The where-were-you moments are so much of what makes sports so special and in some ways, life changing.
Where were you when Joe Carter hit the home run, when Doug Gilmour did the wrap-around, when Jose Bautista flipped his bat, when George Armstrong slid the puck into an empty net, when Kawhi Leonard bounced his jump shot off the rim four times in Game 7 against Philadelphia.
And now more to file in that special personal memory book. Our own life of sporting stories. The best you’ve ever seen. The games you’ll never forget. This may be one and done for Kawhi in Toronto, but even if it is, looks what he will leave behind, a one-year legacy that trumps two Cy Young seasons of Roger Clemens, makes them virtually irrelevant in the big picture, because we’ve never known anyone like Leonard before, seen anyone like him, had any player like him on a Toronto team, had any drama that resembles in any way what’s happened in this past week.
This isn’t basketball country. It never really has been. There is a large and niche audience for the Raptors in Toronto and to even a lesser extent across the country. At playoff time, more people get involved, more become experts, more talk hoops, more trade thoughts and texts and personal messages.
In a way, what’s happening right now with the Raptors is not unlike what happened in 2015 and 2016 with the Blue Jays. The explosion came out of nowhere. Suddenly, losing became winning, suddenly hope became realistic. The Jays left their best behind in Cleveland and Kansas City and who knows when they make any magic in the future.
But this is Kawhi Leonard’s town right now, his place, his team, his almost impossible to define the style of toughness and play. Never has anyone said so little, showed so little emotion, grabbed the public the way he has and taken them along for the ride. He hit that next to impossible shot to win Game 7 of the last round, the photo that went around the world. And Sunday night, in Game 3 against the very strong Milwaukee Bucks, with the series truly on the line, with Leonard limping in the first quarter and still slightly limping 52 playing minutes later – outscoring Giannis Antetokouunmpo, the near-certain MVP of the NBA, 36-12, playing defence against The Greek Freak most of the night, and in double overtime with Kyle Lowry haven’t fouled out, with Norman Powell, having the best night of his career, having fouled out, Leonard did everything.
And then he did even more than that.
He stole passes. He fought for rebounds. He listened to a crowd at the Scotiabank Arena chanting “MVP, MVP.” He made the free throws necessary, the pass to Pascal Siakam for the game-changing. His giant hands were everywhere they needed to be.
Giannis will win the MVP when it’s announced next month. On Sunday night, Kawhi was the MVP of Game 3. Of that, on this court, this night, this time, there was no doubt.
It was that kind of show. It was the kind of game, the kind of effort, you can’t forget. Danny Green has played with Leonard for all of Kawhi’s career. he has seen a great deal, won a championship together, just nothing like Sunday night.
“I haven’t seen him do anything like that before,” said Green. “He was hobbling at the beginning. You thought – how long can he do this? But it’s Kawhi. He’s a special player. He does so many different things and makes everybody around him better.”
The 52 minutes is the most Leonard has ever played in his career. He did so while not being completely healthy. He led the Raptors in points, baskets, rebounds, free throws, offensive rebounds in the 118-112 win over Milwaukee. Nowhere in this season of confusing load management and making sure Leonard was content and healthy, indicated he could handle 52 minutes.
Giannis played 44:41 before fouling out for Milwaukee. He crushed the boards, bringing down 23 rebounds. His offence was hardly MVP-like: He shot 31% from the field. The Bucks starting lineup shot 29%. Game 4 is Tuesday night and again the Raptors will need to be huge to deal with the Bucks, who were 10-1 heading into Game 3. Now 10-2. The Raptors are 9-6 in the post-season. But the two most recent wins at home, they were all about Kawhi at the end. These are the stories we’ll tell our kids and our kid’s kids, so different from what we’re used to in this city of so much sporting frustration.
Once during the game, Leonard came off for a short break and Kyle Lowry, reacting before the training staff did, placed ice packs on his legs. “He was pretty good, pretty awesome,” was Lowry’s assessment of Leonard’s Game 3. “He’s been doing incredible things for us all year. He was gutting through it tonight.”
Now there’s another game here, at least one more in Milwaukee, maybe more at the Scotiabank Arena after that. Another chance for Kawhi to be Kawhi. Another chance to write another chapter in this season without compare.
This is sports at its best, tugging at our hearts, grabbing us and pulling us along for the ride, turning the unemotional Leonard into an emotional lightning rod. And we’re fortunate to have been witness to all of this.