There’s probably never been a bigger media turnout for a regular-season morning shootaround in Toronto then the circus that showed up on Wednesday. All that was missing was a big top, some bears, clowns and jugglers.
But there’s also never been a bigger superstar to toil for the Toronto Raptors than Kawhi Leonard, so it was only right that 100 or so media members swarmed the lower bowl near the Raptors locker room at Scotiabank Arena awaiting his arrival. Usually it takes a conference final series to draw that large a number of regulars, drop-ins and international correspondents for a morning availability.
One-by-one, Los Angeles Clippers players and staffers sauntered in and nearly all of them either stared, wide-eyed at the throng, muttered something, or came ready with a joke. Clippers assistant Sam Cassell, who broke into the NBA in 1993 and has seen and said it all, quipped: “Y’all here for me?” Clippers head coach Doc Rivers made a load management joke right away, and again when he was scrummed.
Asked if there was any chance Leonard would be held out, Rivers replied, “You keep asking me questions, he will,” before confirming the obvious, that he was just joking around.
There was no way Leonard was going to miss this one after being rested against Indiana earlier in the trip.
It seemed fitting that even though it’s been a mild, mostly precipitation-free winter so far, that the temperature dipped significantly and flurries of snow touched down to welcome Mr. Garage to Garage (one of Leonard’s catch-phrases, which referred to him not going outside in the winter here), back to Toronto.
Rivers arrived as a player back in 1983 and teamed with the likes of Dominique Wilkins, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson, so he knows the type of attention superstars can command, especially ones like Leonard who delivered Canada its first Big 3 sporting title since 1993 with one of the greatest playoff runs the NBA has seen.
“I assumed it would be a lot because it should be. He did a lot here and it’s a big story,” Rivers said.
When it was his turn to talk, after a pit stop to say hello to some old friends in the Raptors room, Leonard was his usual self. Cooperative, but short and to the point.
“I’m happy to be back, excited to get the (championship) ring tonight, but we’re here to play a game. That’s how I feel,” Leonard said.
“This is my first time back in the city since the parade. Obviously those flashbacks come back driving over to the arena. Of course it’s a little different tonight, but we’ll see,” he said.
Interestingly, Leonard said he anticipated a fair bit of vitriol from the fans, but not because he left, simply because of the jersey he is now wearing.
“I mean there will be some cheers but definitely I think more boos because they want to win the game. They’re not going to be cheering for a player on the opposing team. They’re still rooting for the Raptors,” Leonard said.
Rivers had a different prediction on what would happen — and was later proven correct when Leonard was showered only with love.
“He’ll get a great one (reception). He fulfilled his promise, you know,” Rivers said.
“I don’t know if he promised a championship but he fulfilled it anyway. I think it will be an amazing reception.”
Leonard received his custom bauble in a pre-game ceremony. Though he’d seen the rings long ago thanks to a FaceTime session with Kyle Lowry, he knew this would be different.
“I think it looks nice. I wanna see it in person so it can come full circle,” he said earlier in the day. He seemed pleased when he got it, pretending to wipe away tears, much to the delight of his former teammates.
There are varying theories on whether there was ever a real chance of Leonard re-signing with the Raptors last July, but on Wednesday he made it seem that it was a scenario very much in play.
“I gave it a big consideration,” said the two-time NBA Finals MVP. “I took my time, I didn’t hurry up and make a quick decision. I talked to the front office (in) deep detail. It was a hard choice to make.”
In the end, Leonard went home. But for at least one day, his old stomping ground must have felt a lot like home too.
HAVING FUN WITH IT
The whole Clippers tampering saga has been well-documented and it cost Rivers some money (though everybody assumes billionaire Clippers owner Steve Ballmer paid the fine), but that doesn’t mean Rivers isn’t willing to have some fun with the whole thing.
Rivers was asked before the game if it would be nice for the Clippers to see Leonard get his ring even though they weren’t involved in his championship. Rivers quickly cut off the questioner: “We were, didn’t you hear about the tampering? We absolutely were involved. What are you talking about?”
That brought down the house. Rivers has won the Professional Basketball Writer’s award for cooperation with the media twice by accident, he’s a gem.
AROUND THE RIM
Took a ride up on an elevator pre-game with Kawhi’s Uncle Dennis, amongst others. Didn’t see if he recognized me from the less than flattering piece I wrote about him back in July. He did ask security “You all going to treat us OK tonight?” The answer was yes … Rookie Terence Davis had to watch from the side as Leonard’s former teammates gathered as he received his ring. Davis clapped throughout the tribute video … Ex-Raptors assistant Jeremy Castlebury also got his championship ring, from his old boss Nick Nurse. The Clippers also came to town with two other former Raptors, assistant coach Rex Kalamian, who was a long-time member of Dwane Casey’s staff and is a friend of Nurse’s, and underrated big man Patrick Patterson. Lou Williams was also welcomed back with a tribute video honouring Toronto’s only Sixth Man of the Year Award winner.