Kyle Lowry’s journey from ‘uncoachable’ backup to NBA champion

Michael Grange Breaks down the obstacles Kyle Lowry had to overcome on his way to his first NBA championship

This feature was originally published in 2016 and has been updated following the Toronto Raptors‘ 2019 NBA championship win.

TORONTO — Coach Mark Heimerdinger’s analysis was straightforward: “We’re dead.”

Down 13 points with 1:29 left in the third quarter of the Philadelphia Catholic League semifinal, Kyle Lowry, Heimerdinger’s junior star at Cardinal Dougherty High School, had just picked up his fourth foul. Since transferring over from the Philadelphia public system earlier that year, the five-foot-11 point guard had been both the league MVP and the biggest reason the Cardinals were in the midst of an undefeated season. But Lowry could also be closed off and brooding. “He was challenging,” says Dougherty assistant Dave Distel, who’s known Lowry since before his freshman season and remains a trusted friend. “Kyle has never been good with someone telling him: ‘This is what you need to do. And this is when you need to do it.’”

Whistled for that fourth foul, Lowry clenched his fists, lowered his head and made his way to the bench, anticipating the substitution. “If we take him out,” Heimerdinger said, turning to Distel, “we’ll lose the game.” The coaches held their arms up to stop Lowry and told him to stay on the floor. He didn’t exactly need persuading.

Back on the court, Lowry sparked a 25–8 fourth-quarter run and sealed Dougherty’s trip to the title game on a brutish and-one layup with 22 seconds left. In a quiet moment in the locker room after the game, Lowry pulled Distel aside in a rare display. “Thank you,” he told him, “for trusting in me.”

Bark orders and Lowry shuts down; show him you believe he can get the job done and he’ll kill himself trying to reward you for it. Yet for most of his life, and particularly in the 16 years since that semifinal game, the faith of those around him has been hard to come by for the 33-year-old. In Toronto, though, over the past five seasons, Lowry has been given the keys to an NBA franchise and grown into the leader of a Raptors team that banked on him to help achieve what was once unthinkable: bringing a title to Toronto. Thirteen years into his career, Lowry’s a five-time all-star and now an NBA champion building a Hall of Fame resume.

It took time and it wasn’t an easy process. Turns out everyone just needed to trust him.

Rick Clancy has been a fixture in the Philadelphia basketball scene for most of his life. For more than 35 years, he’s coached everything from police to neighbourhood leagues, which is where he first met an 11-year-old Kyle Lowry. “Pre-Internet, all we did was play basketball on these streets,” Clancy says. “And nobody in Philadelphia played more basketball than Kyle Lowry.”

On a typical day, the preteen Lowry would wake up and run a couple of miles, find his way to a gym to get up shots, go to school and then go to practice, before heading to another gym to find a game. Lowry lived in North Philadelphia with his mother, grandmother and older brother, Lonnie, in a 130-year-old row house on North 20th Street, directly across from where Shibe Park, the Phillies’ old stadium, once stood before it was torn down in the ’70s.

By the late ’80s and early ’90s, when Lowry was growing up, the neighbourhood was considered one of the most dangerous in America — a casualty of the era’s crack cocaine epidemic. “It was absolutely lawless,” says Clancy, who runs a food-and-beverage distribution company. “People dropping like flies here.” Clancy says he knew 24 store clerks who were murdered in 1988 alone.

Though Lowry’s father, Lonnie Sr., lived only 10 minutes away, he never showed an interest in raising his son. “I just can’t understand how somebody couldn’t love kids,” Lowry, a proud father of two, says. “I love my kids; everything I do is for them.”

Lonnie Jr. tried to fill the void as best he could. He brought his younger brother with him whenever he left the house, often heading to local courts. Lowry fell in love with the game from the opening tip; as early as he can remember, he wanted nothing more out of life than to play ball.

When they were still in elementary school, Lowry and his friend Shane Clark, who went on to play together at both Dougherty and Villanova University, would often hop from trolley to subway to bus for an hour and a half in the winter to find an indoor court. Clancy eventually swapped his family car for a 15-passenger van so he could drive the neighbourhood club team his son played on with Lowry to practices and tournaments. Lowry always rode shotgun, and he would pepper Clancy with questions about the game and life off the court. The kid who’d later spend more than a decade trying to shed the label “uncoachable” was the most eager pupil Clancy ever saw.

“What stood out immediately was his IQ and his capacity to learn,” Clancy says. Lowry himself won’t hesitate to remind you he was nearly skipped ahead a year in second grade.

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Despite coming off the bench to start his sophomore high school season, by January, Lowry had hit a growth spurt and emerged as a budding star on the local hoops scene.

Wreaking havoc on both ends of the floor in the wide-open system at Northeast High School, he began drawing attention from college recruiters. At tournaments outside the city, they’d knock on his hotel room door at night and promise sneakers, airfare — whatever they thought could lure Lowry. “I was really stunned by what I saw once Kyle blew up,” Clancy says. “I told him, ‘None of these people are your friends. These are vultures.’”

