“Uncoachable.” “Unreachable.” “Unwilling.” Kyle Lowry has heard it all before. Those are the words that followed him throughout his basketball life, sometimes fairly, often not. They stuck with him from high school in North Philadelphia to the NBA and crept into his earliest years with the Toronto Raptors.
But a lot can happen in nine years. In the case of Lowry, he rewrote story altogether.
In 2012, when he was traded to Toronto – his third team in five seasons – Lowry was on the verge of becoming a career backup. This summer, the 35-year-old point guard was the most coveted free agent on the market.
After agreeing to a three-year, US$85-million deal with the Miami Heat this week, Lowry’s tenure with the Raptors officially came to a close. He departs from the franchise as an NBA champion, Olympic gold medalist and six-time all-star. In the wake of the news, Lowry’s been praised for his leadership abilities by coaches and teammates alike while fans bid him a hero’s farewell.
Nine years ago none of that seemed possible.
“I was a 26 year-old still trying to find his way,” Lowry reflected in a farewell note posted to his social-media channels on Wednesday night, “… trying to find trust in a cutthroat business.”
Lowry had been exposed to the ugliest sides of the game from an early age. He grew up in a North Philly row house with his mother, Marie Holloway, and older brother Lonnie. His father, Lonnie Sr., lived a few blocks away but was distant throughout Lowry’s upbringing. It’s one reason why Lowry, by his own admission, struggled to trust male figures of authority. “I just couldn’t understand it,” Lowry, who has two sons, said in 2016.
It was Lonnie Jr. who first introduced Lowry to basketball. Lowry was a quick study and soon became a fixture on Philly’s courts. As his star was rising, the fiery guard received interest from a number of NCAA programs before enrolling at Villanova in his hometown. The recruiting process had been particularly ugly. When Lowry rejected an offer from one major program, the recruiter spread false rumours that the point guard dealt drugs. Lowry never forgot and only grew more guarded.
Despite his obvious talent, it was difficult for some coaches to reach him. Lowry was eager to learn, yet could react poorly to instruction. As his first NBA coach, Mike Fratello, quickly realized, “You couldn’t just tell him [what to do]. You had to explain why.”
Drafted 24th by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2006, Lowry broke his wrist 10 games into his rookie season and watched from the sidelines as Fratello was fired. Lowry clashed with his replacement, Marc Iavaroni, who benched him for Mike Conley. In his third season he was dealt to Houston. He found an ally in then-Rockets coach Rick Adelman, but after Adelman left the team suddenly following a contract dispute, Lowry again clashed with the incumbent, this time Kevin McHale, who decided to start Goran Dragic ahead of him. (Ironically, Dragic is reportedly being moved to the Raptors from Miami as part of Lowry’s sign-and-trade deal).
When Lowry arrived in Toronto, the Raptors, a team that lived at the bottom of the standing, took a flyer on an inexpensive and relatively low-risk pickup. For Lowry, Toronto was a pit-stop en route to free agency. He made himself unapproachable, often pulling the hood of his sweater over his head while passing reporters.
Yet there was some reason for optimism – the Raptors roster featured Rudy Gay, the godfather to Lowry’s first son, Karter. But in 2013, after one season together, Gay was dealt. Two weeks later, Masai Ujiri (who would eagerly ink Lowry to a three-year US$100-million deal in 2017) attempted to trade Lowry to the New York Knicks, until New York reportedly backed out of the deal.
Lowry had every reason to throw in the towel, to play out his contract and leave for another team. Maybe the fourth time would be the charm. Instead, the near-trade sparked a turnaround for both the player and franchise.
After barely speaking during their first year as teammates, he formed a bond with Raptors career leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, who signed a three-year US$85-million deal with the Chicago Bulls this week.
A renewed focus helped patch over what was a rocky relationship with then-Raptors bench boss Dwane Casey. In his farewell message, Lowry thanked Casey “for telling me not to shoot pull up 3s LOL but also trusting me and accepting who I was as a man.” Lowry rewarded the coach with a career year in 2013-14, raising his scoring from 11.7 points a game in the previous campaign to 17.9, along with a career-best 7.4 assists a game – both benchmarks he surpassed in the years that followed. The Raptors reached the playoffs for the first time in six seasons, and, until this year, didn’t miss another trip to the postseason while he wore a Raptors jersey. Yet despite reaching the East finals in 2016, there were three consecutive playoff exits at the hands of LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers.
When the Raptors traded DeRozan for Kawhi Leonard in the 2018 off-season, Toronto, it seemed, officially became “Kyle’s team.” That same summer, the team replaced Dwane Casey with Nick Nurse. With a rookie head coach, a young supporting cast and a quiet superstar in Leonard, Lowry’s voice and stature grew. The championship season that followed finally put the negative labels to bed as Lowry’s performance – scoring the Raptors’ first 11 points to set the tone in the title-clinching Game 6 against the Golden State Warriors – cemented him as a Toronto legend and likely punched his ticket to the Hall of Fame.
As he prepares for his next chapter, in South Beach, Lowry leaves the Raptors as its franchise leader in assists, steals, three-pointers and triple-doubles. But his Toronto legacy isn’t in the numbers. It’s his status as a fan favourite like no other Raptor before him. It’s in his role in expanding basketball across the country. It’s in the family he raised in this city. It’s in the example he’s set for the Raptors current core of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam – a standard-bearer for what it means to be a “pro” – and in the bonds he’d notoriously struggled to cultivate throughout his life.
A lot can happen in nine years.
“I’ve legit gave [sic] blood, sweat and tears and everything I’ve could! Thank you Toronto. Thank you Canada,” he wrote on Wednesday night. “The ups and downs,” he added, “have been well worth it.”
Dave Zarum is the author of NBA 75: The Definitive History and former NBA editor at Sportsnet.