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Kawhi Life: Setting the bar for the Toronto Raptors

The Raptors’ recent up-and-down play has fed some fuel to Toronto’s usual simmering insecurity fire. Kawhi Leonard may not know all of this history, but it could be something to bond over.

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Dallas Mavericks Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports

Kawhi Leonard is a Toronto Raptor — for at least one year. While the team’s on-court success has its part to play, we’ve decided to do our part in selling the city to the Klaw. Each week we’re talking Toronto, and letting Kawhi know what his life could be like here.

This Week In Toronto

By now you’ve read Danny Chau’s expansive piece over at The Ringer about the Raptors. It goes on quite a trip. And if nothing else, I do appreciate that site’s commitment to writing not just about the construction of the team, its play-calling, its effectiveness, and all that other nitty-gritty Kevin O’Connor-derived content — but also addressing Toronto’s whole mood. (They did this recently with Raptors super fan, and friend of the site, Adam Nayman too.

It’s how Chau ends up in Hurricanes on Bloor listening to Raptors fans yell out things like “eat a bag of dicks!” It’s how you can get a real feel for watching the Raptors play basketball while in Toronto. It’s also, of course, how you can destroy yourself in the process. That’s just been the experience of watching this Raptors team improve, year over year, only to figure out new ways to come psychologically (spiritually?) undone when it matters most. It’s what our manager emeritus Alex Wong got at here in the New Yorker. It’s what we grapple with every day here in the comments and on Twitter. And yes, it’s what Chau unpacks at the bar, in conversations with bizarre social media figure Julie Khaner (who, sadly, has the HQ account blocked), and in reflections on Canadian culture vis a vis our Heritage Minutes.

This is not going to be a downer column! The original idea was to rifle through a few of the best sports bars in Toronto in which to watch a Raptors game. The problem is that that number is shrinking. Two of my favourites, the Derby and the Contender, both undone by management and/or rent struggles, are gone. But nevertheless, we carry on. Hurricanes is still standing, obviously (I was there to watch that dispiriting recent Rockets game). The Dock Ellis on Dundas West still manages to put together a robust experience. There are the megalith options (Real Sports or the tourist bars like the Loose Moose), and smaller places like Round the Horn in Roncy and Rivals on the Danforth. (Admittedly, I’ve only been to the latter during a winter pub crawl, but it was a psychedelic experience. The east end, what can I say.) And I won’t lie: Elephant & Castle on King has become the HQ, uh, headquarters for a communal Raptors viewing. There are places to be.

But set all that aside and let’s dig back into that bag of dicks. Chau’s piece tackles what I think a lot of Raptors fans struggle with, even if they can’t quite put it into so many words. It’s an emotion that comes from being a forgotten loser franchise for years, from being second class sports nation citizens in your own city, and then of course forever being in the shadow of the titanic neighbour to the south. He does an admirable job of synthesizing all these emotions into a single through-line. Nestled in there though, through the discussion with Khaner and the quotes from Masai Ujiri’s Kawhi Leonard introductory press conference, is a choice, a binary, a way of addressing how we continue to feel about the Raptors. Ujiri says the old ways of thinking about Toronto are done, and he’s not wrong — not entirely, anyway.

That’s where we find Khaner and the flip-side to Masai’s concrete belief. Despite her assertions, Khaner is not as alone as she thinks she is in her assessment of the Raptors. We knew deep down there were problems with the previous versions of the team, and we knew LeBron would be the foe to find those weaknesses and exploit them. We know now there are still holes in this latest iteration of the team. Yes, even with Kawhi getting healthier and more comfortable every day. Even with our large adult son Jonas Valanciunas soon to return. No serious person alive would say that Toronto is favoured over the Warriors in a seven-game series; there’s even an argument to be made that it would be tough for the Raptors to best the Celtics or the Bucks too. It could happen that way — and it would or will be very sad to see.

What Khaner gets wrong is in how to deal with that feeling of inadequacy, or inertia, or just straight up hopelessness. What is it she thinks we don’t see? I don’t want to just say life is disappointment and we should be happy with what we have. But also, what’s wrong with that or with the (at times endless) fight for more, for better? What’s wrong with posting up in a homely little bar (a roadhouse even!) with some combination of derelicts and maniacs and screaming yourself hoarse for a team you hope to win but could be destined to lose? The opposite is giving up — and we Raptors fans already know where that leads.

Really, there are perhaps other or better things you could do with your time. But, if you’ll allow me to go existential here, the ultimate end remains the same. And since losing can be just as much of an identity as winning, why not try the latter on and see how it feels?

Whatever happens, we’ll try again next year.

Should Kawhi Care?

Well, no.

(This one stands as doubly true and impossible to refute, for obvious reasons. For one, even while sitting on a back-to-back, there’s no way Kawhi Leonard will be watching the Raptors play on a TV in a bar. He’s usually working out during the first halves of games, and then he’s made it a habit to watch the second half from the bench. Kawhi stays around the team, is my point.

For two, even extending this to other sporting events, it remains doubtful the San Diego area man will take much of a liking to hockey — and frankly, I’m OK with that. Let’s keep Leonard in as many warm places as possible. Also, dealing with the psychological trauma of not one, but two, tortured franchises is not something I want to expose Kawhi to. Let him remain content as a Raptor and make no further demands on his time. If he decides to get into TFC or the Jays on his own time in the summer, godspeed and good luck — just don’t tell him about Giovinco or whatever the hell Rogers management is doing in the Dome.

And please, please, keep him away from all conceptual notions of Julie Khaner, good lord.)