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Kawhi Leonard wore a Toronto Blue Jays jersey in Barbados. I saw it online . That must mean he’s staying, right? He wouldn’t toy with us like that. Sure, he isn’t smiling in the picture. But he isn’t frowning, either. OK, maybe his eyebrows are frowning. They’re all scrunched together. But his lips are a perfect line across. They’re not giving anything away. So all we have to go on is the jersey. And the jersey says he stays.
Kawhi Leonard is leaving. A psychic said so on the news. He’s going to New York to play with Kevin Durant , or maybe L.A. to play with Jimmy Butler. No? Well, he always wanted to be a Laker . Besides, the details don’t matter. What’s important is, he’s leaving. He bought all those moving boxes . He’s already been to Niagara Falls . Like everyone else you know, he came to Toronto for work. He had kids. Now he’s going home.
Kawhi Leonard is leaving, maybe. That’s all there is to say. Or maybe it’s not. No one seems to know.
NBA free agency, a content circus unlike any other in sport, kicked off Sunday night at 6 p.m. EST. By nightfall, almost every major name was off the board. Durant, previously of the Golden State Warriors, was going to Brooklyn to team up with Kyrie Irving. Butler was leaving Philadelphia for Miami. Charlotte’s Kemba Walker was set to replace Irving in Boston. Boston’s Al Horford was off to Philly. But as Sunday turned into Monday and Monday dragged toward night, the biggest name of them all remained unsigned.
Kawhi Leonard, the inscrutable superstar who delivered Toronto an impossible title last month, reportedly took no meetings Sunday. He had no meetings scheduled for Monday either. As the rest of the league raced to settle rosters and rekindle title hopes, Leonard stayed quiet. He didn’t tweet. He didn’t leak. As he had his entire career, he proceeded in his own way, on his own time toward a decision that could rejig the entire NBA and in the process make or break the hopes and hearts of millions of Canadian fans.
In Toronto, Leonard has already become the Schrodinger to the Raptors’ cat. Until he decides where to go, next year’s team is both alive and dead. If he stays, the Raptors are likely title favourites. If he goes, they might bottom out and rebuild for years to come. That duality helps explain the mania Kawhi Watch has inspired in this city. A year ago, one title was a best-case fantasy for Toronto fans. Even last month, it seemed like a single ring would provide enough joy to last for years. That’s not the case anymore.
After the Raptors sealed the championship in Oakland, a Golden State fan tried heckling Toronto supporters in the stands. “Kawhi is leaving,” he yelled at a group gathered near the court. “He’s going to L.A.!” A Raptors fan, at the edge of the chanting throng, looked back at the man. He smiled without any malice — it was a look of pure, uncomplicated glee — and replied, ‘Who cares? We’re the champs!”
If the answer to that question — “who cares?” — was nobody last month it is everybody now. Toronto fans have taken to parsing Leonard’s every public move for clues like Kremlinologists poring over old photos in Pravda. Leonard was spotted at a Home Depot, shopping for boxes: He’s leaving. He went to a Blue Jays game and looked like he was having fun: He’s staying. In Niagara Falls, he looked incredibly put out by a swarm of photo-seeking fans: Leave. He repped Toronto in Barbados: Stay. The attention became so much at one point that the mayor had to publicly implore fans to chill out and leave the man alone.
All that hype and hope says something, in a way, about the fleeting nature of success in sports. For years in Toronto the mantra was “just give us one.” But with a title in hand that plea has already morphed into “please, just give us one more.” That said, the particular mania of this situation is also unique to Leonard himself. He plays in the most online sport, in the most online age in history, where everyone is a brand and everyone has a message, except him. Leonard has released no carefully ghost written essays . He has engaged in no online feuds . Unlike almost any other NBA star, he is a blank canvas. He’s an empty field. He is, remarkably for 2019, still more written upon than written. He’s the Board Man, the Laugh Man, the Fun Guy. But he’s still the rare public figure that no one seems to know.
That’s what makes the waiting so hard in Toronto. There are so few clues pointing either way. All we know is that Kawhi Leonard will do what Kawhi Leonard wants. And even now, no one, not the journalists or the insiders or the fans, knows what that could be.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019