TORONTO – Back in Toronto for the first time since the championship parade he helped make happen, Kawhi Leonard stepped onto the Scotiabank Arena floor where he made so many memories just a season ago but was greeted with a sight both familiar and unfamiliar.
The familiar was the mass of humanity that circled around Leonard as he scrummed near the scorers’ table for about five minutes as it appears Toronto’s love affair with the now Los Angeles Clippers superstar hasn’t yet worn off.
The unfamiliarity spawned from the fact the court Leonard played on 47 times last season as a member of the Toronto Raptors was decked out in purple with a giant red dinosaur in the middle of the floor, representing that the game Wednesday evening would be part of the team’s special 95 Rewind retro night where members of the club will be seen in throwback jerseys from the franchise’s most fledgling time.
Leonard, of course, could’ve also been slated to wear those "dinosaur pajamas" throwbacks this Wednesday evening had he re-signed with the Raptors in the summer.
And, as he said Wednesday amidst that swirling mass of cameras, microphones and voice recorders, he came close to remaining a Raptor.
"I gave it a big consideration," Leonard said of how much he weighed staying in Toronto. "I took my time like I did, I didn’t hurry and make a quick decision. I talked to the front office in detail and it was a hard choice to make."
Leonard was the man probably most responsible for the Raptors’ first-ever championship last season, winning the 2019 Finals MVP. And in leaving Toronto in free agency for the Clippers, he became the first Finals MVP to start the next season on a different team. Meaning, also, he’ll become the first Finals MVP to receive his championship ring as a member of an opposing team.
The 28-year-old will receive his gigantic, diamond-encrusted piece of jewelry as part of a pre-game ceremony that will simultaneously act as his own personal ring ceremony and as a means for the Raptors to thank him and pay tribute to him for his contributions last season.
Leonard said he’s excited to receive his ring, but, ultimately, this is still just a Wednesday-night game for him.
"I’m happy to be back, excited to get the ring tonight, but we’re here to play a game," he said. "That’s how I feel."
This isn’t to say that nothing about being back in Toronto doesn’t hold any deeper meaning for him, though.
"This is my first time back in the city since the parade," said Leonard. "Obviously, those flashbacks come back driving over to the arena."
As for some of his standout memories: "Just the locker room talk, just going through that journey. The fan support around the city, walking through the city. I mean it’s a whole bunch of things that all add together."
Should Leonard walk through the city today and find himself at Yonge and Dundas, he’ll see gigantic billboard of himself thanking Toronto. This was a campaign Leonard got set up with the help of his sneaker sponsor, New Balance, and he did it as something of an early Christmas gift for the fans of the Raptors.
"They were amazing last year. They rolled with us through the ups and downs. I was just talking to another media circuit and I was telling them how we were down every series pretty much, except the championship, and they stuck through it with us," said Leonard. "They brought great energy to every game and it helped us. So that’s my thank you to them."
Fans are likely to appreciate the gesture from Leonard and are surely feeling grateful for all he did for the team in his one whirlwind-like season, but when the ball tips after the emotion of the ceremony, Leonard isn’t expecting to hear much love from the Raptors faithful.
"I mean there will be some cheers but definitely I think more boos because they want to win the game," he said. "They’re not going to be cheering for a player on the opposing team. They’re still rooting for the Raptors."
He’s not wrong that they’ll be supporting the Raptors, but we aren’t so sure about the whole jeering thing.