Between touring it around Toronto during their NBA Championship parade last June, and shining it up for Tuesday’s opening-night ring ceremony, the Raptors have shown the Larry O’Brien Trophy a good time all over the world.
From Cameroon to the Congo, Nigeria to Philadelphia, Rockford, Ill., to the beaches of Hawaii, the reigning NBA champs have been sharing their hard-earned golden prize with the people and places that helped shape them.
After a team wins the NBA championship, the club gets its own unique Larry O’Brien Trophy to keep, complete with a case and a key.
Decked in a black championship hat and sweatshirt, Kyle Lowry took the trophy to the North Philadelphia neighbourhood where his mother raised him. The Raptors all-star point guard put the trophy in the hands of kids at two different recreation centres, where he had launched basketballs as an undersized but feisty kid, and began to make a name for himself, eventually drawing crowds to watch him play.
He welcomed the kids to take photos. They stood up close to the famous two-foot trophy of a basketball on the rim of a net, made of sterling silver with 24-karat gold overlay. He gave the youngsters backpacks and school supplies.
“That’s home. I go back there in summers anyway, even without the trophy. It’s special to me,” Lowry said at practice in Toronto this week, reminiscing about the Philly visit. “It was cool and it meant the world to me, because where you come from and what you see growing up means a lot to who you are. You’ve got to show the kids there that anything is possible. It was cool that my mom got to enjoy it and hold it, too. Everyone in my family did. When you get to touch that trophy, it’s like your whole world changes.”
When asked to reflect back on his day with the trophy, Fred VanVleet spoke first of the piercing, excited reaction of some 3,000 people when he walked it into the UW Health Sports Factory in his hometown of Rockford, Ill. It was the annual FVV Fan Fest – an amped-up, sports-themed fun-fair event he began throwing for the city a few years ago – followed the next day by his youth basketball camp.
A police officer flanked VanVleet as he waded into the boisterous crowd with the hardware.
“It was a really cool moment. There was a lot of kids in there, so it was total mayhem,” VanVleet said. “We had police and security so people wouldn’t be trampled. But it was definitely like almost causing a little riot. People were so excited, trying to come up and touch the trophy, take photos, get a hold of it.”
Serge Ibaka drew a crowd in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo, when he brought it home. His Instagram shows him sharing it with a large group of kids. It also shows him sharing a moment for himself. The NBA star, who now has his own cooking show, sat by himself eating a meal with the trophy at his side, in the same restaurant where he used to beg for leftovers as a boy as the third youngest in a family of 18 kids whose mother died and whose father had been imprisoned.
His trophy trip also included a visit with Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso. Ibaka said he also took it to a club where we started to play basketball, and to visit his grandmother and his uncle.
“It was about me showing my people anything is possible if you believe and you go get it. In life sometimes we think it cannot happen right,” Ibaka said after a workout at Raptors training camp in Quebec City. “I wanted them to be inspired by that. And, the restaurant, that part was for me – to remind myself where I come from.”
While it was in Africa, Raptors president Masai Ujiri made sure it visited stops in his series of Giants of Africa summer youth basketball camps across the continent, and to see friends and family in his hometown of Zaria, Nigeria. Raptors star Pascal Siakam was on hand at the Giants camp in Cameroon to share it with the kids from his home country.
Raptors coach Nick Nurse took the trophy to America’s Midwest. His time included a Chicago Cubs game at Wrigley Field, where he sang Take Me Out To the Ballgame while wearing Harry Caray glasses and a Cubs jersey, in honour of his favourite boyhood baseball team. He and his coaching staff shared an evening with Cubs manager Joe Maddon and the trophy.
But Nurse, who hails from nearby Carroll, Iowa, also took it to his home state. There was a celebration in Jefferson, Iowa, at the Wild Rose Casino, thrown by the casino owner who was also an owner of the Iowa Energy, the NBA D-League team Nurse once led. Iowa’s governor declared it Nick Nurse Day.
The place was packed with his friends, family and school classmates, many of whom gave speeches. Nurse spoke, too, and finally connected with those from back home who had been texting him throughout the Raptors’ playoff run. They brought the party to life with one of Nurse’s favourite local musical acts, a 1980s cover band called the Spazmatics.
“Then they had the trophy set up and I went out to take pictures with everybody, and that proceeded to take like three hours – it flew by. So by the time I finally came to sit down to watch the band, I heard them say, ‘Okay, for our last two songs…’, and I was like, ‘NOOOOOOO, I missed most of it!’,” Nurse said with a laugh after a practice in Quebec City. “But I got a great picture with the guys from the band and I rode in an elevator with a few of them later on. It was [an] awesome day. I don’t think the Larry’ O’Brien Trophy has travelled through middle Iowa very often.”
A Raptors staff member flew the trophy to meet general manager Bobby Webster in Hawaii for part of his 10-day vacation back home. Webster popped by his high school in Honolulu with it on the first day of their new school year. He brought it to Kailua District Park, where several old friends and teammates came back to the place where they played hoops growing up. The trophy went to Webster’s family dinners and to the beach.
Many of the people who celebrated with him there – including his high-school coach – had made the journey from Hawaii to Oakland to support Webster and his Raptors when they were taking on the Warriors in the NBA Finals.
“I didn’t announce the trophy to anyone. I didn’t want all those big expectations, and initially I kind of wondered, ‘Will anyone really care to see it?’,” Webster said. “But then as soon as you take it out of the case, it’s shiny and gold, and it’s like a magnet drawing people in.”
Norman Powell took the trophy to his high school in San Diego. He said it provided moments of reflection on how he has grown and matured. The principal spoke – telling stories of when she had been Powell’s math teacher and how hard-headed he had been as a freshman. Powell also spoke to the school’s football team. It made him think back to when he had quit football because the quarterback wasn’t passing to him enough.
“Back then, I was the kind of kid who didn’t want to be a blocker; I just wanted the ball. I was not about to go spend my time on a sport where I wasn’t getting the ball,” Powell recalled at Raps training camp. “Taking the trophy home to Lincoln High was amazing, since that’s where basketball really took off for me in my junior and senior year. The appreciation and love I got was crazy. I remember when I was there in my old gym talking to a guy, and he was like, ‘You could be in the NBA and be part of it’, and I was like, ‘Nah man, I want to win a championship in the NBA’. So to have that come circle there was great.”
Although he no longer plays for the Raps, Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard also spent some time with the trophy in his hometown of San Diego.
Raptors players, coaches and staff members were all invited to book time with the hardware.
Many of the players who didn’t see much time on-court during the playoffs took advantage of the opportunity. Malcolm Miller took it back to his high school in Montgomery County, Md.; Jodie Meeks to Norcross, Ga.; Chris Boucher to Montreal.
OG Anunoby – who underwent an emergency appendectomy on the eve of the playoffs and missed the entire postseason – took the trophy to Nashville. Anunoby, who was born in London to Nigerian parents and raised in Jefferson City, Mo., has no particular ties to the Tennessee capital. He said he just happened to be working out in Nashville when the trophy was available and wanted to spend some time with it.
“I just had it with me. It stayed in my room. I don’t do much, I’m very laid back,” said Anunoby, adding that he did take a few photos. “I didn’t really take it out anywhere. I didn’t want to mess it up. It’s in excellent condition. I didn’t want to be the one to tarnish it.”
On Tuesday, the trophy comes to Scotiabank Arena as the Raptors tip off their title defence on opening night against the New Orleans Pelicans. Eventually, the shiny prize will find a permanent home with the team, somewhere in Toronto. The Raptors will by then be trying to earn another to put beside it.