Culture

Dear Toronto, the city won’t collapse if Kawhi Leonard leaves

What the biggest play in Raptors history says about an anxious city in a state of flux.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images
May 14, 2019

History has a way of repeating itself, more or less. In 2001 the Toronto Raptors met the Philadelphia 76ers in the Semi-Finals lead by Vince Carter, the most exciting player the team had ever seen. A close series came down to the last few seconds of a tight Game 7, only to see Air Canada—as Carter was then known— miss a long 2. Eighteen years later, the newly anointed most talented player in franchise history, Kawhi Leonard’s same shot, in the same scenario, saw a few lucky bounces before sinking through the net, leading the Raptors to their second ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals. The crowd inside and outside the Scotiabank Arena exploded, and the city let out a collective sigh of relief.

Since Vince’s missed buzzer beater, the Raptors have become a franchise of anxiety, and oftentimes, inadequacy. In the next few years, Carter became increasingly disenfranchised and listless, forcing a one-sided trade from the Raptors. The next talent up, Chris Bosh, would leave to join Lebron James in Miami after little playoff success during his tenure. The “We The North” era Raptors, found surprising success after trading Rudy Gay in what supposed to be the first of many rebuilding moves. Yet, still, they became more broadly known for several playoff humiliations at the hands of Lebron James, which lead to the city being renamed “LeBronto” after his domination.

After trading franchise stalwart and all-star Demar Derozan for former FMVP Kawhi Leonard, a new insecurity set in. Will he stay? Will the winters scare the California native back home? Will the strangeness of a foreign land be too much? Will the stench of past losses and playoff underachievement repulse him? How could he want us, a franchise and city existing as damaged goods, cursed and inferior, and doomed to perennial the NBA middle class, upper middle class at best? American pundits swear their sources know he’s as good as gone to the Clippers, so there was never any hope.

As a Raptors fan and Toronto resident, it can sometimes be difficult to tell where the feelings about one ends and the other begins. Toronto has become a little more sure of itself in recent years as cranes constantly raise new towers, our restaurant scene becomes more in step with food trends in New York and beyond, and Drake uses our likeness to become one of rap’s greatest success stories. And yet, for all these markers that point to us a truly cosmopolitan city, the unease still persists. We hungrily lap up forms of validation and bristling at perceived slights, while complaining to our friends about the price of rent, the TTC, and having to run into people we don’t want to see on Queen Street West.

Still, the successes of the Raptors feel like successes for Toronto. That the city is coming into its own as the team does, no longer needing to beg for American validation for its culture, but instead becoming a force worth reckoning with on its own.

This is why Kawhi’s shot mattered. If he does leave now, so what? We made it to the Eastern Conference Finals, not by squeaking out wins against underachievers like we did in 2016, but by taking on a star-studded 76ers and winning a hard-fought battle. Our next opponent, the Bucks, has been arguably the most consistent team in the entire playoffs thus far. Our regular season record against them was mixed. But a win, and a first ever finals berth, feels more conceivable than ever. If we lose, and Kawhi leaves, then so what? We did what could, which is more than most teams can say. We’ve made it as far as we needed to, and along the way exorcised our demons that much more.

Living in Toronto the city, is much more complicated than being a Raptors fan. As the city grows, the affordability crisis reaches truly unsustainable levels (though Raptors’ tickets for the playoffs are about as much as rent used to be 10 years ago.) Still, the successes of the Raptors feel like successes for Toronto. That the city is coming into its own as the team does, no longer needing to beg for American validation for its culture, but instead becoming a force worth reckoning with on its own.

Kawhi and his reticence towards the limelight have continued the trend of the Raptors flying under the radar in much of the American sports media. This is perhaps the most valuable take away a Raptors fan can have for their own civic identity. Kawhi doesn’t seek external validation, but let’s the results speak for themselves. Whether or he leaves or not no longer matters, because we’ve done all we can with what we have. That is enough.

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