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Leonard leaving might be the perfect ending
Last year, a stranger came to town and took us all on a heroic journey, one none of us can hope to replicate

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Saturday, July 6, 2019 – Page S3

As the city sits around staring at its phone waiting for Kawhi Leonard to text, it might be a good time to remember this time last year.

When Leonard was traded to Toronto, it was a big deal. But not a helicopter-chase big deal. It wasn't even a foot-chase big deal.

He arrived in the city without arousing notice, which is hard to do when you're his size.

He took up residence without making a fuss. He did a single news conference, the only thing being that he doesn't laugh much and should probably do so less. Then he got down to work by taking a lot of the season off.

The Great Hive Mind did not care about Leonard until the Raptors-76ers playoff series, when he turned into Michael Jordan with four arms.

If we're being honest with ourselves here, this is a guy who has been the greatest athlete in Toronto history for 10 whole weeks.

Which is why it is not a disaster if he leaves. It may even be better in the romantic sense.

If Leonard stays, several things are possible. Here they are from least to most likely: The Raptors form a multiyear championship dynasty; The Raptors win one more and Leonard leaves; The Raptors are very good, but never get over the final hurdle again; Things start to fall apart.

Maybe Leonard gets hurt. Maybe some other key piece does. Maybe everyone else in the Eastern Conference gets a lot better. Maybe a bunch of things.

Here is the one thing that is certain if Leonard stays: it will never get any better than the 24 hours after he decides to do so.

It's now clear that, for the city, Leonard's decision isn't really about basketball. It's a referendum on Toronto's place in the wider world.

We gave this guy our full, panting, bug-eyed attention (again, for 10 weeks). All we're asking him to do is like us back. If he doesn't, what does that mean?

Did we do something wrong?

Was it the helicopter? It was the helicopter, wasn't it? God, we told them to slow-roll it, but when you hear the word "helicopter," you get so excited.

Essentially, we need Leonard to answer this question: Is Toronto world class?

It's a turn of phrase all Torontonians silently agreed to stop using a few years ago but still constantly think about.

It's a sign of how good we have it that Toronto doesn't measure these things in terms of quality of living or public safety - things that mark us as very definitely world-class.

No, unlike London or Copenhagen, Toronto's world-classness is determined by how many Americans who are especially good at shooting or hitting a ball want to live here temporarily in return for millions and millions of dollars.

Toronto is still trying to come up with a name for this index so we can propose it as a global standard to the United Nations.

This silliness has reached its zenith during the Leonard vigil.

Toronto - God bless it - looks desperate beyond measure. Dogs on Instagram pine less.

Who's to say if that has any effect one way or the other on Leonard's calculus? For all we know, he's sitting at home right now thinking about a shot he missed in the second quarter of a game he played in high school.

If he stays, it will be because of something the Raptors said, did, gave or promised him. It will have nothing to do with the city of Toronto. If he cared about the city, he'd go to Los Angeles.

How do I know that? Because if it came down to a choice between L.A. and Toronto, I'd pick Toronto every time. Because I'm from Toronto. Every one of us can only have one home.

If he leaves, it will be a blow.

The Raptors will no longer be great, only good. The basketball wave that's been washing over the country for a couple of months will break. Everyone will return to normal operating service.

But I suspect that in 10 years we might agree it was the right ending.

There are only two kinds of stories in the world, and Leonard's season in Toronto was both: a stranger came to town, and then, for two months, that man went on a journey.

Everything about that Raptors run was better than great. It was mythic. My favourite moments had nothing to do with basketball (though The Shot was pretty indelible).

It was seeing the line to get into Jurassic Park wrapping around Union Station for the first time. It was the feeling in the streets when Toronto beat Philadelphia on a Sunday night.

It was seeing your neighbours out in their yards - people you did not think cared at all about sports - in Raptors gear.

It wasn't the team that made the Raptors run special, exactly.

It was the community that team created out of whole cloth, one that ran the length of the country.

Leonard's run was a tightly packed series of epic moments.

Moments are meant to end. Otherwise, we'd call them "life."

Let's say Leonard comes back.

Let's say everything goes perfectly again (which is one hell of an assumption). Let's say he puts the Raptors on the same path next April.

Would that be fun? Of course it would.

As much as it was this time?

Of course not.

You can't redo a generational first. It will never be that sweet again. You were reminded of that in San Francisco and Oakland.

The Warriors had won three times. They were close to winning a fourth. Could you feel that in the streets? Of course not. If you hadn't been going to the games, you wouldn't have known they were happening.

And that's the best-case scenario for Leonard's choice.

Ending it this way - rationally and without rancour - needn't be a bad end. It's closing the circle on a perfect story.

For selfish reasons, I'd like Leonard to return: he is a human tide for the media - he floats all our boats.

But were he to leave, I'd see the sense in it. Legends are meant to ride off once the town has been saved, not stick around until they're traded.

Associated Graphic

If Kawhi Leonard, the hero of this past season, returns, it will be because of something the Raptors did, said or offered. Toronto needs to shed its self-consciousness and accept that his decision won't have anything to do with the city, Cathal Kelly says.


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