Kawhi Leonard strolled into the backstage area of Nathan Phillips Square holding the tiny hand of his young daughter, a toddler wearing a purple Raptors T-shirt and a red tutu skirt.
It was the final stop of the inaugural Toronto Raptors championship parade – one that drew a crowd of 100,000 to the downtown square in front of City Hall and more than one million joining in across the city. The square was thundering like a massive outdoor rock concert. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was waiting in the wings to meet the NBA Finals MVP. Mayor John Tory was about to award him a key to the city, saying “Every door in this city is open to you."
The team’s parade of cars and player-filled double-decker buses had run several hours behind schedule, slowed by the overwhelming crowds. So the lengthy wait, for fans inside the jam-packed square under the afternoon sun, was agonizing – much like the 24 years they waited for a championship. Fans who caught a glimpse of Leonard from outside the fence surrounding Toronto City Hall went berserk with cheers. One kid thrust a sign against the fence that read: “Kawhi, my teacher thinks I’m sick today.”
Leonard was to leave town the next day, so this was the last time he would meet any media. He stopped for just a few minutes with a very small handful of Toronto sportswriters. He wore a T-shirt with his catchphrase, “Board Man Gets Paid,” along with shorts, sunglasses and leopard-print New Balance shoes. The easygoing star insisted he is not yet thinking about whether he will remain a Toronto Raptor or sign with another team when the NBA free-agency period opens in July.
“Nah, I’m enjoying it. It’s not time to stress, it’s time to have some fun and I’m just enjoying my experience,” Leonard said, his daughter clinging to his legs. “When it’s that time to sit down, me and my group are gonna sit down with each other and lay it all out.”
When asked at what capacity he was playing in the playoffs, Leonard admitted he was not at 100 per cent, but said he couldn’t estimate a percentage. All the Raptors were dealing with nagging injuries of some kind, he said. He said he’d had a fantastic time celebrating with teammates these past few days. He spoke very fondly of his season in Toronto.
“I expected to win a championship, but I do that every year. It was just great to reach our expectations as a team,” he said. “Everything was good. It was a good experience, mother nature, all four seasons. It was a great experience, everyone off the court was great.”
His teammate and friend Serge Ibaka could not shed any light on whether Leonard will stay or go, but offered this insight:
“I be talking to him a lot, in the playoffs, after we won, I can see the man is happy,” Ibaka said. “We play this sport because we want to have fun and be happy and to be somewhere where people love you, and I’m sure he’s feeling that the people here love him.”
Kyle Lowry sped along, stopping just for a few seconds with reporters, wearing sunglasses and a white Damon Stoudamire jersey – the first player the Raptors drafted. He cradled the big, golden Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy like a baby.
“How does it feel to hold it after trying to win it for so long?” came one of just a few questions he took before scampering off to the stage:
“That’s why I’m holding it so long” Lowry.
Fans were pressed against the waist-high barrier fences erected to keep people several metres from the stage. Security and paramedics had to lift several people over them to be treated for exhaustion. Backstage, paramedics were treating a few dozen in a shaded area, seating them in lawn chairs, giving them water and checking their vitals. Several had to recover on stretchers.
Staff from TV and radio stations lined the upper concourse overlooking the square. Fans who anxiously awaited the players wore Raptors gear spanning the 24 seasons, from the purple dinosaur to the white pinstripes or the black and gold. The smell of pot filled the air, and it had the feel of a massive music festival.
A couple of enterprising guys in the massive crowd tried to sell cardboard cut-outs of Leonard’s head, with the superstar exclaiming in a cartoon bubble, “I’m staying.” A massive truck was selling T-shirts at $50 apiece. There were dance performances and the Snowbirds did a very loud flyover as fans let off sporadic fireworks.
The proceedings carried on despite an announcement that an emergency had taken place outside the square. Few details emerged in the moment, but gunshots had reportedly been fired outside the square, and people had run into the streets.
It was at that point that Raptors play-by-play announcer Matt Devlin took the microphone to remind fans to stay calm while promising more information just as soon as it became available. After quelling an immediate panic, he took the opportunity to remind those in attendance that they were there to celebrate. “This is about love, this is about rejoicing,” he said.
Several Raptors were called upon to share thoughts on the day. Head coach Nick Nurse thought big:
“I think it was Bono who said the world needs more Canada,” Nurse said. “Well, they just got it.”
Leonard brought down the house by simply showing he’d been in on the joke all year. He harked back to the first time he met with the Toronto media back in the fall and let out his unusual laugh – one that ignited a litany of memes on social media.
“Now we got a championship, so thank you, enjoy this,” he told the fans. “And have fun with it, aha, ha, ha.”
His teammates slapped their knees and broke out into hysterical laughter. There was never any doubt, he was a fun guy.