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How Kawhi Leonard helped Raptors ignite basketball fever in Canada

Kawhi Leonard holds the NBA Finals MVP trophy during the Raptors’ victory parade on June 17, 2019, in Toronto.
Kawhi Leonard holds the NBA Finals MVP trophy during the Raptors’ victory parade on June 17, 2019, in Toronto.
(Vaughn Ridley / Getty Images)

Even before Kawhi Leonard helped deliver an NBA title to Toronto last spring, the star forward and the Raptors had already accomplished something that Allison McNeill, a longtime basketball coach from British Columbia, considered unprecedented.

In years past, when McNeill, the coach of Canada’s senior women’s national team from 2002-12, and her husband, Mike, a longtime basketball coach himself, had gone out for dinner near their home outside Vancouver, they had to beg bartenders to switch the televisions over to basketball coverage.

When they arrived at a restaurant during last spring’s NBA playoffs, however, no such pleading was required. Every screen was already tuned to Toronto’s Finals run.

There was another first too, at a golf club where her husband played. The clubhouse conversation was consumed not by hockey’s Stanley Cup playoffs, but basketball’s postseason.

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“Everyone rallied around this team,” McNeill said, “and it’s been quite something I’ve never seen anything like in my lifetime.”

Behind his game-winning shot in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals that helped push Toronto to its first NBA Finals berth, and his Finals MVP honors, Leonard was at the center of a basketball obsession that began into Toronto last spring and continues to be felt across the country, especially in British Columbia.

When Leonard takes the court in Vancouver on Thursday for the Clippers’ preseason finale against Dallas, it will be his first time playing in Canada since leaving in free agency. Locals expect a warm welcome — an acknowledgment of the legacy left by his brief, whirlwind season playing within their borders.

“Kawhi is a big hero here,” said Jarrod Dreger, the manager of downtown sports bar Shark Club. “Basketball was never too big. When the Raptors went far last year that brought basketball back.”

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As the first home of the NBA’s Grizzlies, and two-time MVP Steve Nash, British Columbia is no stranger to the NBA. In Vancouver, as across the entire country, basketball remains one of the fastest-growing youth sports, a surge that has created a pipeline of talent to the NBA. But the Raptors’ title run, locals say, changed the city’s relationship to basketball, returning an excitement not seen since the early days of the Grizzlies, before they departed for Memphis in 2001.

Not only did Toronto host a giant victory parade following the championship, Vancouver’s Granville Street did too.

Dreger couldn’t remember the last time Shark Club hosted a standing-room-only crowd for a Canucks game, even though it’s located only two blocks from the arena of the NHL team. Yet NBA Finals broadcasts featuring a Toronto team that played more than a thousand miles away drew so many customers that servers had trouble delivering food and drinks.

Fans who couldn’t find room at downtown bars spilled into the streets. Michael Wiebe noticed. As a teenager he worked delivering food to courtside seats during Grizzlies games. Later, he became a member of Vancouver’s city council, and in June tried organizing viewing parties similar to Jurassic Park, the plaza outside Toronto’s arena where thousands of fans watched Raptors games on huge screens. The city couldn’t make it work, but it began conversations within the government about how to best host large, communal viewing experiences on short notice.

“There’s an appetite for basketball in Vancouver,” he said.

Leonard’s Game 7-winning shot, which bounced four times on the rim before dropping in to beat Philadelphia, Wiebe added, “is one of those Canadian moments in sports.”

Canadians latched onto the Raptors partly because they saw their diverse roster as reflective of the country, McNeill said, yet Leonard seemed to be an unlikely candidate to resonate. When Leonard asked San Antonio to trade him in the summer of 2018, he reportedly hoped to be sent to Los Angeles, near his Southern California roots. Instead he was sent north.

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Over time, both his singular talent and relatable qualities struck a chord.

“He was a bit of an enigma to be honest, but I think his personality started to come out,” McNeill said. “People kind of said he has a bit of a Canadian tilt. He’s a little understated, a little quiet, and that tends to be us a little bit, as a rule of thumb.”

Clippers coach Doc Rivers hopes Leonard will receive a standing ovation inside Rogers Arena before facing the Mavericks in his final tuneup before Tuesday’s regular-season opener against the Lakers, but universal acclaim is hardly guaranteed. By leaving the Raptors in free agency, Leonard turned a Raptors team primed to defend its title into just another mid-tier Eastern Conference team while transforming the Clippers into a championship favorite. At Vancouver’s city hall, Wiebe saw a colleague tear down a picture of Leonard from their office.

Some disappointment from the free-agency decision, he said, is to be expected.

But when Leonard is introduced Thursday, many more expect cheers — perhaps from fans watching the game on restaurant televisions across the province.

“Maybe initially it hurt a bit, but they’re grateful he helped bring a championship and changed the nature of basketball in this country and rejuvenated it,” McNeill said. “I don’t think it’s going to end any time soon. I think there’s a grassroots swell and that will continue what Kawhi and the Raptors started.”

Clippers veteran guard Patrick Beverley spent the summer at home in Chicago working with his trainer on his mental approach to basketball and life.
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