Here’s what someone who knows Leonard as well as anybody told me privately: “He’s going to fall in love with Toronto – it’s going to happen. He’s not going to leave, I’m telling you.”
Raptors might become rapture.
For seven years, until things went sideways over the diagnosis (or misdiagnosis) of quadriceps tendinopathy that cost him all but nine games last season, San Antonio seemed like the perfect place for a quiet, unassuming guy who doesn’t covet money or fame or individual accolades, just titles. The coach, Gregg Popovich, is creative and innovative. The city, low key. The fan base, passionate. The locker room, chill – refreshingly devoid of egos bloated by making $20 million to put a round ball in a round hoop. And the team was a perennial title contender.
It has a young, creative, innovative coach in Nick Nurse; a fan base that is loyal and passionate but will leave you alone in public; a cosmopolitan city that many rank the best stop in the NBA; a locker room full of versatile, defensive-oriented players who don’t care about scoring averages; a progressive front office that, unlike many franchises, helps players secure local marketing deals; a loaded roster that won 59 games last season and no longer has to worry about its nemesis, LeBron, in the Eastern Conference playoffs; and Green, one of Leonard’s closest teammates from the Spurs.
The club president is Nigerian-born Masai Ujiri, the only non-American to be named NBA executive of the year. Leonard has called meeting Barack Obamaduring the Spurs’ visit to the White House following their 2014 championship “one of my greatest experiences.” Ujiri is tight with Obama and spent last week with him in Kenya opening a basketball court by Ujiri’s Giants of Africa charity.
Leonard likes listening to rapper Drake. Toronto is Drake’s hometown. He’s courtside for most games.
“We welcome you,” Drake wrote in an open letter to Leonard posted on social media, “to the most intense and supportive city in NBA basketball!!! You have always been a poised clinical warrior, and I can’t wait to see how Toronto inspires your fight.”
Or listen to Sharon Powell.
She’s the mother of Norman Powell, the Lincoln High alum who played at UCLA and was initially drafted by Milwaukee, only to be quickly dealt farther east to Toronto. A Southern California boy shipped to the Great White North.
He’s been there three seasons and last fall signed a four-year extension. Sharon, who lives in San Diego, likes it so much that she vows to attend every home game this season.
“The first time I went, it was freezing cold – cold like you just don’t know,” Sharon says. “But it was the best, it was amazing … Norman loves it there, he really does. He likes the city, the people, the team. The fans are so great, so supportive. They’re humble, they’re nice, they’re cordial. I haven’t seen pushy people yet.
“It’s just a fabulous place. Everybody has treated us with open arms. I’m hoping when Kawhi gets there he’ll feel the same way. I know he’ll be treated the same way.”
It’s a message she will share with Kim Robertson, Leonard’s mother whom she has befriended through basketball circles.
Ujiri will be telling her, too. The future of his franchise might depend on it.
“There’s something about this city, about this place, this team, that a star player hasn’t figured out yet,” Ujiri told the Toronto Star last year. “There will be a first one … it’s going to happen, for sure. Maybe not in my time, maybe 20 years from now, maybe 10 years from now, maybe five years from now.