The Kawhi watch is finally over. The morning of July 6, 2019 brought the news that the “Klaw” is leaving Toronto for LA. The NBA championship run is for the history books. Kawhi Leonard will be remembered as possibly the greatest short-term athlete to capture an entire nation’s hearts. He brought us a championship. Toronto shouldn’t be sad because it’s over. Toronto should smile because it happened. Be grateful for it. It was a high-risk gamble for the Raptors, but it paid off handsomely. No regret whatsoever.
Put it into perspective, it was supposed to be a 1-year loan anyway to a city where the man had never had desire to plant his roots. There were plenty of red herrings along the way: visiting Niagara Falls, attending a Blue Jays Game and signing a sponsorship deal with a local cargo airline. Torontonians read too much into these trivial activities. The city became distracted by his every move as a sign pointing in favor of the Raptors. Perhaps, visiting the Falls and taking in a baseball game are standard tourist activities? Perhaps, he was at Home Depot shopping for moving boxes? What made Toronto think the Klaw would change his mind about Toronto?
He belongs somewhere else, to another culture.
What we can learn from KL’s brief stay with Toronto Raptors:
- Athletes are all contractors who pledge no allegiance to a geographic location. Do not get too attached. They don’t play for a nation; they play for a business. Contractors are all short-term employees (albeit with huge bargaining power) brought over to complete a project. Canada should have learned a long time ago from the Wayne Gretzky trade to LA: #99 was a beloved national treasure, but even he was not attached to Canada enough to lay down permanent roots in Edmonton. And he is Canadian, born and bred. The lesson: Everyone is in it for themselves: no attachment to any one geographic location.
- The NBA, NHL or any major sports organization represents capitalism at its finest. The athletes are superstars who generate the revenue and demand for their services. But they also want to be treated with respect (as KL’s San Antonio drama showed) or they will take their talents elsewhere. Also, the law of diminishing returns is real as in the case of KL: at $30 million+ a year, monetary gains no longer outweigh considerations of family and the desire to leave a legacy.
- Toronto, as diverse and welcoming as the city is, does not attract Americans. To them, Toronto is too kind, almost too plain-vanilla. If you are from Minnesota or Wisconsin, the winters in Canada are tolerable, but not when you are from SoCal as many of my American friends can attest. Toronto is like the boy or girl next door who is perfect in every way but is just missing the mysterious “desirability” factor. “Desirability” is a relative term. So don’t get too worked up if we don’t agree on the definition of “desirability”.
- Sometimes, as the Raptors did, we need to take calculated risks and take a few gambles. Raptors took a gamble on Kawhi and the result was a championship. Without taking risks, we would never leave our comfort zone. The Raptors were not satisfied with an early playoff exit every year. Taking gambles to achieve a professional goal means leaving behind your emotions or personal feelings for beloved colleagues and friends.
- Having a purpose and not being distracted by the hoopla in his surroundings. He knows what he stands for and when the opportunity comes knocking, he is ready for it. His purpose has always been to play at the highest level and for his hometown team. He was here on a 1- year loan, and no amount of Toronto money would entice him into changing his mind. The months-old campaign to keep him in Toronto was also futile because it cheapened him as a professional athlete and as a person: did Toronto seriously think a star of his caliber and value would be swayed by offers of free housing and food? Materialistic offers all come with strings attached; the food and housing can be taken away as easily as they are offered.
The love affair with Kawhi may be over. Toronto and Canada should thank him for bringing an NBA title to this country. He certainly will be remembered for his contribution to the basketball world in Canada. We will remember June 13, 2019, the day they won the championship. And June 17, 2019, the day of the Raptors parade. But basketball titles, like all of Toronto’s other enticements, are the tangibles. Thirty years from now, memories of June 13, 2019 may be but a footnote in the history of this sport. It may not matter who won the title in which year. Kawhi’s ultimate contribution to Canada is intangible. His professionalism, the stoicism and grace with which he led his teammates through the ups and downs in this remarkable 2018-2019 championship run will be imprinted in the hearts and minds of those who were lucky to witness this incredible season.