One of the hardest parts of sports fandom is seeing a beloved player switch teams, something Canadian basketball fans have now been grappling with for nearly a month.
Many NBA fans woke up July 6 to a completely different league. The last major domino to fall in a frenzied free agency, Kawhi Leonard – fresh off a championship with the Toronto Raptors and reportedly entertaining offers from Toronto, as well as both teams in his native Los Angeles – orchestrated a move that saw star Paul George join him via trade on the Clippers, thereby ending his time on Canada’s only team. Locally, the news broke after midnight.
By coincidence, I happened to still be awake and checked Twitter before going to bed. In the span of half an hour, as the deal was made public, I experienced all five stages of grief until, by the time I woke up, I’d come to terms with Leonard’s decision.
There isn’t enough room in this column to dissect every impact of Leonard’s move – how it leaves the future of the Raptors up in the air, how it fundamentally shifts the power balance of the NBA, how there is no single team that stands above the rest as an inevitable favourite or how it sets up the forthcoming season as one of the most competitive and possibly most fun to watch.
There’s just enough time for one fan to pen a quick goodbye.
As I write this, Leonard and George are holding their introductory press conference with the Clippers in L.A. You can’t fault a guy for wanting to go home, which Leonard had indicated was his intent since well before the season started. Videos from the conference show a man content with his decision, and his short thank-you to the Raptors, Toronto and Canada seemed heartfelt.
Still, it’s sad that Leonard won’t sport a Raptors jersey next season. He’s by far the best player I’ve seen wear one, and I’ve admired his game since he was still with the San Antonio Spurs – quiet, no-nonsense, all business on the court.
Kawhi Leonard gave us so much. That laugh at his first press conference. A series of some of the greatest, most literal answers to media questions I’ve ever heard. The meme-able nicknames and sayings – “Fun Guy,” “Board man gets paid.” The Shot – four bounces that first presented a glimmer of hope that the Raptors could go all the way.
Ultimately, he gave a starving team, fanbase, city and country their first taste of an NBA championship.
This is the last time I’ll get to write about Leonard as a Toronto Raptor, but it’s far from the last time I’ll think about it.