ANALYSIS: Kawhi, Masai, and the lasting impact of Leonard’s short time in Toronto

If you were on #kawhiwatch, not just for the last week but for the last year, you kept waiting for a hint that Kawhi Leonard was falling for us the way we were falling for him.

But he never did lead us on. He said he would try to win a championship. One championship, this year. That’s it. He was often asked about the future, and now, looking back at his answers, he made it pretty clear that we shouldn’t get our hopes too high.

He said this a few weeks ago: “I was focused on the now. I wanted to make history here. And that’s all I did.” He could express that sentiment word for word again today.

The Toronto Raptors, doubtless, did all they could to keep him: offer him the most money, return a proven championship supporting cast, and — thanks to love-struck Canadians — they could guarantee the affection of an entire nation.

There was nothing about Canada’s infatuation with Leonard that wasn’t genuine. But in the final equation to keep him here, one variable was missing: being close to home.

If only Leonard had been born in Nebraska, or better yet, New Hampshire — he’d still have to leave home to play in the NBA, and maybe Canada wouldn’t have seemed so far-fetched. But he was born right in Los Angeles, of all places, where there are two NBA teams.

In some ways, it would be hypocritical for Torontonians to be upset. It was barely a year ago that a hockey star at his peak decided he wanted to move closer to home. And that’s how Toronto wound up with John Tavares. And I don’t remember Maple Leafs supporters feeling sorry for fans of the New York Islanders.

That’s the home-ice advantage Toronto has (finally). But Los Angeles has home-court advantage when it comes to basketball, and that’s the sport Kawhi Leonard plays. For an American basketball player from Southern California, no NBA team is further from home than Toronto.

If frigid Minnesota required passports at its border, replaced its anthem, flew a different flag, and changed its taxation, it would only begin to approximate how different Toronto is from southern California.

Leonard was undoubtedly affected by the outpouring from Canadians. But in selling themselves, both Los Angeles teams probably asked him something like, “Instead of O Canada and Maple Leaf flags, how would you like the stars and stripes and chants of ‘USA, USA’?”

The L.A. Clippers seemed out of the Kawhi sweepstakes when they failed to sign a big-name free agent Leonard could team up with. But it’s clear now that he was leaning towards the Clippers if they could just swing a second deal for another Southern Californian, Paul George.

Which, of course, they did. As painful as that outcome is for Raptors Nation, there is a particular sting for the Los Angeles Lakers. The storied franchise with Lebron James and 16 championships not only lost out on Leonard, they now have to watch him up close playing for the other L.A. team with whom they share the same arena. Ouch.

One other person must be hurting today: former basketball star Jalen Rose. An excellent basketball analyst, it was Rose who declared he was “99 per cent hearing” that Leonard would re-sign with the Raptors. That was seized upon by hopeful Canadians (ahem) as a sign that Leonard was indeed tilting Toronto’s way.

Obviously, he got it wrong, but it was instructive. Rose does have good contacts in the NBA. His call suggests the Raptors really were in the conversation to keep Leonard. And that is a remarkable thing. Again, Toronto is an outlier in the NBA (much as the Blue Jays are in baseball), the only foreign team among all those multibillion-dollar American franchises.

Experience in Toronto has taught us that top players are drafted here, and they are traded here, but they do not choose to come here in their prime. It seems Leonard almost did.

Part of that has to be what Toronto offered him. Yes, load management and a winning team that genuinely looked out for him, but something more unexpected — a city and a nation that would adopt him as a true sports hero.

Toronto remains a hockey town first and foremost. So we’ll see what kind of parade we get if and when Tavares, Mitch Marner and Auston Matthews bring the Stanley Cup to town. But for sheer presence in this city, the gap between the Leafs and the Raptors has narrowed.

And of course, being the only NBA team in Canada, there are Raptors fans from Vancouver to Montreal that the Leafs could never hope to attract. In pure dollar terms, the Raptors, as part of the large NBA enterprise, are worth close to $2 billion to the Leafs’ roughly one and a half billion.

The Raptors have grown in a way that reflects both Toronto and the NBA. Toronto’s fan base is multicultural and expanding quickly. Just as rapidly, the NBA is extending its reach around the world.

And that brings us to Masai Ujiri, the Raptors president and the other singular figure in the brief Kawhi Leonard era in Toronto.

Ujiri rolled the dice on last summer’s daring trade that cut loose the popular DeMar DeRozan, but Leonard’s arrival also turned the spotlight onto what Ujiri has done here — built a winner in a city that reflects his own outlook for growing the game of basketball.

Ujiri made the Raptors a team to be reckoned with competitively and has positioned it at the forefront of the NBA’s brand on the international stage.

Toronto’s uniqueness as a beacon of diversity has been a long time developing, but it coincided with Ujiri’s vision. He said last month, “We can reach the world easy from here, from Canada. And we’re happy to be the global team that represents the NBA.”

The league’s president, Adam Silver, praised Toronto’s diversity and called the city “about as representative of the league of any city you could think of in North America.”

Some of that had to be part of the appeal of Toronto to Leonard and his camp. Sixty years ago, the city was not much bigger than Milwaukee, and was a little smaller than Detroit. Today, Toronto is a sparkling international metropolis, growing by leaps and bounds.

It didn’t land this superstar this time, but the entire Kawhi experience has elevated the world of basketball in this country, and elevated this city that has so clearly welcomed the world.

Leonard’s impact may be felt years from now when a new generation of Canadians or Europeans or Africans, or even an American from Los Angeles, will at the peak of their game choose Toronto and choose Canada.

And they will come because Kawhi Leonard and the 2019 Toronto Raptors showed them just what is possible here.

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