Dr. James Naismith, Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe and Bobby Orr. When one thinks of Canadian sports heroes, those names are on the proverbial shortlist up in the Great White North.
Thanks to a 10-month magical run that has propelled the Toronto Raptors into their first-ever appearance in the NBA Finals, could Kawhi Leonard join them?
Acquired in a franchise-altering trade that sent longtime favorite DeMar DeRozan to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for himself and NBA Finals champion, in shooting guard Danny Green, the soft-spoken and seemingly emotionless Leonard is etching his name in Canadian hoops lore.
If his now-iconic emphatic dunk on Giannis Antetokounmpo in a 27-point, 17-rebound double-double masterpiece during the Raptors double-digit 100-94 win over the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks didn’t land him a place in Canadian sports legend, then defeating the seemingly invincible Steph Curry-led Golden State Warriors will all but guarantee it.
In the country that was the birthplace of the man who invented the game, and is better known for hockey, Tim Horton’s and producing an endless amount of Playboy playmates, Canada claims world-class sports icons such as British-born heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, Montreal-born UFC champion Georges St-Pierre, South African-born and Vancouver-raised two-time NBA Most Valuable Player Steve Nash, Halifax-born three-time Stanley Cup champion Sidney Crosby, Sarnia-born Masters PGA champion Mike Weir, New Westminster native in 2006 AL MVP and 2014 NL batting champion Justin Morneau and American import in two-time World Series champion, Joe Carter.
Born and raised in California, wouldn’t be the perfect irony for the 27-year-old Los Angeles, California native and 2014 NBA Finals MVP to win another ring against a team from his home state in the form of the Golden State Warriors, the same place where is most likely rumored to return to, with the collective breath of an entire country behind him?
Signed with the Raptors for only this season, with no guarantee or committing to the Raptors long-term, Leonard is in a very unique and completely advantageous position of deciding to stay north of the border and ensuring that the Raptors run the East for the next three to five years post-LeBron or chase the bag in competing for a playoff spot in the top-heavy West against the likes of the two-time defending champion Warriors, upstart Nuggets, Rockets, Thunder, Clippers and Trail Blazers.
From a financial point of view, Leonard would leave an estimated $30 million on the table if he bolted Toronto, in addition to the fact that if he played for his hometown Lakers, he’d have to deal with California’s 12.3% state income tax would eat further at would would be a modest max deal from either them or the Clippers.
So, if Leonard were to leave? Why? And most importantly, how could he leave IF he were to do the unthinkable and help the Raptors upset the Warriors? Playing in a uniquely cosmopolitan city such as Toronto is a true blessing, as it is both the largest and most populous city in all of Canada.
Coming from a Cleveland Cavaliers fan who was married to a Canadian woman, whose whole family is all die-hard Raptors fans, I can say this without hesitation and from direct first-hand experience.
Canada LOVES the Raptors!
While the Vancouver Grizzlies did enjoy some national support from Canadian hoops fans before sliding down to Memphis, Toronto has the White North’s heart, lock, stock and bottom, as they were the country’s first NBA franchise and over their 24-year existence put hoops on the global basketball map, thanks to the high-flying heroics of Vince Carter.
While playing in large media markets such as Los Angeles and New York may seem like a big draw from some players, playing north of the border for a franchise that carries the weight of 36.7 million in the second largest country on Earth speaks volumes.
Canada loves their sports heroes, as the aforementioned Gretzky, Orr and Naismith and proverbial royalty and for those who think Canada can’t hoop—or isn’t a NBA hotbed, you may want to ask NBA champion Tristan Thompson, top overall picks such as Anthony Bennett, Andrew Wiggins and top-15 draft pick Jamal Murray.
Aside from Drake’s on-court antics, you wont find a more passionate and college-style atmosphere in all of the NBA than inside the Scotiabank Center and outside in Jurassic Park. I’ll admit that I may have been prematurely wrong in stating that the Spurs played the Raptors in letting Leonard go to them under the assumption that he’ll bolt in the summer over at our sister site, The Spectator, but if The Klaw brings a ring to The Six, T-Dot will never be the same, and I’ll happily admit my error.
And as a fan of the last team to beat the Warriors in the post-season, I’m okay with that.