How Raptors fans can cope with Kawhi Leonard’s ‘load management’

Kawhi Leonard scored 33 points but it wasn't enough as the Detroit Pistons defeated the Toronto Raptors.

Robert Gray is a Toronto-area writer and a devoted Raptors fan since Day 1. He’s been a fan since Walt Williams revolutionized the knee-high sock industry. He once asked Lamond Murray for an autograph in a convenience store and Murray thought he was being sarcastic.

How many people can tell you the very day that they became a die-hard basketball fan for life?

I can.

It was Friday, October 30th, 1992. I was seven years old, and with Halloween night on the horizon there was only one thing that could possibly be sweeter. My father surprised me with two tickets to a pre-season exhibition game to be held at the SkyDome between the Sacramento Kings and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.

Now, you have to remember: Just six days earlier the Blue Jays had been crowned world series champions. So, as a kid from Toronto, I should have been thinking of little else. I mean, the Toronto Raptors didn’t even exist. Spielberg probably hadn’t even heard of them yet.

In spite of this, to me, there was only His Airness.

My old man bought me a program as we strolled into the arena. I can still see the cover well – MJ, tongue out, in his red Bulls jersey going up for a signature slam. To give you an idea of how times have changed since then, the program was sponsored by an upper-echelon sneaker company at the time, “Brooks”.

We climbed the stairs of the stadium in search of our nosebleed seats. I know we were far from courtside — we might as well have been sitting in Newmarket — and the stadium was designed with zero consideration of ever being a venue for round ball. But when we sat down, I felt like Spike Lee at Madison Square.

From ten thousand feet away, my seven year-old eyes had no problem picking out the unmistakable body language of number 23 as he made his way up and down the court, splashing buckets on offence and locking down poor suckers on defence. Among the names on his list of victims that evening was the ever-so-talented Mitch Richmond and a young man in ridiculously high socks who, unbeknownst to me at the time would become one of my heroes in a couple years – number 42. “The Wizard” Walt Williams. From that day forward, it was MJ till I die. Even though as an adult, I gather he was not the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with, I still look to MJ as the epitome of sports heroics, showmanship, and unrelenting competitive ferocity.

It’s hard to believe now that my father took me to that game nearly 30 years ago, and that in the years since I have blissfully (ok, often anxiously and painfully) witnessed the entire history of the Raptors’ current rise to NBA Finals contention.

I have waited my whole life for a team like this, and for a player like Kawhi Leonard. That’s why it I am so torn about having to watch recent losses to Orlando and Detroit (earlier this month, not Sunday afternoon’s debacle).

‘Load Management’ is a euphemism if ever there was one, and I cant decide how I feel about this whole thing, about our most talented player missing so many games – by choice.

Take a guy like Kyle Lowry (who, in my opinion is the GROAT – Greatest Raptor of All Time).

Lowry is just about as tenacious a competitor as you could ever come across. He busts his butt every game no matter what, because that’s what he does. If he is able to play he will — and hard. He doesn’t think about taking games off, because he is too busy thinking about taking games over – even when you think he probably should get some rest, he won’t – and I absolutely love him for that.

Then there is Kawhi, who, it was announced Monday morning, will miss the Raptors’ upcoming home game versus the New York Knicks. And therein lies the conundrum. I watch Kawhi play and I get giddy; There has never been a player as good in a Raptors uniform.

He is a stone cold, poker-faced unflinching baller with a championship pedigree and unfathomable efficiency. Trying to enjoy this season without worrying about whether or not he will be here next year has been exceedingly difficult for many fans. It’s like a crash course in the art of mindfulness; “Live in the now … stay in the now …”

I’ve read that Leonard considers regular season games merely as “practice” – that the only thing on his mind is the post-season. Could it be that as a life-long Raptors fan, I am so unfamiliar with post-season triumph that the concept of throwing away could-be-regular-season-victories seems other-worldly? I mean, we were 16-66 one year. Kawhi Leonard, in his NBA career thus far, has never come close to knowing such depths of despair.

Part of my concern with Kawhi’s load management is clearly based on my own insecurity as a Raps fan. Is he easing the load of this season so that he can be in tip-top shape for whatever team he chooses to play for next season? Don’t be so paranoid, Robbie, you’re a catch; anybody would be lucky to have you as a hometown.

Talking with my buddy, Will, while watching a recent game, he seemed much more optimistic.

“Dude, he missed an entire year in San Antonio. I think it scared him a bit. Don’t you want your best player to be listening to his body and at his best when it matters the most?”

Shut up, Will.

But he’s right. As annoying as it is to see the Raps throw away the odd game to the Magic or the Nets, wouldn’t you rather make sure that Kawhi is feeling 100 per cent come playoff time when he’s tasked with shutting down a fast-breaking Giannis, or a red-hot Kyrie?

Except, I want Kawhi to play every game.

I want Kawhi to be like a 1985 Michael Jordan who, with a broken foot, came back six months early, against the suggestion of team doctors and management, simply because he couldn’t stand watching from the sidelines anymore.

I want Kawhi to want to play against Dwane Casey and the Pistons because he sees that the entire Little Caesars Arena in Detroit is filled with Raptors fans who crossed the border to watch their team beat their favourite coach of all time.

But, the thing is, I don’t know anything about winning an NBA championship. Kawhi does. And that, to be honest is probably the end of the discussion. I guess I can live with that.

At the end of the day, NBA basketball is entertainment. In my biased opinion, it might be the best entertainment there is. 27 years after my dad took me to see Jordan play, I am now a father. I hope that when I take my son to his first game that it is as satisfying as mine was for me. I dreamed about seeing Jordan play; and on a rainy October night in a preseason game in a country that didn’t even have an NBA franchise, he played. The game meant nothing in the grand scheme of things. But he played. And it meant the world to me; which meant the world to my dad.

‘Load management’ never entered into it, and Chicago won it all that year.
So I have to ask: Would Kawhi have played in that game? Probably not. And on some level, for somebody out there, that sucks.

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