A couple of years ago, Kawhi Leonard told a reporter that he drives a 19-year-old pick-up truck because “it’s paid off” and that, even as a child, he didn’t enjoy celebrating his own birthday.
That was a mistake on Leonard’s part because it turned him from the NBA’s quietest player into the league’s most mysterious player, ratcheting up the thing he appears to hate more than anything else – attention.
He had managed to avoid facing it directly for a good, long while. But on Monday he was forced to submit himself to scrutiny as he was finally unveiled as a Toronto Raptor.
Leonard came out with team president Masai Ujiri and the club’s other new addition, Danny Green.
While Ujiri gushed about being “super excited” for the new season, Leonard leaned his head against his hand like he might expire from boredom.
The first words out of his mouth – “I’m a fun guy” – were said in such a dreary monotone that there were a few titters in the audience. Then people realized he was serious.
Leonard’s affect was so wooden, verging on pained, that Green jumped in to say, apropos of nothing: “He’s having a good time up here.”
Leonard stared at Green like he’d only just realized he was speaking English.
A poor reporter flew from San Antonio to Toronto so he could hear Leonard say of the departure he forced, “I have no regrets.” Like it was something done to him, rather than the other way around.
The only time Leonard perked up was when he was asked if he intended to stay in Toronto past the one year he owes the team contractually.
“I look at it as a day-to-day process,” Leonard said. “If you look at the future, you’re going to trip over the present.” So, no.
It was good to get that out of the way up front.
Of course, it’s possible Ujiri could work his interpersonal magic; or Leonard, a Los Angeles native, could fall in love with snow-shovelling, but right now you’d put the odds of this adventure continuing beyond a single season at one-in-five.
Is the team finally championship calibre? No idea. But after a long run of regular seasons designed to bore its audience to tears, all this flux will at least make the prelims interesting.
Leonard adds star power. Green adds charisma. New head coach Nick Nurse adds platitudes (“I love teams that play really hard”). And perpetually vexed point guard Kyle Lowry adds dramatic tension. Like, an opera’s worth.
There was one key takeaway from media day (aside from the fact that Leonard appeared at all) – that the two best Raptors are in Toronto on sufferance.
Leonard said the right things – “I want to play here” – while putting the absolute minimum of conviction into his voice as he said them. Lowry couldn’t even manage that much.
He came out alone, making a great show of zipping up a personally branded hoodie over his jersey as he sat down.
What’s his reaction to the big trade?
“I’m here to do my job,” Lowry said.
Oh. He said he hadn’t talked to Leonard or his new coach, but he had spoken to his best pal DeMar DeRozan the night before.
“We talked about life,” Lowry said. He did everything short of hold up a placard reading “BE ALERT FOR SUBTEXT.”
He continued on in this sullen manner for a few more minutes, returning again and again to hammer the point that, hey, he’s just a guy hired to do a job (for US$31-million this season). Asked to affirm his faith in the club, he sidestepped.
“You know how it is,” Lowry said.
We sure do, and so I am also super excited about the season to come. The locker room gongshow potential here is high, and trending higher every time Lowry says things such as, “I don’t know anything about what Nurse wants to do.”
Not coach Nurse, or coach, or Nick. Just “Nurse.” Fun times.
Few people enjoy feeling piqued more than Lowry, so it’s often hard to tell if he’s actually angry or performing anger. He certainly wanted people to assume the former.
As to the why, your guess is as good as mine. Because they traded his friend? Because they didn’t ask him first? Because Leonard gets the parking spot beside the elevator? It could be anything.
You were getting the vibe Lowry gave off when he first got to Toronto and hated everyone. Those were his best years.
Over the past two or three seasons, he’s softened. Those first-day-back introductions to the familiar cast eventually become totally harmonious, heartfelt and, in the end, led to the same abysmal failure.
Maybe it’s time to try a little friction for a change.
Leonard isn’t invested enough to provide it. Someone who feels the need to say “I came here with an open mind” is telling you it’s already closed.
He’s going to play for something more compelling than money – the last word in an argument he started in San Antonio. Toronto is a bystander in that fight. Leonard won’t ever have to check out, because it’s doubtful he’ll ever check in.
That’s okay. All he needs do is be healthy and try and he’s automatically the best Raptor in history.
However, you could easily see Lowry becoming a behind-the-scenes irritant, rallying what remains of the old guard against the new arrivals and the new way of doing things. Like few other great athletes, it’s in Lowry’s nature to seek conflict from within. He’s often better once he finds it.
On a snap impression from Day 1, you can see only two roads for this team and this year – an outrageous success or an unmitigated disaster.
Either way, the doomsday clock has begun ticking. The Raptors should count on just one year of the best player they’ve ever acquired. If he is motivated, this is already the best team in the club’s history.
With LeBron James having decamped for California, the Eastern Conference is a leaderless rabble. So why not Toronto?
This could be fun, though maybe not the sort of fun Leonard is talking about.