TORONTO — Kawhi Leonard got his championship ring and a standing ovation Wednesday as Raptor fans showed him the love in his return to Toronto with the Los Angeles Clippers.
It was back to the future as the Scotiabank Arena crowd chanted MVP in his honour one more time. On the floor, Leonard exchanged pre-game greetings and hugs with Larry Tanenbaum and other MLSE board bosses, president Masai Ujiri, GM Bobby Webster and coach Nick Nurse before working his way around his former teammates.
Last up was point guard Kyle Lowry, who presented him with his egg-sized ring at centre court.
“Congratulations Kawhi. The North thanks you,” the PA announcer said.
Many of the fans who arrived early for the ring ceremony also left early as Leonard made the locals pay with 23 points, five rebounds and six assists in a 112-92 Clippers win. The former Raptor threw his body around with reckless abandon, diving on the floor in search of a loose ball in the second quarter and taking an inadvertent elbow to the face in the third without complaint.
Board Man got his ring pic.twitter.com/NzUZgLM886— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) December 12, 2019
Leonard came into the game averaging 25.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 18 games with the Clippers.
The six-foot-seven 225-pound Leonard was second in the line of Clippers snaking its way onto the floor for warmups and the crowd noise rose noticeably as he was shown on the scoreboard video screen.
Fans had been warned to arrive early for the ceremonies and arena was close to full during the anthems. The early arrivals included rapper/Raptors ambassador Drake, in his courtside perch.
“It’s always great to see guys get a ring, especially when they’re on your team now,” said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. “This is a different one, though. It’s a really cool one because he was the leader of the group, coming back to get it in front of a crowd. I’ve never experienced it like this.”
The crowd noise swelled during the pre-game tribute video with Leonard and the other Clippers looking up to watch on the big screen.
The 110-second video went dark for several seconds building up to footage of Leonard’s four-bounce series winner against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern semifinal. Down below, Leonard’s ‘footsteps’ lit up on the floor and a spotlight shone on the basket where he hit the famous shot.
For some not looking in the right direction, it was hard to tell whether the dramatic pause was intended or not.
A private superstar, Leonard became part of Toronto sports lore with that shot.
Leonard’s latest load management challenge may be getting the ring through Customs. Manufacturer Baron Championship Rings of Windsor, Ont., says it is the largest-ever NBA championship ring — complete with more than 640 diamonds.
Of course, he has experience with such. Asked in the morning what he had done with the championship ring he won with the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard offered one of his trademark no-nonsense, dry replies.
“I wore it a few times and then kept it in a safe place,” he said.
While he just played one season in Toronto, Leonard’s ties continue to run deep.
“I’m going to be connected with Kawhi for life because of what we achieved last year,” Nurse said prior to the game. “And all of us that were in that locker-room are.
“So we’ll give him his ring, we’ll shake his hand. Hopefully maybe even give him a big hug when we see him. And then when the ball goes up, the reality is we’ve got to get to playing and do everything we can to beat a great basketball team.”
While downtown billboards heralded his return, the 28-year-old Leonard faced a media throng at the morning shootaround.
Leonard’s five-minute scrum attracted 60-plus media members and a dozen cameras. An unfazed Leonard, who led the Raptors to their first-ever NBA title in his one season north of the border, said simply he was happy to be back.
Leonard said prior to the morning shootaround that he expected a mixed reaction from the fans, despite the country’s past love affair with the NBA star of few words.
“They’ll be some cheers but definitely, I think, more boos because they want to win the game,” he said, engulfed by media courtside at Scotiabank Arena. “They’re not going to be cheering for a player that’s on the opposing team. They’re still rooting for the Raptors.”
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment laid out the welcome mat with tributes on giant video screens at Scotiabank Arena and BMO Field.
“Fun guy in town,” read the caption at the outdoor screen at Scotiabank Arena next to a photo of Leonard celebrating the NBA championship win.
“Board man gets his ring,” read the caption on the BMO Field screen beside a picture of Leonard holding up the trophy.
The references were to T-shirts Leonard famously wore.
At the downtown intersection of Yonge and Dundas, New Balance — a Leonard sponsor — and Leonard thanked the fans of Toronto on a giant billboard.
Leonard said he got “flashbacks” from the Raptors’ victory parade as the Clippers came to the arena Wednesday morning.
“Obviously it was different playing here for a whole country. They’re all going for this one team,” he said. “The ride (with the Raptors) was fun. I had a great time last year with the coaching staff, the front office and the players. It was a great experience.”
Leonard signed as a free agent with the Clippers in early July, less than a month after leading the Raptors to their first NBA title. He said he took his time making his decision, saying he thought long and hard about staying in Toronto.
“I gave it big consideration … I talked to the front office in deep detail,” he said. “It was a hard choice to make.”
He returned to his native California after the Clippers swung a deal to get Paul George from Oklahoma City in exchange for Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari plus five first-round draft picks.
Leonard signed a three-year max deal with the Clippers that could be worth nearly US$110 million, although the third season is at his option.
Leonard had an uneven game Nov. 11 when the two teams met in Los Angeles. Struggling on 2-for-11 shooting in the face of double coverage, he finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds, nine assists and nine turnovers in a 98-88 Clippers win.
“I think it would be really hard to make him go 2-for-11 with nine turnovers again. It would be really cool if we could do,” Nurse said with a chuckle prior to Wednesday’s game.
THE CANADIAN PRESS