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Was He the North?

Toronto Raptors fans find themselves in the complicated position of treasuring the memories Kawhi Leonard created for them and the disappointment that he won’t be around to make any more

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The last time I wrote about the Toronto Raptors was 84 days ago, after the team had dropped the first game of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the underdog Orlando Magic. A missed defensive assignment by Kawhi Leonard in the final seconds led to a go-ahead 3-pointer by D.J. Augustin, sealing a loss that vibrated with an uneasy sense of déjà vu. We’d seen this movie before, and it was directed by David Lynch. “Loving this team,” I wrote, “means accepting that life is pain and also that time is a flat circle. … [Lynch’s films] are about repetition and recurrence, the realization that nothing ever really changes, no matter how much you want it to, or how much it seems like it will.”

A lot has happened since then, and, after a charmed seven-week run in which a series of giants fell (one quite literally) and the bounces went their way, the Raptors—the team I’ve followed since opening night in 1995, when Alvin Robertson torched the New Jersey Nets for 30 points at the SkyDome—are NBA champions. That’s a sentence too surreal even for David Lynch, but it did actually happen: There was a parade and everything. Masai Ujiri blew off Ontario’s thuggish Premier Doug Ford; Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did his best impression of Howard Finkel; Marc Gasol thought he was Freddie Mercury; Kawhi Leonard got the last laugh. It was all amazing, unfathomable, and seemingly too good to be true, the sort of sensation that, as a fan, you want to live inside forever, rehashing the best moments with friends and reading everything you can about what happened and why. It lasts a little, blissful while, and then, on a Saturday morning, you check your phone at 5:30 a.m. to the detonation of a Woj bomb that bursts your bubble. Life is pain. As The Ringer’s resident Raptor correspondent (and honorary Torontonian) Danny Chau put it: so much for the afterglow.

Danny’s choice of an Everclear song for the title of his article is probably coincidental, but I couldn’t help but think about how that band’s biggest hit—released in 1995, two years before So Much for the Afterglow and during the same winter that the Raptors made their debut—is an anthem about California dreaming on such a winter’s day. “I don’t want to be the bad guy,” sings the narrator of “Santa Monica.” “I just want to see some palm trees.” Lonely and dreaming of the West Coast, he wants to live beside the ocean. Kawhi can relate.

I visited Santa Monica recently with my wife and the question of whether Kawhi was going to decamp to Los Angeles became a running joke on our trip. It was all that friends and strangers—even the guy we met on the lookout on our Lynchian pilgrimage to Mulholland Drive—wanted to talk about; when we had dinner with a couple of pals from back home, we toasted the title but also the hope that we’d have a chance to defend it. One of the people at this dinner was a Canadian filmmaker who’d become a hardcore Raptors fan a couple of years ago and was heartbroken last July when the team traded DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs. At the time, she told me that she couldn’t imagine cheering for another player in his place, and I replied that I knew where she was coming from but that once she saw Kawhi in action she’d change her mind.

“You were right,” she texted me a few minutes after the end of the Finals. But as the #Kawhiwatch narrative began to overshadow the outcome the Raptors’ title run—and it became apparent that the best player in our history had had one New Balance sneaker out the door from day one—I found myself thinking about DeRozan, long a scapegoat for the franchise’s failures and then an actual sacrifice on the altar of the team’s championship aspirations. We couldn’t have done it with him, but we also couldn’t have done it without him.

DeRozan’s willingness to open up about his struggles with depression won him respect around the league. It also made him a uniquely ideal face of the franchise in Toronto, where the fan base’s attitudes about their team have long been framed by a sort of free-floating anxiety and fear, as well as a suspicion that the world—referees, replay officials, pundits, Christmas Day schedule makers, Paul Pierce, whoever—is against them. One of the reasons that the 2014 “We the North” campaign was so successful was how it internalized and inverted the persecution complex nursed by Raptor fans, turning it from a source of shame into a point of pride. By doubling down on the geographic isolation of the league’s only Canadian franchise, “We the North” took all the things about Toronto that had been derided as liabilities in NBA circles—especially ex-players who’d talked shit about the city during their tenure, or on their way out the door—and turned them into things to cheer about. If there’s one thing that outsiders crave, it’s a sense of inclusivity, and the collectivist battle cry of “We the North” worked perfectly to galvanize the denizens of North America’s most diverse city. That the Raptors proved their legitimacy by heading Southwest—the direction of manifest destiny—and beating a California-based dynasty was the icing on the (funnel) cake: revenge, after all, is a dish best served cold.

Kawhi Leonard was the engine of that vengeance and now he’s gone—as gone as DeRozan, except by choice rather than by circumstance. In the end, the only difference between Leonard and the other stars who were emblematic of the Raptors also-ran status—your Tracy McGradys, your Vince Carters, your Chris Boshes—is that he got the job done while he was here.

That’s no small thing, and the general sentiment around these parts (starting with the Raptors’ official Twitter account) is that it’s more than enough—that even if the Fun Guy was only ever really a mercenary (Board Man Gets Paid), it was worth the cost. But even if I think that the idea that the Raptors’ championship deserves an asterisk because of the injuries to Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson is bullshit (show me a team that won a title without being the beneficiary at some point of good health and/or their opponents’ bad luck), I do think that Kawhi’s decision to run away rather than running it back will activate some of that old-fashioned Torontonian insecurity.

We’ll hang a banner next October, and nobody will ever take it away, but what are the odds of ever getting another one if, after risking everything on acquiring a superstar—and giving him everything we could have, including the key to the city—he still wouldn’t stay? The league’s tectonic plates have shifted, east and west, and while the Raptors roster is still solid, with lots of financial wiggle room freed up for 2021, in the short term, they’re going to be a nonfactor. Another Everclear song title jumps to mind: “One Hit Wonder.

All season long, on RealGM message boards and in living rooms (including my own), Raptor fans tempered their great expectations (and their inbuilt pessimism) via a thought experiment. If we win a title with Kawhi and he leaves, would you be OK with it? So long as the question remained in the realm of the hypothetical, the answer, for an overwhelming majority of us, was “yes,” and I think those numbers probably hold up in hindsight as well. I don’t think that Kawhi is going to get booed à la Vince whenever the Clippers come to town (a pretty good Christmas Day 2019 prime-time matchup, hint hint). But I do wonder if, in five years, he’ll be cheered here the way that DeMar DeRozan—the Compton kid who never succumbed to his own California dreaming—still will.

Each player is, in his own way, an integral part and living emblem of the Raptors’ short, intense, and complicated history; both have done their part to change it. If Kawhi did more, his departure has, paradoxically, also served as a reminder that, in Toronto, nothing ever really changes—and also maybe that We the North like it that way.