There is nothing but love — and billboards — to welcome the now-Los Angeles Clipper Kawhi Leonard back to Toronto for the first time since helping the Raptors clinch the NBA Championship in June.
“He was a central figure in bringing the team together and getting the cup [Larry O’Brien trophy] for us,” Raptors fan Gaurab Kumar told Global News Wednesday morning.
“He has a big legacy in the city.”
Fans had been warned to arrive early for the ceremonies and arena was close 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,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said.
“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.
After exchanging greetings with his former teammates, Leonard was presented with his ring by Kyle Lowry.
Leonard later revealed he got the middle finger emoji inscribed on his championship ring.
Drake, also in attendance at Thursday’s game, showed off Leonard’s ring on Instagram.
Leonard told reporters on Wednesday morning at Scotiabank Arena he was happy to be back but that he expected mixed reactions from fans for his return.
“They’ll be some cheers but definitely, I think, more boos because they want to win the game,” he said. “They’re not going to be cheering for a player that’s on the opposing team. They’re still rooting for the Raptors.”
“Fun guy in town” and “Board man gets his ring” were some of the messages adorned on the big screen outside Scotiabank Arena and BMO Field.
Leonard returned the love, working with his sponsorship partner New Balance to erect a “Thank you, Toronto” billboard overlooking Yonge-Dundas Square.
“They [the fans] stuck through it with us, they brought great energy to every game and it helped us and so that’s my thank you to them,” he said.
Leonard said he had flashbacks of the victory parade that filled the city’s streets while on his way to the arena Wednesday.
“Obviously it was different playing here for a whole country…” the All-Star said. “The ride 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 with the Clippers in the off-season as a free agent. It was a decision, he said, that he did not make lightly.
“I gave it a big consideration. I took my time … I didn’t hurry up and make the quick decision,” Leonard said. “I talked to front office in deep detail. It was a hard choice to make.”
The deal is a three-year max contract worth almost US$110 million, however, the third year is an option.
Leonard came into Wednesday’s game averaging 25.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 18 games with the Clippers.
He averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals over 60 regular-season games with the Raptors in 2018-19.
He turned it up even further in the playoffs, where he averaged 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds in 24 post-season games to earn his second Finals MVP award.
When asked what they remembered most about Leonard, fans told Global News it was the infamous shot that bounced four times off the rim before going in to clinch Game 7 and the Eastern Conference semi-final against the Philadelphia 76ers.
“That one shot, that pushed us. That one shot did it,” said Mark Henry.
“Four bounces seemed like it was 20 minutes in the air,” said Mitch Wilson. “I held my breath and then just jumped around and went crazy.”
The two teams met already in L.A. on Nov. 11, where the Clippers took it 98-88. The Raptors were without stars Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka.
Leonard finished with 12 points, 11 rebounds and nine assists, but had nine turnovers and struggled on 2-for-11 shooting.
Since that meeting, the Clippers have gone 11-3 and sit second in the Western Conference, while the Raptors went 9-4 and sit fifth in the East.
—With files from The Canadian Press