TORONTO — Silence can speak volumes, but words matter too.
In the yawning and conspicuous quiet that followed the Toronto Raptors acquisition of Kawhi Leonard from the San Antonio Spurs way back on July 18th — a deal that also netted veteran shooting guard Danny Green and saw Mr. Raptor DeMar DeRozan and young centre Jakob Poeltl go to Texas – it was inevitable that in the absence of sound would flow the thunder of doubts.
They are not unfounded; collectively they are what made the deal a high-risk, high-reward gambit for Raptors president Masai Ujiri.
After all, Leonard is under contract for just one more year, he’s coming off an injury-plagued, nine-game season and a strange, seemingly bitter divorce from the only team he’d ever played for and with which he’d won an NBA championship in 2014. It’s been widely reported that his ultimate destination is Los Angeles, making Toronto only merely a pit stop for the 27-year-old.
Without any word from Leonard – even given his well-earned reputation as a guy who lets his considerable game do the talking for him – it was too easy to assume the worst.
He didn’t want to come to Toronto in the first place. He was still injured and wouldn’t be able to open the season. He definitely wouldn’t be open to staying beyond this year and it was questionable how committed he would be even when he was here.
Given his status as one of the NBA’s least chatty Kathys, who would have predicted that it was Leonard himself who knew exactly what to say when the time came? That he could calm the waters and bring the focus of the discussion to the proper place.
Leonard’s first words as a Raptor, delivered with a stony face that made them unintentionally deadpan and became instantly meme-worthy were: “I’m a fun guy.”
Hands up if you had that in the pool.
He followed up with a smile and a full-on giggle, and in less than 30 seconds much of the myth around Leonard as the NBA’s icy Howard Hughes was put to rest.
Sure, he may not be a moth to the light like Green, who has his own podcast, is glib and funny and friendly and seems resigned to playing the role of a Japanese baseball player’s interpreter – always available to do the talking when the primary voice isn’t in the mood, whether he’s necessary or not.
But there was no evidence that Leonard is the victim of a hostage taking, and there were no indications that he won’t be comfortable in the heat of the glare of one of the NBA’s largest media markets.
And on a day when there was a lot of talking and a lot speculating and a lot of the kind of weightless conversation where interest is high but substance is minimal, Leonard’s words struck exactly the right tone.
Not surprisingly there were multiple attempts to get some feel from Leonard about his true feelings about being traded to Toronto and his thoughts about playing here after his contract is up next summer. It’s the elephant in the room given that in DeRozan the Raptors gave up a two-time all-NBA player; their franchise-leading scorer and an athlete more committed to spending his entire career in the city than most people who are born here.
But perhaps a little surprisingly the topic didn’t seem to bother Leonard and push him back into his preferred shell. He didn’t deflect, nor did he pretend, he stated the facts plainly and clearly.
“I want to play here,” he said, unblinkingly. “You know, as long as I have on a jersey I want to play basketball. I came here with an open mind. I want to do great things, so I’m going to make sure that I put my all effort on the court, each and every night, and by winning games this is how you get star-calibre players to want to come here and play.”
And after this season?
“I look at it as a day-to-day process,” he said. “… my focus is on this year, this group that I have, and striving to get to a championship. We all want to win, and if you’re looking in the future you’re going to trip over the present. So what I’m focused on is this year, tomorrow, and just get going after that.”
If Leonard was fed his lines, you can say this much: he’s very coachable.
But more likely his words represented a reasonable facsimile of his true feelings and perhaps more importantly the only way anyone can reasonably expect him to feel on his first day on the job when asked about where he’ll be playing a year from now: keep an open mind, hope for a good year and we’ll see where the chips fall.
The anxiety about the unknown – while understandable – has its limits and is ultimately self-defeating, as most of us are all too aware, even as we’re powerless to stop our own fretting.
In that context perhaps the most interesting spark of the gathering was provided by Ujiri, who suggested that for once and for all it might be time to enjoy the present and the bounty the Raptors have: a 59-win team with a blend of veteran leadership and youthful energy that added a legitimate MVP candidate and all-NBA defender along with Green, another all-NBA defender and consistent three-point threat.
The Raptors aren’t the only team in the NBA where the future is unpromised, but they are one of a very small number where the present is so bright, Ujiri gently scolded:
“The narrative of not wanting to come to this city is gone. I think that’s old and we should move past that. Believe in this city, believe in yourself. We can stop talking about coming to the city or wanting to come to the city. That’s old talk,” he said. “We want to win. … It’s our jobs to try and sell it to these players here, but we’re proud of who we are, we’re proud to have these guys. We’re proud to have the young guys we have … so let’s move past that narrative of wanting to stay here or wanting to come here.”
Leonard sounds like he’s prepared to do just that; to allow a total immersion in the now to cloud out any worries about later.
“I want to focus on this team, this journey that we have in front of us today and just spend it on present time and not look back,” he said.
If Leonard of all people can say that loud and clear, who are we not to listen?