A couple of hours after signing in his hometown over the summer, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment had John Tavares sitting behind a microphone.
The newest Toronto Maple Leaf didn’t say anything remarkable, but this is how things are done.
You make millions of dollars to play pro sports? You’re expected to come into the office and introduce yourself to everyone ahead of your first day.
Tavares’s unveiling was obviously a happy occasion, but even the most unwilling new arrivals show up and try to be polite. This is the first duty of a superstar – repping the brand.
Which brings us to the curious case of the Toronto Raptors and Kawhi Leonard.
The Raptors acquired Leonard via trade in mid-July. It was a big deal.
They also had a major news conference, minus the human-shaped reason for holding the news conference. Leonard was entirely absent from proceedings. Weeks passed without any comment from the player.
Eventually, Leonard’s camp printed a letter in a San Antonio newspaper thanking fans of his former team. It didn’t say a mumbling word about Toronto.
More weeks ticked over. It’s now been two-plus months without any acknowledgment from Leonard about his change of address.
In between, he’s become the NBA’s sasquatch – lots of people claim to have seen him, a few photos taken in the wild have been produced, but definitive proof of his existence as a Toronto Raptor has yet to be provided.
A meet-and-greet presser is the usual way of things, but the job might have been accomplished with one boilerplate sentence sent to a friendly reporter, or an Instagram post, or being seen grocery shopping in a Celine Dion T-shirt.
It doesn’t take much effort to do the easy thing here. Leonard has chosen to do nothing at all, which is bizarrely difficult.
Instead, Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri is left holding Leonard’s proxy, like some personal assistant to a film star who may or may not show up to the set that day.
“He will be here shortly,” Ujiri said this week. “You will be hearing from him shortly.”
No, shortly would have been mid-July. We will be hearing from him lately – disconcertingly lately.
The franchise’s cover for this breach of protocol is Leonard’s notorious aversion to strangers, and especially the media. He doesn’t do self-revealing sit-downs or broadcast his random thoughts on social media – which suggests to me he is the sanest person in the NBA.
But there is also an unsettling element of carelessness to his approach here.
Leonard was the one who demanded out of San Antonio. He got what he wanted, proving Mick Jagger right.
A lot of people – Ujiri prime among them – have staked their reputations on this trade. Leonard was flipped for a player, DeMar DeRozan, who was loved by the city, and loved it back. That adds a family element absent from most roster swaps. Nobody likes to see a favourite son get the bum’s rush, even if it had to be done.
But if this move blows up on Raptors management, the team is the next thing to be detonated. Jobs will be lost, players moved, fans deeply chagrined, a long era of relative success will fizzle out and pop. Quite a few willing Canadians – temporary and otherwise – have something to lose here.
By contrast, Leonard has very little skin in the game.
At worst, this is seven months of his life, doing the thing he apparently loves for more money than makes sense. He doesn’t even need to unpack. After that, he is free to go, do and/or hide wherever he wants.
That Leonard will not do his new employers the favour of tapping out a single text suggests he’s not too bothered by that discrepancy of risk.
This doesn’t necessarily speak ill of him, but it sure doesn’t speak well.
At this point, this is all still an interesting subplot. If Leonard does show up, mutter something about being happy to be here, prove fully healthy and play full out, no one will remember how weirdly it started off.
But the deadline to say something, anything, is upon us. On Monday, the Raptors will hold their media day.
Generally speaking, media day is a light affair – a lot of “best shape of my life” talk mixed with the giddiness of seeing your friends again on the first day of school.
The last time the Raptors rolled out a big, new acquisition at one of these things – DeMarre Carroll in 2015 – he declared himself “an average Joe” and everyone fell in love with him.
(Unfortunately for the Raptors, Carroll was being literal.)
Leonard is supposed to be there. That’s what everyone connected to the Raptors, including Ujiri, has said.
He better be. Because Monday is a big, red line that, once crossed over, takes this thing from ‘mildly unsettling’ to Defcon 1.
Assuming he will be there, a great deal will now be made of his presentation. Does he seem happy? Committed? How are his teammates with him? Is Kyle Lowry throwing him romantic glances from across the room, or “one, dark night after everyone’s left the parking lot” sort of looks?
San Antonio is a minuscule media market. Toronto is one of the biggest – just sub-New York, on a par with Boston. It’s not going to be an easy place for an extreme introvert who’s done himself no favours in the “provoking curiosity” department.
Leonard’s long silence has provided tons of material for conspiracy theorists – is his brain already house-hunting in Los Angeles? Will he be “injured” again, as he was for almost all of last year? Is he so bloody minded that he would be willing to lollygag through an entire season because he didn’t get what he wanted?
These may not be fair questions, but they would not be asked if Leonard had done the smart thing up front and made everyone happy (even if it meant being disingenuous). If there is a problem, Leonard is the one who created it, and for no reason.
Players like to say that basketball/hockey/what-have-you is a business. Too right. Talking is part of it. So is pretending to care.
You certainly don’t have to do those things. But if you choose not to, then don’t complain if a situation you had hoped to avoid turns much worse.