. I can’t see it when I’m in it. But when I’m watching on TV, I can rewind and say, ‘Damn, you could have did this.’ It’s not that I’m hard on him. I just want more from him. I want more for him. I feel like you can do more, yo. You should be doing more. Whereas, if he’s on my team, I can help him.”
The Raptors’ fast start has already forced one Eastern Conference rival to make a significant trade, with Lowry’s hometown Philadelphia 76ers acquiring Jimmy Butler from Minnesota. When asked about the trade, Lowry pulled his phone from his pocket and showed a text message from Butler wearing his new uniform for the first time. Lowry put the phone away and said, “I’m going to give you my real answer — I ain’t worried about them. All I can worry about is Toronto.”
Lowry is never one to get ahead of himself, knowing that a bad game or bad stretch of games can always be there waiting on the other side. But as he sat against a wall at the Raptors’ practice facility, with a cap featuring his personal logo, beside a pair of his player edition adidas, Lowry gave himself a minute to admire where he is at this stage in his career — still playing efficiently, making the best of drastic change, leading the team with the NBA’s best record, and said with a smile, “It’s a good time to be Kyle.”