Mayor John Tory likened Toronto’s time with Raptors star Kawhi Leonard to a summer romance — brief and intense — offering memories that will linger bittersweet for years to come.
“We gave him all the love we could possibly give,” said a disappointed Tory. But he praised Leonard for his off-court class in the face of a major career and life decision in leaving Toronto for the L.A. Clippers.
“Everybody should be thankful and optimistic. He has given us a taste of victory,” Tory said. “We can win again.”
The mayor’s faith in Toronto teams was echoed by Raptors fans whose thwarted hopes that Leonard might elect to stay weren’t enough to extinguish the fresh hope and determination the Raptors’ NBA win had ignited.
Anthony Kerr admitted to a bit of angry hurt at seeing the news on his way home from a bar about 2:30 a.m. on Saturday morning. But it was a fair deal, he said. Toronto got an NBA championship and Leonard got to go home to LA.
“Now we have the mentality of champions. That’s what has to stick with us fans and players as well. We have championship blood. We want to taste it again,” said Kerr, walking through the Scotiabank Arena on Saturday.
He called the Raptors “hobbled but not down.”
To bring home a second trophy, they will have to “dig deep and take that next step ’cause they’ve been there,” he said. “If you’ve been there you know what it takes.”
An early riser by habit, Mississauga’s Diane Miller was disheartened to read the news on Facebook at 5:30 a.m. Saturday. She said she would have loved Leonard to stay in Toronto but she understood he wanted to go home to L.A.
Miller didn’t hesitate when asked if the Raptors can do it again next year. “Kawhi brought us the championship but the rest of the team did well too,” she said heading to the Blue Jays game at the Rogers Centre.
“They’ve got these young kids coming up, the (Fred) VanFleets of the world. It’s going to be a good year,” she said. “We don’t need one superstar, we’ve got many little superstars.”
Japnam Grewal, who studies medicine in Vancouver, said it will take time to rebuild the Raptors after this year but another NBA win will come. Outside Scotiabank Arena, he and friend PJ Vasden of Scarborough agreed that, as much as fans would like him to stay, Leonard doesn’t owe Toronto anything.
“What he did for the city is something we’ll celebrate for a long time to come,” Grewal said. “It was short and sweet and obviously we’d love for him to stay but he got the job done and just by doing that he earned the right to go wherever he wants without getting flak from anyone.”
Grewal, who grew up playing basketball, said Leonard has inspired kids and the Raptors win will fuel a new wave of players. The impact Leonard — and the entire winning team — had on basketball in one year will be seen 10 or 15 years down the road, he said.
“Just winning the championship — for a Canadian team to do in the NBA is such a big hurdle. The next big hurdle is to keep players. That’s always been an issue for Toronto,” Grewal said.
“The fact that we won the championship also goes to show the rest of the world how dedicated Toronto and Canadians are as a fan base. They have a whole country behind them. Having a squad of 36 million people supporting you is definitely something to be admired,” Vasden said.
“Toronto’s been hungry for a championship for 24 years now and he provided that to us,” he said.
Mike Sullivan said he was disappointed but not surprised by Leonard’s decision.
“Canada’s a tough spot for some of these athletes. They’ll follow the money, the sponsorships,” he said. He and his wife, Ayano Sullivan, were downtown from Markham shopping for a championship shirt to take her parents in Japan.
Leonard and the team played well, he said.
“But some of the bench players made a big difference and you can’t forget those guys are sticking around,” he added.
Pascal Michelberger of London, Ont., said it will be difficult for the Raptors to repeat their success next year — “Both teams in L.A. Other teams seem to be on the rise right now,” he said.
“But you never know. We’ve still got some good players,” said Christina Francia, an office worker from Brampton, who sat Kawhi-watch with Michelberger, waiting breathlessly with the rest of the city to see whether Leonard would stay or go.
Patrick Cruz of Pickering said he was reluctant to speculate on the team’s future, worrying he might jinx the Raptors’ chances. He said he knows people who are upset about Leonard’s decision to leave Toronto.
“I don’t blame them. I’m sure they felt some kind of connection,” Cruz said. But he credited Leonard, like Raptors’ ambassador Drake, with helping put Toronto on the map.
“If we love something so much we have to let it go,” he said.
Tess Kalinowski is a Toronto-based reporter covering real estate. Follow her on Twitter: @tesskalinowski
“If we love something so much we have to let it go,” says fan Patrick Cruz of Kawhi Leonard’s leaving.
© Rene Johnston