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Here’s what Toronto can do to welcome Kawhi Leonard

The Raptors’ future is brighter with Kawhi Leonard, even if only for one year. As a fan, here’s how you can help encourage Kawhi to stay in Toronto.

San Antonio Spurs v Golden State Warriors - Game One Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Ever since the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard, a bona fide MVP candidate with a propensity for defensive intensity, the same nightmare has been running through my head. As I drift off to sleep, I picture myself in the Air Canada Centre (I refuse to call it the Scotiabank Arena) filled with fans. It’s opening night for the 2018-19 NBA season, and the players are warming up before the game begins.

Suddenly, it’s time. “Basketball fans,” Raptors’ public address announcer Herbie Kuhn bellows, “please welcome the starters for your Toronto Raptors!” One by one, he introduces the starters to roaring and welcoming applause. It’s been months since the Raptors were ousted by LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers, and the fans are anxious to begin anew. Upon hearing the players’ names called, memories of hardship and disappointment flood the building. Still, fans audibly support their hometown roster with optimism, much like every other year.

Then, suddenly, a hush comes over the crowd. For years, Kyle Lowry’s name has been announced fourth — but not this year. Now, a new name is to be announced in his place, with Lowry being saved for last, out of respect for his dedication to the team.

“Introducing your new starting small forward, former finals MVP and two-time NBA All-Star, Kawhi Leonard!”

As I look around the arena, I feel goosebumps. First, I hear nothing but silence. Then, a soft, underwhelming pitter-patter of applause arises. After a moment, it recedes. Right then, I realize that to many Raptors fans, Leonard is nothing but an unwelcome guest. His accolades don’t matter, his talent doesn’t matter, and his attitude doesn’t matter. In the minds of a hurting, emotional fan base, Kawhi’s presence serves as a reminder of an organization that unjustly jettisoned the most loyal Raptor in franchise history, DeMar DeRozan, in a swift act of betrayal.

In this instant, Kawhi gazes at the crowd of strangers and feels like an outcast. Any doubts and fears he had regarding living and playing basketball in Toronto are confirmed. His looming free agency decision has already been made — he’s leaving.

I wake up in a cold sweat. Thankfully, it was just a dream; however, it’s not an impossibility. While it would seem logical for Raptors fans to accept Kawhi, the most talented player the organization has ever employed, things just aren’t that simple. In an emotionally-charged world, it’s difficult for people to look at a situation objectively. DeMar’s exile was unfortunate for all parties involved, and thus, I expect some fans to take their anger out on Kawhi, even though he’s an entirely separate entity.

Seems ridiculous, right? Well, we’ve seen it already. In fact, we’ve seen it recently.

As you may have heard, LeBron James’ arrival in Los Angeles was accompanied by a beautiful mural painted on the side of a building, followed by a subsequent vandalizing of said mural. Many Lakers fans will never consider him the “King” of L.A., as the mural decreed, reserving that moniker forever for their beloved Kobe Bryant. “We don’t want you”, proclaims the ill-spirited graffiti. Often, people forget that athletes are human, some with fragile mindsets. Upon arriving in a new situation, the last thing anyone wants to feel is unwanted.

In Los Angeles, LeBron’s mural desecration was inappropriate, but won’t result in any unwanted consequences. LeBron chose to play in Los Angeles, and signed a multi-year contract to do so. In comparison, Toronto is undoubtedly not Leonard’s favoured destination. After a year, he may very well choose to leave, ushering in an era of rebuilding for the Raptors. However, if he opts to stay, the Raptors are in an infinitely better situation: a young core of Kawhi Leonard, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam has championship potential.

If you still harbour anger towards Kawhi, I’d like you to pretend for a moment that DeMar left the Raptors willingly, and the organization was somehow able to reach a one-year deal with Leonard. In this scenario, I imagine you’d welcome in Kawhi with open arms, doing all you can to ensure he stays past this upcoming season.

Of course, that’s not what happened, but the past is the past. DeMar’s departure is a sunk cost, and, in my opinion, shouldn’t impact your feelings towards Kawhi. Instead, I implore you to make him feel welcome. Around the league, players have consistently lauded Toronto’s fan base. Even after the Raptors were booted from the playoffs in six games to the Cavaliers in 2016, the home crowd was cheering so loudly that even LeBron James was taken aback:

The Raptors play in one of the coldest cities in the NBA, while requiring players to pay extra taxes and cross the border almost every week. Of course, it’s difficult to keep players in Toronto and to attract free agents. However, when a player feels accepted, the city’s flaws become less pronounced. As fans, I believe it is our duty to make Kawhi feel at home.

The Star published a story recently that incited panic in my head. Within this article, many fans were quoted as claiming they will no longer support the Raptors, as their loyalty lies with DeMar. I completely understand this point of view. No players, especially ones of DeMar’s talent level, have been consistently loyal to this franchise in its short history. However, after so many disappointing playoff exits, it’s clear that both sides needed to move on.

My feelings on the subject are perfectly summarized here:

The Raptors’ future is brighter with Kawhi, and fans can do their part by cheering on, supporting and believing in him. Nobody benefits by basking in the darkness of the shadow DeMar left behind. By cheering on Kawhi, fans can respect DeRozan’s legacy, ensuring that his exile isn’t for naught. Instead, together, we can make sure my nightmare doesn’t come true.