Kawhi Leonard’s shot and the longest four seconds of my career

Michael Grange reflects back on the Raptors’ iconic shot from game seven against the Philadelphia 76ers in last year’s second round of the NBA Playoffs.

It was the longest four seconds of my sports writing life.

Not the 4.2 seconds that was on the game clock when Marc Gasol of the Toronto Raptors in-bounded the ball to Kawhi Leonard during Game 7 of the Raptors’ second-round series.

We’ve all seen some version of that play out – an out-of-bounds play late in the game. Not quite routine, but we see them often enough.

And from my perspective as someone who’s working when people are playing, a shot to win a tie game is a much better proposition than a win-lose scenario.

A missed buzzer-beater in a tie game simply means overtime and, from my point of view, some timeouts and stoppages to figure out what’s going on as I try to cobble together a story that makes sense.

That’s an “any given Tuesday” thing in the NBA.

But when a franchise’s history is hanging in the balance, and what felt like the psyche of an entire city if not the country?

Those roughly four seconds from when the ball leaves Leonard’s fingertips to when it finally stops bouncing and drops felt like an eternity, punctuated by an avalanche.

As a sportswriter at heart who plays a TV guy on TV, the expectation is my column about the game everyone is watching should be filed as close to the final buzzer as possible. We’re talking on the buzzer — actually a horn in the NBA — or minutes afterwards.

You get a chance to tidy things up in a second draft that includes quotes, colourful details and whatever else you can gather following the game in locker rooms and other player availabilities, but that first one is written on the fly.

It’s a far cry from working in the ICU during a pandemic — or even stocking grocery store shelves, to be honest — but it has its stresses and requires tricks of the trade beyond simply typing fast, which absolutely helps and is not my strength.

The closer the game, the trickier the task to the point that in really tight contests a lot of writers will work on two stories simultaneously — one if team A wins, another if team A loses — flipping back-and-forth as the fourth quarter (or third period or final innings) play out.

The result is millions of words written about the outcomes of deciding games that sit on laptops all over the world that were never published — a complete alternate sports reality where the Blue Jays don’t win Game 6 in 1993, Kerry Fraser doesn’t blow the Gretzky high stick call on Doug Gilmour that spring, Vince Carter’s shot against the Sixers in 2001 hits the rim and drops and Tom Brady and the Patriots don’t complete the Super Bowl comeback against the Falcons.

Pick your magical sports moment and there’s an either happier or sadder story — depending on your point of view — that never saw the light of day.

One of the “best” stories I never wrote — at least officially — was my “Raptors win the title” column that was lined up and ready to go with a few minutes left in Game 5 of the NBA Finals with the Raptors up six. That became irrelevant after Steph Curry and Klay Thompson scored nine points in 95 seconds to send the series back to Oakland.

But back to “The Shot.” Since I was jumping in live to the post-game show with Brad Fay and Alvin Williams, I was watching from our broadcast position in section 105, which is kitty-corner to the Raptors bench — an excellent vantage point, it turned out.

I’m sitting there with my laptop open waiting for the unknowable to happen so I can jot the first thing that pops to mind, pray it makes sense, send to the folks at Sportsnet.ca and then close my laptop, pivot around to get on camera and try to make sense of it all on live television.

So, from a purely professional point of view, when Leonard’s shot — which was about 13/10 on the difficulty scale as he pushed hard right at full speed with Ben Simmons and then Joel Embiid in pursuit — hit the rim, I almost relaxed.

He missed. We’re going to overtime, and I have more time so sort out the mess I’d been typing into my computer.

Then it bounced again.

At this point, I was confused. I’d seen light around the backboard come on to signal the end of the game. The horn had sounded. The ball hadn’t gone in… what was going on?

Then it bounced again.

Damn. This ball might drop. This could get hairy.

I’ll always remember the silence in that moment. The entire fourth quarter had been a prizefight with the Raptors and Sixers trading body blows. Leonard had been great — on a rough, rough shooting night (10-of-30), he ended with a flourish, dropping 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in his 10 minutes in the fourth. The crowd at Scotiabank Arena was locked in for every possession. It reminded me of watching Celtics-Lakers when I was a kid when the energy poured through the (crappy) TV.

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But for these few beats, the arena was quiet.

By the third and fourth bounces, you could see the ball getting sucked into the rim as if the mesh were magnetized, but you never know, this is the Raptors trying to buck 25 years of sketchy history after all.

When it finally fell through, it was like the beat dropped in the world’s biggest club — unchoreographed yet perfectly synchronized, the whole arena exploded, acting as one.

I just started typing, hoping for the best:

“Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce.

In.

Win.

It’s not a Dr. Seuss rhyme, but it’s a storybook ending unlike any you’re likely to see at Scotiabank Arena or anywhere else, anytime soon.”

That was what I came up with to top 1,500 or so words explaining the way and the how and why it all mattered.

And then I turned around, got mic’d up for TV and finally had a moment to take in all the faces.

No one was moving. Everyone wanted that moment to last forever. People were hugging, and clapping and cheering. Smiles were plastered on everyone, tears of joy running down the faces of some.

And I breathed.

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