The truth and beauty of sport is that it all comes around again, that it is an endlessly repeated cycle of wins and losses, heroes and goats, triumphs and heartbreaks. Pick your signature moment, your historic signpost, your achievement that will never be duplicated, and you’ll find at least a comparable one out there somewhere.
Maybe not quite another shot heard ‘round the world, or a shock-the-world knockout of Sonny Liston, or Usain Bolt redefining the limits of human possibility or a golden goal scored on home ice, but, for those singular occasions and pretty much everything else, there is something close enough in the memory banks or the reference library.
But this, the fever-dream year of Kawhi Leonard in Toronto? Head scratched, chin stroked, brow furrowed in concentration.
Nope. Can’t recall anything quite like that.
Begin before the deal that brought him to the Toronto Raptors, with a franchise that started life playing in a baseball stadium and was defined by disappointment, by homegrown stars who left at the first opportunity, and in more recent times by playoff failures, many connected directly to the presence of LeBron James in the Eastern Conference.
With that roadblock finally gone, rather than taking one more shot with what had been a very good basketball team, Masai Ujiri fired an excellent and popular coach, and then traded away a beloved player, rolling the dice for one guaranteed year of a guy who had barely been on the floor the season before, who had become estranged from the franchise that he had led to a championship, who would arrive as a mystery on and off the court.
What happened next you know – the regular season of load management, of expectations always guarded against the disappointments of the past, the first playoff success, the rotating cast of heroes, the exponential growth of the television audience – and at the centre throughout the towering presence of the least-knowable sports icon in memory.
“The Shot” was part of it, but it wasn’t the half of it.
By the time the chroniclers of the game were pointing out, correctly, that Leonard belongs on a very short list of the greatest athletes ever to compete for a Canadian-based team, it turned out that his tenure here was almost up, that the clock was going to strike midnight a couple of weeks after the great victory celebration.
Sometimes, you can feel the culture shifting beneath your feet.
Sometimes, it turns out we are all living a little bit in the past, only to be shocked when confronted with the present.
It happens all the time with technology, but rarely does it happen in sport. The Toronto Blue Jays’ two World Series victories didn’t come out of the blue (though their 2015-2016 playoff run did…) and the ascendance of baseball in a country where the sport had been played as long as it’s been played anywhere didn’t feel like a great upheaval.
This did, a triumph in one of the only two truly global sports, knocking off a dynastic champion in the process, driven by a player who in the moment may well be the best in the world.
Only for it to be won – one – and done.
The pleas for Leonard to return all of that love by returning to Toronto were as pure and cynicism-free as could be imagined in a world where the mercenary nature of professional athletes is understood and accepted. When the news broke late Friday night that he would be signing with the Los Angeles Clippers, it’s touching and telling that the larger reaction was not one of anger, but of gratitude. No one will ever fully know what was going through his head when he left money on the table to return home to California, but it’s hard to imagine there will be any booing when he makes his lone appearance in Toronto next season. Contrast that to the various prodigal sons past.
From the day of the trade to the day Leonard’s departure was made official, something fundamental changed in this country.
Yes, hockey is still hockey, and if the Toronto Maple Leafs ever win another Stanley Cup, who knows what it will be like – though one certainty is that large swaths of the country won’t be happy about it at all. The Blue Jays will someday return to contention, and their national following will mobilize, but baseball itself, for all of its poetry, seems more and more like a sport mired in another time.
Basketball, though, is the present and the future. Participation rates will continue to skyrocket. Canada will become a competitive threat on the international stage. Another superstar will sign with the Raptors in due course and when that happens the level of expectation will be many times what it was in the past.
Yes, basketball people have been saying all of that for a long time.
They were right.
And someday you will recall the events of 2018-2019, you will recite them like a perfect, self-contained sports fable, beginning, middle and end, the Year of Kawhi, and soon enough you’ll encounter someone too young to have lived it or at least remembered it, who will have a hard time believing that this fantastical tale really, actually happened.
Maybe you will, too.