Lowry stayed focused on his game and continued to improve, but as more schools began showing interest, certain recruiters shifted tactics. Lowry’s ability and drive were never questioned, though in an attempt to spoil him in the eyes of their competitors, just about everything else was. “I know the negative [narrative] that was out there,” says Distel, Lowry’s closest confidant during the recruiting process. “We all heard it: He was impossible to coach. He wasn’t reachable. It’s why he was always somebody’s second or third choice, never first.”

The worst smear came when Lowry, knowing he didn’t want to go to a traditional college powerhouse, refused to entertain an offer from a particular major Div. I program — one he’d still prefer to keep nameless. Out for revenge, a member of the program’s coaching staff spread the rumour that Lowry was a drug dealer.

“It was the most ridiculous thing I’d ever heard,” says Distel. “Kyle was the most introverted kid. He had, like, two friends, and if he wasn’t home or on a basketball court, he was coming to my house to watch movies and so my wife could cook for him. But it was out there, and everyone already saw him as this edgy-type player.”

Lowry was shaken and emerged as guarded as ever — the incident fit an all-too-familiar pattern. “You go further back,” Distel says, “to when he was seven, eight, nine years old, when he was let down by his father — a lot. He didn’t trust men. He couldn’t. It took years for him to trust me. I knew how difficult it was for him. He was used to being disappointed by men in positions of authority.”

“The label can be what it was. I was never [uncoachable],” he says. “It was unfair. Because of how competitive I am as a basketball player, people misinterpreted it for something else. I may not have always handled things the right way, but that’s life. You live, you learn, you grow.”

Lowry’s NBA career started out with promise. The 24th-overall pick in 2006, he landed on a Memphis Grizzlies team coached by Mike Fratello who, faced with the task of harnessing the rookie’s overly aggressive game, took the same approach as the Cardinal Dougherty coaches. “You couldn’t just tell him; you had to explain why. But he was a good kid, he understood,” says Fratello.

The two had an ideal working relationship. The coach loved the passion Lowry showed and had no interest in changing the way he played. Lowry, in turn, looked for every opportunity to show his appreciation. “If someone gives you the key to their car for the weekend, you don’t want to be in a situation to say, ‘Ah, s—, I brought it back wrecked.’ You want to bring it back nice and clean, maybe put some gas in it. That’s how I’ve always been. If you give me something, I want to be able to give it back—and more.”

Ten games into his rookie season, Lowry broke his left wrist and was forced to sit out the remainder of the year. Twenty games later, he could only watch as Fratello was replaced by Marc Iavaroni. When Lowry got healthy, he often clashed with his new coach, who benched him in favour of rookie Mike Conley. Traded to Houston in his third season, Lowry again found a coach who supported him, but Rick Adelman soon left the team amid a contract dispute. Lowry and Adelman’s replacement, Kevin McHale, never saw eye-to-eye, and the guard again found himself on the bench, this time backing up Goran Dragic.

Another opportunity for a fresh start came ahead of the 2012–13 season, when Lowry was moved to Toronto, where he suited up alongside his son’s godfather, Rudy Gay. But the team dealt Gay fewer than 20 games into their second year together, and in the same month, Lowry’s name was a constant in trade talks. In mid-December 2013, he was nearly sent to the New York Knicks in a deal reportedly nixed at the last minute—by New York. “That really shook him,” says Distel. “But he came out of it realizing he had it pretty good in Toronto. He came out of it like it seems he always does: in a better position.”

The first step was to meet with DeRozan for a candid chat about their future in Toronto. “We were going to win,” Lowry says. “That’s all we talked about: winning. Whether it was together here in Toronto or individually elsewhere, we were going to win.”

Next he had to improve his relationship with head coach Dwane Casey, whose idea of what a point guard should be didn’t mesh with Lowry’s on-court style. “The two of us have learned to adapt to each other,” Lowry says. “We’re always going to have disagreements, but there’s a mutual respect.” Since the near-trade, the Raptors have the most total wins in the Eastern Conference.

All of the goodwill that had been built up between the two was for naught when, last May, the Raptors fired Casey, just a few weeks before he was named the NBA’s Coach of the Year. What came next was even more shocking — Lowry’s co-pilot, DeRozan, was traded.

The deal upset Lowry, who was largely out of contact with the team during the rest of the off-season. With new teammate Kawhi Leonard joining the team, no Raptor had to alter their role more than Lowry; suddenly there was a new sun he and his teammates would have to orbit around.

Soon enough it was clear that, with Leonard in the fold, Lowry had a better chance than ever to win a title, and the point guard eventually embraced his new teammate and formed a new friendship.

Through time, trials and maturation, Lowry has learned to appreciate what it took to reach his goals. “As you get older, you begin to understand the responsibilities you have,” he says. “If you want to be the guy, your responsibilities change — you have to be front and centre.”

Empowered by the trust of his coaches and teammates, and by an unprecedented amount of love from Toronto’s fan base, he’s found a new comfort level. Now he’s free to focus on the only goal he ever truly cared about: “I think about LeBron’s slogan, ‘Strive For Greatness.’ That’s really what it’s about,” Lowry says. “I want to be a great player, to win championships. I want to be f–king great.”

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