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Love to Hate: A Spurs Fan on the Booing of Kawhi Leonard

San Antonio’s former star returned as a Raptor and left with an L—along with an unrelenting chorus of boos and “traitor” chants. For the city that once adored him, it was catharsis.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

What we know to be The Facts are as follows:

(1) Kawhi Leonard played for seven seasons in San Antonio. (2) During his first season, in 2011-12, he was a tertiary piece—background fodder to a larger conversation about whether Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker could wring enough juice from their legs for one more run at a title. (3) During his second season, which ended when the Spurs lost to the Heat in the 2013 Finals—a playoff run that, by the way, was a total surprise—he had individual moments of brilliance, but it still wasn’t quite clear how overwhelming he could be and eventually would be. (4) During his third season, which was the year the Spurs beat the Heat in the 2014 Finals (and also was the year he won Finals MVP), he did enough to prove that it was worth it for the Spurs to try to position a soon-to-be Tim Duncan–less team around him, so that process officially began.

(5) During his fourth and fifth seasons, he began angling toward becoming gargantuan, a name that could no longer be omitted from any reasonable Best Players in the League discussion. (6) During his sixth season, he was all of a sudden the second-best basketball player on the planet, and it seemed all but assured that the Spurs were somehow—inexplicably, unbelievably, inconceivably—going to take their 20-year run of title-chasing and stretch it to 30.

(7) Then in his seventh season, a string of injuries and misunderstandings turned everything he and the Spurs were building to goop. (8) During the summer between his seventh and eighth seasons, he was traded (along with Danny Green) to the Toronto Raptors (for, among other pieces, DeMar DeRozan). (9) And then Thursday night, at his first game back in San Antonio since the trade, he stepped to the free throw line during the second quarter, and thousands and thousands and thousands of people chanted, “Trai-tor! Trai-tor! Trai-tor!” at him.

Those are The Facts.

I’m certain there are other facts, but those are The Facts.

A common question that was asked leading up to the game: Is it OK for Spurs fans to boo Kawhi?

Each side of the argument had a solid, understandable, logical case.

If you wanted to boo Kawhi, the thought was: “He turned his back on the team that grew him into a superstar. He used a real injury and then stretched it out into an excuse to force his way into a trade. Do you really think that the Spurs, the most player-friendly team in the league, would’ve risked ruining the guy they were building their entire franchise around? Don’t you remember when it looked like the Spurs were sprinting toward a second title in 2000 and then Timmy got injured and Popovich shut him down until the following season? Why would the Kawhi injury situation be any different? Kawhi was unresponsive to any and all communication, and, after a period of time, appeared interested only in exploding open a hole in the belly of the Spurs’ team plane mid-flight. Of course we should boo him.”

If you wanted to not boo Kawhi, the thought was: “Why would I boo the guy who chose to not play some games because his body was telling him it would be a bad move to play? Did you not watch Isaiah Thomas’s career take a nosedive into a volcano after he tried to play through a big injury? Why would I boo the guy who, rather than just sitting out for another season and collecting his money, pushed for a trade that allowed for the Spurs to acquire an All-NBA player? Why would I boo the guy who won us the 2014 title? WHY WOULD I IN A MILLION YEARS BOO THE GUY WHO WON US THE 2014 TITLE? Do you even understand how rare titles are? He got us one—arguably the all-caps BEST one we ever got—and you want me to boo him? Of course we should not boo him.”

The third-best part of Thursday night’s Toronto–San Antonio game was that the Spurs won, and won going away. (This, I imagine, was not the third-best part of the game for Raptors fans.) The Spurs were up by more than 20 in the first quarter, and it only briefly ever even got as close as 15 at any point during any quarter after that. (The final score: 125-107, Spurs.) A close game might’ve been more exciting, sure, and were any other team than the Spurs playing, I’d have welcomed it. But I have grown old, and my heart is weak from the constant pressure applied to it by countless tortillas. Close games involving the Spurs are no good for me. Give me only blowouts forever.

The second-best part of the game was getting to be, for the night, anyway, the team that, with our entire chests, was able to boo a player. Mind you, we’ve certainly had players to boo before—any Kobe trip to San Antonio would turn the entire Spurs fan base bloodthirsty for a full evening, for example—but this was different. Never have we had a former star to boo, like what the Cavaliers had when LeBron left for the Heat or what the Thunder had when Kevin Durant left for the Warriors (my all-time favorite Former Superstar Returning to the Scene of the Crime game). It’s a different thing than booing a pure enemy. It’s more nuanced, and more complicated, and more compelling. (Semirelated: I’d like to mention how proud I am of how loud and consistent and unrelenting the crowd was. There was a point in the fourth quarter when there were just four minutes left and the Spurs were up by 25 and people were still booing Kawhi. And they took the opportunity to stretch out beyond simple booing, too. There were the aforementioned “Trai-tor!” chants when he went to the free throw line. And there were a few times when “M-V-P” chants broke out for DeMar while he was shooting free throws, and that is wonderful. And there was even a part when Lonnie Walker IV, who Spurs fans have been falling in love with for six months straight now, got his first minutes in an actual NBA game and the crowd, so hopped up on adrenaline, began chanting his name too. I’m very Petty Proud of Petty San Antonio.)

The best part of the game was what happened after it was over. It was a thing that involved, either very surprisingly or not surprisingly at all, Gregg Popovich. After the fourth quarter ended, Kawhi walked over toward the Spurs bench, and Popovich met him at the scorer’s table. The two hadn’t talked beforehand, and nobody from the Spurs staff seemed to have any kind of exchange with Kawhi before or during the game. (Danny Green, however, did walk over and shake hands and whatnot.) So there had been no contact between Pop and Kawhi, and then, just like that, there they were, face to face in front of more than 18,000 people and also on television, and the two had what appeared to be a warm hug and then shared a quick smile and then walked together for a few seconds. Here’s the entire exchange:

It made me feel good and happy and relieved.

The whole entire night—the whole entire Kawhi situation, for that matter—felt like if you had been in a relationship and it ended but you never really got to say to the other person how you felt about it. There are still feelings there; some residual love and appreciation remains in your heart, but it’s just that the pieces surrounding it are a little jagged and unkempt. That explains the boos. But they mostly didn’t feel mean, or malicious, or vicious. They mostly felt cathartic. They mostly felt like everyone understood everything that had happened between all the parties involved, and so now we were just walking around picking up the chairs and stuff that had been knocked over during the fight.

Kawhi came to San Antonio with another team and he played and we booed him and then he and Popovich hugged and it was like, “OK. I get it. Thanks, Kawhi. Thank you for the years you gave us and the title you gave us and the H-E-B commercials you gave us.”

Probably 20 or 30 minutes after the game was over, I got a text from an acquaintance who lives not that far away and had also been watching the game. He asked whether I thought Spurs fans were always going to boo Kawhi or whether this was a onetime thing. And the truth is, I don’t know the answer. It’s hard to say. What’s easy to say, though, is that I know we’ll never hate him. In all likelihood, we’ll likely eventually love him again.