Frenzied celebration caps unforgettable year for Raptors, Kawhi Leonard

Toronto, Canada celebrates the first NBA title north of the U.S. border.

TORONTO — Wearing a ‘Board Man Gets Paid’ T-shirt, square sunglasses, and grey New Balance sweat shorts, Kawhi Leonard reached down over the railing from the red-and-black double-decker bus splitting the unruly crowd along University Avenue. Emerging from the ocean of people, a gift. A house-warming gift for Kawhi. A Kawactus.

That Plant Guy got to personally deliver his flora, while Leonard wore a shirt bearing the famously deadpan phrase he reportedly uttered while vacuuming rebounds on college practice courts, with Drake on the same bus, chugging beers and celebrating wildly, was like some sort of NBA Internet meme supernova.

And that’s essentially what Monday’s NBA championship parade in Toronto felt like — a frenzy. The city was letting it all out. The busses had barely left the team’s practice facility before they were brought to a halt at Exhibition Place’s Princes’ Gates by fans filling the streets, darting in front of the vehicles carrying players, staff, and their families. The mayhem continued throughout the procession, slowing progress to a crawl, to the point that the planned rally at Nathan Phillips Square was delayed by nearly three hours.

That caused problems for the droves that packed the square, some of them camping out for days to earn placement near the front of the stage. There was no shelter from the sun, no water readily available, nowhere to sit, no space to even move. Backstage, a steady stream of struggling fans, some barely maintaining consciousness, were lifted from the crowd and brought to a mock triage area in the shade, where they were given water and room to lie down.

The energy in the square went from raucous in the morning to dreary and fatigued in the early afternoon, as impatience set in and the focus of the organizers turned from amping the crowd up to calming it down, at one point broadcasting a plain message on the video boards asking those in attendance to “Please respect each other’s space.”

The atmosphere rebounded emphatically when the Raptors congregation finally arrived around 3:00 p.m., allowing the on-stage rally to begin about 30 minutes later. As the Raptors were introduced one by one, each ovation louder than the last, and Leonard was presented with a key to the city by mayor John Tory — “You are family, you are one of us, this city and this country love you,” Tory pronounced, emphatically — the square was delirious with joy as all those sun-soaked fans chanted “Stay, stay, stay!” In that moment, it was hard not to feel like the worst of the day was behind.

It wasn’t. During a speech by MLSE chairman Larry Tanenbaum, a human stampede broke out in the southeast corner of the square. According to Toronto Police, a shooting occurred and four victims received non-life threatening injuries. Three were arrested, and two firearms were recovered.

This is what we know now, of course. In the moment, there was only panic from that area of the massive crowd. And things could have been much worse if not for a timely and composed address from Raptors play-by-play analyst Matt Devlin, who paused Tanenbaum’s speech to appeal for calm. After the brief interruption, the rally continued, and the day ended with a series of positive and entertaining speeches from various players, including Leonard, who ended his remarkable season just as he’d begun it, with an unforgettable laugh.

Again, a frenzy. The day was everything all at once. And the fact that there were troubling and violent moments shouldn’t overshadow the fact that the vast majority of those in attendance, whether along the parade route or in the square, celebrated with gleeful enthusiasm. It wasn’t a perfect day, but it couldn’t possibly be with millions involved. It remains a reliable rule that if you gather a large enough group of people, you are inevitably inviting some form of unpalatable behaviour from certain pockets of it. We’re dealing with humans, after all.

And in the days following Toronto’s Game 6 triumph over the Golden State Warriors, that’s exactly what we’ve seen from so many of the Raptors — their human side. They’ve celebrated with unbridled passion and delight, removing many of the walls they build around their personalities during the season as they strive to approach their jobs with unyielding professionalism and seriousness.

Monday, we had Pascal Siakam starting his own “Spicy-P, Spicy-P!” chant. Serge Ibaka plugging his online cooking show and waving a giant black flag centred with a gold continent of Africa. Fred VanVleet telling the crowd, “You killed us when we got swept two years in a row, so you better celebrate this s––– for the rest of the summer!”

And Leonard about as unguarded as he gets. When he finally arrived at Nathan Phillips Square and paused briefly for a chat with a small group of local media, he brought his daughter, Kaliyah, with him. Kaliyah wasn’t alive to experience her father’s last parade in 2014 with the San Antonio Spurs, when they all piled onto barges and floated along the San Antonio River Walk. And even though she’s still a little young to fully appreciate what was happening around her, it was still important to Leonard that she saw every bit of it this time around. You never know if it’ll happen again.

