Toronto Mayor John Tory gave Kawhi Leonard a key to the city nearly a month ago in exchange for lifting the Raptors to their first NBA title. Since then, the city has lost its collective mind over a basketball player, albeit one who secured its lone sports championship in more than a quarter century.
At the heart of the frenzy is not just a celebration of the stunning victory, but the hope that Mr. Leonard, now a free agent, will decide to stay in Toronto and deliver a dynasty to a city hard up for championships.
Mr. Leonard, who is also being courted by the Los Angeles Lakers and the L.A. Clippers, cannot sign a contract until July 6 at the earliest. Though every other bold-face free agent has indicated which team they intend to play for, Mr. Leonard has yet to make his feelings known.
That has not, however, stopped fans and journalists from speculating on his every move over the past four weeks.
Reported sightings at a hardware store toting cardboard boxes...
At a Blue Jays game for four innings with his partner...
Dining at a Bay Street haunt called The Cactus Club...
A trip to Niagara Falls...
Rumours he had bought a house. Mr. Tory issued a plea for the public to leave him alone.
The madness peaked on Wednesday as unknown passengers disembarked from the private plane of Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Raptors, and got into black SUVs. A local TV station carried live images from its helicopter of the SUVs purportedly taking Mr. Leonard to a meeting with the Raptors in a downtown hotel.
Clearly, no one is listening to the mayor’s plea.
In two short months over their roller-coaster NBA playoff run, the Raptors made Toronto forget its 26-year major-championship drought. (The Blue Jays won the World Series in 1992 and 1993 and the Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967.)
The cheering became a roar when Toronto won the NBA Finals in Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors on June 13. The city combusted. People jammed the streets of downtown, climbed lamp posts, set off fireworks, and wept, in the manner that only winning a sports title can catalyze.
The Raptors energized Toronto, a city that believes it is cool. A city not usually given to swooning over celebrities. Torontonians are generally laid back and respectful. Not only because they’re Canadian, but because they are Canadians in Toronto. It has a film festival. Torontonians barely bat an eyelash at celebrities let alone find self-worth in them. All characteristics that have tended to come naturally to the citizens, probably seared into our psyche by decades of coming up short.
Blame the Raptors victory parade, which drew more than a million people and was the thing that changed Toronto the Cool into Toronto the Insane City Which Has Broken Its Promise to Kawhi Leonard.
Breaking Now: MLSE plane has landed at Pearson Airport flashed a news alert on CP24, the Toronto news station, as a helicopter pursued two black SUVs “believed” to have been carrying the coveted basketball star, to the downtown meeting with Raptors executives. Raptors president Masai Ujiri was spotted earlier in the day.
And then there is the Leonard rumour mill. Round-the-clock coverage of every plausible and implausible outcome to the drama, fuelled equally by legitimate news sources and internet trolls. It is difficult to keep up.
The MLSE jet had come from Los Angeles, leading many to believe Leonard was headed to his final meeting of free agency with his representatives.
But don’t read too much into the fact he met with the Lakers and Clippers first. It is a courtesy in the NBA to meet with the incumbent team last.
The lengthy live broadcast of the SUVs’ journey sparked a frenzy of about a hundred fans to gather at the Hazelton Hotel. Reporters, photographers and news cameras lined the sidewalks outside the hotel. What they were awaiting for, and when it might actually happen, no one was certain.
"It's 30 degrees, and we're out here to tell him to sign and please stay in Toronto," said Chiyuka Saviye, a fan who was in the crowd.
Many were hoping not to only to get a glimpse of the three-time all-star they’ve come to know as King of the North, but to talk to him, the man who doesn’t talk.
“It’s kind of a great sports story for the city,” Lynneth Demicais said. “Kawhi is the biggest catch of them all. And Toronto being the winner, we’re looking forward to seeing his decision. Can we defend our title?”
Mr. Leonard’s decision will alter the franchise that lands him, but will it alter the soul of a city that loses him?
He could go choose to be part of a Lakers powerhouse with LeBron James and Anthony Davis, or the marquee man for the Clippers. With him, the Raptors could be a league favourite, well positioned to repeat.
Without him, how the Raptors might move forward in a basketball sense is anyone’s guess. But how Toronto will move forward may be the more pressing question.
With reporting from Maria Iqbal