San Antonio Spurs fans really let Kawhi Leonard have it Thursday night when their team’s former star player returned to AT&T Center for the first time as a member of the Toronto Raptors.
The crowd booed Leonard mercilessly when he was introduced before the game, after giving a hearty welcome to Danny Green, who was sent from the Spurs to the Raptors in the same offseason trade that included Leonard.
The jeers continued throughout the game, pretty much every time Leonard touched the ball.
There were also chants of “Traitor!” and “Quitter!” that at one point seemed to cause Leonard to step back from the free throw line and compose himself.
Leonard spent his first seven seasons in San Antonio, a stint that included All-Star selections for the player in 2016 and 2017 and an NBA championship for the team in 2014.
But things got messy last season, when Leonard missed all but nine games with a right quadriceps injury. A rift developed between the player and team, eventually leading to the July trade that sent Leonard and Green to Toronto for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl.
So the reaction Leonard received from Spurs fans who once adored him came as no surprise.
“Media does a great job to stir people's minds and influence them to think a certain way," Leonard said after the game, a 125-107 Raptors loss in which he made eight of 13 shots for 21 points to go with five assists. "So I already knew how that was going to be, the way the media was."
He also said he “embraced it and enjoyed the moment, and it's only going to make me better.”
After the game, Leonard shared a hug and conversation with Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who later said he felt bad about the crowd’s behavior toward the team’s former star player.
“Kawhi's a high-character guy,” Popovich said. “We all make decisions in our lives about what we're going to do with our futures, and he has that same right as any of us. So, I felt badly, honestly.”