“She played a role. Our families all play a role in a season,” Leonard said. “We’re so focused. We don’t really have no time to just relax and do some of the dad things that you want to do. Because you’re always either getting treatment or you just want to sleep. And they did a great job of letting me be the player I wanted to be, by letting me relax when I get home. And now it’s her time.”

To that end, Leonard spent a quiet Father’s Day with Kaliyah and his girlfriend, Kishele Shipley, enjoying a meal and each other’s company. That was after a whirlwind celebration tour with his teammates that began in San Francisco, passed through Las Vegas, and finished in Los Angeles. Leonard said these days following his second championship have been his most fun and relaxing in some time. After nearly 10 months of hard work, it was time for some pay off.

“Man, that’s what it’s about,” he said. “Everybody was so excited and happy just to be out and finally relax and not go through a routine no more.

“I’m enjoying this. It’s not time to stress. It’s still time to have some fun. I’ve just been enjoying my experience.”

Of course, there is a time limit on that. In only two weeks, Leonard will have a monumental decision to make — one that will decide the course of not only his career, but that of several NBA franchises, for years to come. As the clock quickly ticks toward his impending free agency, the discourse surrounding Leonard is about to shift from the appreciation of his tremendous accomplishments in this season to the speculation over where he’ll play in the next. In many corners outside Canada, it already has.

Monday, Leonard said he hadn’t considered it yet. But surely he has. Wouldn’t you? There are hundreds of millions on the line — it’d be a little crazy not to. But he has nothing to gain by discussing it publicly at the moment, so he kept things vague as reporters pried for hints and clues.

Is the plan to cross that bridge when you get to it?

“Yeah, for sure,” Leonard said. “When it’s that time and it’s time to sit down, me and my group is going to sit down with each other. And lay it all out.”

But you only have two weeks until free agency — that time has to be coming soon, no?

“It doesn’t matter,” he shrugged. “I’m going to take the right time. You don’t need too many days to figure it out. And we’ll see. We’ll see what happens.”

Well, what factors are important to you in the decision?

“I haven’t been thinking about it,” he repeated. “I’m here to have fun. Once that time comes, then we’ll all lay the pros and cons out.”

In the meantime, fans can prepare themselves for The Reports. They’re coming. That sources say Leonard is leaning one way or another. That his uncle and advisor, Dennis Robertson, told someone who told someone else that his nephew was almost certainly going to this place or that. That Leonard had purchased property here, or was seen meeting with so-and-so there, or signed up for a loyalty program with this furniture retailer, and who signs up for those things if they aren’t going to be around for a while?

Thing is, no one outside his circle has known what Leonard’s been thinking at any point over the 11 months since he was traded to the Raptors — and you can bet that will remain consistent over the next two weeks. He’s a quiet dude, and his people are quiet, too. ‘Real Gs move in silence,’ as Lil Wayne once said, and Leonard hasn’t shown himself to be anything but. Odds are, we’ll learn his decision precisely when he’s ready for us to.

And he’s been nothing but honest about what’s important to him when he’s chosen to speak about it. His family, his health, his comfort, winning. The Raptors can sleep well at night knowing they’ve done all they can to satisfy those requirements. They’re champions, Leonard remained healthy enough to compete at a high level into mid-June, the franchise bent over backwards to make him as happy as possible, and his family got to experience the passion, diversity, and pride of Toronto up close Monday, as millions packed the streets.

“My last parade, the experience wasn’t like this with all these people. It was crazy, it was crazy,” he said. “Everything is good. It was a good experience, experiencing mother nature, all four seasons. Man, it was a great experience. Everybody off the court was great. The fans. Just meeting people in Canada. It’s been fun.”

Fun enough to stick around for a few more years? Enough fun to come back for at least next season and help the Raptors try to defend the title? We’ll see. The world will know sooner than later, as free agency opens June 30 at 6:00 p.m. ET. Raptors fans have two whole weeks to worry about it. Monday just wasn’t the time. Monday was a celebration. An imperfect one — but the one Toronto got, the one it deserved. After 24 years of waiting, the city got to let it all out. And what a frenzy it was.

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