Kawhi Leonard’s return to Toronto on Wednesday was so remarkably civil and gracious it made us wonder why it couldn’t always be this way in sports.
Why can’t a fan base just give thanks and allow what might come next to just be without need for animus.
Raptors fans did not spit bile at Leonard for leaving them after leading them to their first NBA Championship last season. They did not take personally the business decision he made to leave them to sign with his hometown Clippers during offseason.
“Gave it big consideration,” Leonard said of possibly he’d re-sign. “I took my time like I did; 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.”
This was not Anthony Davis back in New Orleans. This was not Boston bracing for Kyrie Irving’s return.
This was a remarkable show of goodwill, Leonard bathed in chants of “MVP” by Raptors fans from the moment he stepped foot on the floor of Scotiabank Arena. And the mood did not seem to change during the Clippers’ 112-92 win.
“He fulfilled his promise,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “I don’t know if he promised a championship, but he fulfilled it, anyway.”
Still, Leonard can be a different duck. He usually is not one to show or share emotion, other than a acknowledging bow and lift of a hand.
“Some players just don’t let you in,” Rivers said. “But I can tell you that ovation, to him, was very heartfelt. There’s no doubt about that. It meant a lot to him.”
At the end of his postgame press conference, Leonard was asked about an engraving he has on the championship ring he received on Wednesday. By the way, the ring is large enough to accommodate 640 diamonds.
“I have a logo in there,” Leonard said. “And [the ring is sized for] my middle finger, so it reminds me ‘put it on my middle finger.’ So I have like a ‘FU’ symbol in there.”
That sounds strange, doesn’t it? Reports indicated the press room filled with nervous laughter as everyone wondered what the subliminal message might be. Who is he mad at? What is he mad about? Why even bring it up on such a positive night?
If Leonard wasn’t willing to show his thanks with his words, he at least delivered a trademark performance, finishing with 23 points, six rebounds and five assists.
The Raptors planned a good show. After the other four Clippers starters were introduced, a two-minute video tribute featuring highlights of Toronto’s title run played out.
It must have been impressive. And the Clippers probably knew it was coming because it inspired one of the great quotes of the NBA season from Rivers.
“It’s like Maximus coming back as the gladiator,” Rivers said before the game. “He was the champion and just did everything honorably and the right way. I was joking earlier that would be a great intro.”
Leonard was introduced to a standing ovation. He was met at half court by his former Raptors teammates and coaches. That’s when the fans began to chant “MVP.”
The last Raptors player to greet him was Leonard’s great friend Kyle Lowry. It was then Leonard let his guard down a bit. You could see him rubbing what must have been a tear from his eye.
“I was joking with him (Lowry) and just showing him that the ring was nice and like it was shining too bright,” Leonard said. “And we were laughing. … Memories probably just ran through our heads.”
Even before the night began, the city of Toronto opened its heart to Leonard. New Balance, Leonard’s sponsor, paid for a billboard thanking Toronto. The Raptors organization also had billboards up welcoming Leonard’s return.
“As far as winning a championship, it pretty much has come full circle now,” Leonard said. “Being able to get the ring and see where the hard work came from. But it’s more than that. … It’s just a journey. For me, as far as playing for the city, the chapter coming closed once I came over with the Clippers, but still love the city. Those guys on the team, the players, the coaching staff, still have love for them and wish them the best.”
“[The video and the fans] just kind of puts you back in those spots when you were on the floor, or the locker room talk going into the game, and after the game watching those highlights,” he added. “It was a special season for us, for me and for the whole city and country. I’m just glad we were able to win. It was a blessing.”
Why can’t it always be this way?