I’m not quite sure what I’m feeling right now, or what Raptors fans are supposed to be feeling right now. It was clear — probably since last July — that this would be a one-year romance between a country starved for basketball glory and a superstar starving for home. We hoped and prayed that we’d convince him otherwise, that with a solid core and a vibrant city and 34 million people worshipping him at his feet, he’d change his mind. But he was never going to do that. And so this moment — the Kawhi-leaving moment — really was inevitable, and felt inevitable, and we all prepared for it in our own ways, at whatever speed felt the most right for each of us.
As such: I’m not mad or angry or sad or dejected or confused or surprised. All of those feelings, over the course of this past weekend, in the aftermath of Kawhi’s announcement, have come and gone. It’s this new thing. It’s hope, I think. And if it’s not true hope and pure hope and clean hope — like the kind of hope that was born of Kawhi’s performance in the Finals when it truly felt like Toronto was no longer basketball’s far-off northern outpost, but its shining city on a hill — then it’s at the very least a defiant hope, or a selfish hope.
Kawhi didn’t owe the city anything more, but the city didn’t owe him anything either. He broke a 26-year title drought and delivered a delirious celebration and parade that captured the imagination of an entire nation. But the Raptors saved him too, when most of the basketball world gave up on him. His relationship with the San Antonio Spurs became so severed, so coated with muck, so packed with animus and onions and glass, that basketball fans and experts and front offices too soon forgot what he was capable of. But Toronto embraced him, no matter how hard his seemingly introverted personality made it, and his teammates helped give him a second championship. Even if it was for one year, Raptors fans deserved to see greatness, and Kawhi deserved to play on the biggest stage. They gave those things to each other. And even though it was only a fleeting moment, it was still unforgettable.
Leonard became modern-day Michael Jordan in the 2019 NBA playoffs and he did so in a Raptors uniform. The title celebration in the last game at Oracle Arena and the pull-up three over Joel Embiid to save the season and the dunk over Giannis — those were in a Raptors jersey. The greatest moments of his basketball-playing career — or at least the most iconic — came as a Toronto Raptor. Even if that never mattered to him, it does matter. And one day, however far out it might be, he’ll remember how great he was in Toronto, and how great the city was to him.
But the Raptors will move on without him, just as they endured before Kawhi ever arrived. Pascal Siakam is poised for greatness, and Kyle Lowry really was the King in the North all along — if not for his inconsistent play then for the fact that he’s captured Toronto’s spirit better than perhaps any athlete ever has — and the team has a surfeit of cap space and intriguing young talent coming up the pipeline. There is a blueprint here to get back on top. Kawhi leaving is like breaking up with a girl you never had hard feelings towards — a period of intense, passionate love that was only meant for a small sliver of time. Kawhi and Toronto weren’t meant to be any longer. That’s the reality of life.
So what does come next? That’s for this team and this fanbase to decide. Mourning would be otherwise appropriate, but that’s unbecoming for a champion. There will be a tendency from outsiders to cast a pall over the season to come; they will want to label it as a championship hangover, as the natural consequence of a team losing its one-man show. But we all know it wasn’t a one-man show, that whatever Kawhi gave to his teammates in stardom and greatness they returned in edginess and a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality that he needed by his side. No, it won’t feel right to raise a banner without the reigning Finals MVP present, and there will be no title defense, at least not in earnest, without Leonard. But until next June, Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol and Siakam and Norm Powell are champions. Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptor, too is a champion. Nothing can detract from that.
There will be questions, concerns, frustration and indifference, once the afterglow of this championship wears out and the reality of a team without a transcendent superstar sets in. But there is also hope that whatever poetic, beautiful thing Kawhi helped build here will remain, if only as an idea in our imaginations — that this team, this city, this country can be champions, the center of the basketball universe. Maybe a little kid in Brampton or Windsor or Vancouver will take up the game and become a legend in it because they saw what Kawhi made possible, much like Vince did years ago with a generation of Canadian basketball phenoms.
Yes, Kawhi gave that to us. He gave us an unforgettable spring, that we shared with the people that mattered to us, together in a communal expression of national pride. But the ability to have that kind of legacy, to impact an entire country like nobody ever has — we gave that to him too.
So indeed, there is hope. Hope that the Raptors will win another championship, years or decades from now. Hope that basketball in this country will continue to grow, on its playgrounds and in its gyms. Hope that, maybe one day, a superstar will look at what is offered here and choose to stay — choose us.
But now? We continue to wait for that to happen.
It’s over. It’s done. Kawhi is gone.
We can all move on now.