Kawhi Leonard is moved by stirring tribute, ovations in return to Canada
As every eye in Scotiabank Arena fixated on the four-sided scoreboard that hangs above the court, the lights went dark.
They already showed the big dunks, the last-second victories, the memorable quotes. But no one needed to see this highlight. It’s the one burned in the mind of every Canadian basketball fan.
The team’s television voice, Matt Devlin, provided the narration. Illuminated footprints on the court retraced the steps. And a spotlight focused on the basket in front of the Toronto bench, shining on the rim that helped make Kawhi Leonard — already a star — a legend after a Game 7-winning baseline jumper from a corner that rattled home to eliminate Philadelphia.
“It just kind of puts you back in those spots,” Leonard said.
There were so many moments shown before, during and after the Clippers’ 112-92 win Wednesday, so many shots and so many stops that helped Leonard lead the Raptors to their first NBA title.
The video celebrated what Leonard accomplished in Toronto, accomplishments that led to multiple standing ovations, including one 17 minutes before tipoff when he was shown on that scoreboard for the first time.
The biggest cheers came when Kyle Lowry gave Leonard his championship ring and the Finals most valuable player quickly put the 14 carats of diamonds on his finger, sharing a quick laugh with his friend and former teammate.
“I was joking with him and just showing him that the ring was nice, like it was shining too bright,” Leonard said.
Earlier in the day, he spoke about Canada, about how tough it was to leave the Raptors for the Clippers, about his walks through the city and about relationships with his teammates.
“They all add together,” Leonard said.
There were more for the ledger after the Clippers trip north.
Billboards that read “Board Man gets his ring” and “Fun Guy” in town greeted the Clippers when they arrived Tuesday. A New Balance billboard from Leonard simply read, “Thank you Toronto.”
By the time the team arrived for its 11 a.m. shootaround, the Scotiabank Arena back hallways were already filled with reporters and cameras. One by one, Clippers players and staff — everyone but Leonard — walked by and smiled at the scene. Some cursed when they saw the mass of media.
Leonard’s longtime friend, Clippers assistant Jeremy Castleberry, joked that Leonard wasn’t coming. Another assistant, Casey Hill, said “this is awesome” as he walked past the media.
As they paraded through, Leonard hung back and spoke with ESPN’s broadcast crew. He eventually got hustled through another hallway to avoid the crowd.
When he did eventually meet them, people swarmed around him next to the scorer’s table at midcourt. As the sea of people split, Leonard briefly grinned. The cameras stayed with him when he walked into the building later that night. And they were focused on him as he went through his pregame routine, swishing home jump shot after jump shot on the familiar rims.
If there were questions about how he’d be received, they were answered before the crowd could finish signing “O Canada.” Somewhere in between “God keep our land glorious and free” and “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee,” one fan shouted, “What it do, baby?” — Leonard’s phrase that went viral after the NBA Finals.
The video tribute and ring presentation was coupled with “MVP” chants from the appreciative crowd, a moment that broke through the NBA’s blankest slate.
“It meant a lot. Again, some players just don’t let you in. But I can tell you that ovation, to him, was very heartfelt,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “There’s no doubt about that. It meant a lot to him.”
Leonard called it “a great moment.” He walked on the court and embraced each of his old coaches and teammates before getting the diamond jewelry from Lowry. He thanked the crowd by raising both hands in the air, the same way he celebrated winning that title.
He’d later get the ring back from the Clippers’ staff member that was holding it.
Clippers Kawhi Leonard Toronto return
Right before the game began, Leonard was the first Clipper on the court, six separate video cameras following his every movement and breath.
“How many cameras you need on the court?” Lowry said, punctuating his joke with an expletive.
Once the game started, the Raptors blitzed Leonard, sending multiple defenders at him every time he touched the ball. They were physical and determined to make it impossible for him to get a good shot.
The first eight times down the court, he didn’t shoot.
On the ninth, he found space as far as he could from where he cemented his place in Canadian sports history — the right corner on the other end of the court. This time he swished home the shot, three points for his new team on their way to a victory he badly wanted.
“As far as winning a championship, it pretty much has come full circle now, being able to get the ring and see where the hard work came from,” Leonard said before going out to dinner with Lowry and his wife. “But it’s more than that. It’s just a journey.”
And no one will forget his one-season detour into Canada.
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