How Kyle Lowry transformed the Raptors and became one of the NBA's top point guards
TORONTO – They were sitting in the 17th floor's corner office, long glass windows offering a majestic cityscape, and Kyle Lowry listened to a most mild-mannered man raise his voice louder and louder. Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors president and general manager, was hired with a mandate to transform this franchise, and he understood nothing could speed the process faster than the point guard transforming himself.
So on the eve of training camp, something irritated Ujiri, and this episode promised to be the final conversation these two would ever have on the matter of Lowry's maturation. All this talent, all these disappointments, and Ujiri had a determination to speak his mind and leave Lowry to make the choices that promised to dictate his future with the Raptors.
Ujiri climbed out of his seat, marched across the room, lifted a binder from his desk and pretended to pass it into imaginary hands. Someday, Ujiri told him, this will be you walking up to NBA general managers at the Chicago predraft camp, trying to get a scouting job. They'll want no part of you, no part of your reputation. Ujiri told Lowry he'd be playing out his career on one-year deals on the low end of the NBA's salary scale.
Once and for all, Masai Ujiri told Kyle Lowry the truth.
Oh, how Ujiri loves Lowry's game – his talent, his ferocity, his intellect – and how he wanted him to understand: Spare your career this maddening, self-fulfilling prophecy and honor a relentless summer of conditioning and commitment with the best season of your life.
Ujiri didn't hear excuses out of Lowry, only noticing his knowing nods and hurting eyes. Lowry was listening. Finally, he was listening.
From Ujiri to Lowry's agent Andy Miller to his NBA mentor Chauncey Billups, this had been the summer of tough love and tougher introspection. Ultimately, the truths coated Lowry like a second skin: He was pissing his promise away, trading All-Star winning talent and long-term financial security for a loser's legacy and journeyman status.
Most of all, it was needless. Lowry's too talented. He's too competitive. For so long, his stubbornness had been channeled into the wrong ways, the wrong energies. In a point guard league, Lowry had the gifts and grit to be an All-Star and a winner. At 6-foot-tall, he had to be fiercer, tougher and unrelenting. As much as that had long taken a toll on his opponents, it took something greater out of Kyle Lowry himself.
"I had to look at myself in the mirror," Lowry told Yahoo Sports over a shrimp salad inside the e11even restaurant in Rogers Centre. "I know what people are saying now, 'Oh it's a contract year,' but it's bigger than that for me. Yes, I want a contract. And then I want to outgrow that one and get another one. But I want to win. I want to grow. And to grow, you've got to be able accept coaching.
"You've got to be able to be coached."
Lowry, 27, has transformed himself and transformed a franchise this season. When everyone expected the Raptors to be liquidated for draft picks, young players and salary-cap space, Lowry played the biggest part of holding the team together and chasing an improbable Atlantic Division title. He does it all for the Raptors, and he's rapidly validating himself as one of the NBA's finest point guards.
For the season, Lowry's been magnificent, averaging 17.2 points, 7.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds. Across the past 15 games, he been even better: 19 points, 9.3 assists and 5.7 rebounds. Most of all, the Raptors are winning – 37-29 and in third place in the Eastern Conference.
Ujiri passed on a chance to trade Lowry at the deadline, and wants to sign him to a long-term extension this summer. Lowry could command $10-12 million a year on the market, especially in a summer where the Los Angeles Lakers have cap space and a running mate for Kobe Bryant.
Sometimes, the hardest thing in life is making profound change. Sometimes, it's even harder to make everyone see the sincerity in that struggle. For a reputation across seven NBA seasons that had been full of stories of hardheadedness and discontent, Lowry had to change himself to change the story.
"I struggled to prove that I belonged," Lowry says. "My first couple years in the NBA, my fear was that I was going to go to the D-League – and maybe never get back to the NBA. I was picked 24th and that's not the cushion that a lottery pick gets in the NBA. You get a few chances, and then you're done. Then you're just a label, never to be a frontline guy.
"But I didn't want to be a backup. I hated that label. I did not want to be a backup in this league. I wasn't going to settle for it, and I think it rubbed people the wrong way. But I didn't want to be labeled as a journeyman, or a guy who has the talent, but just can't get it together. I wanted the label of a guy who's a winner. That's the most important label you can have in this league."
This season, the seeds of a transformation were born out of the voice that carried the most credibility with Lowry: Billups, the Detroit Pistons guard. After Lowry left Villanova in 2006, Miller, his agent connected his most treasured client – Billups – with one of his most promising in Lowry. So much of the reason Lowry and Miller connected as agent and client had been Miller's willingness to tell him the truth, to never placate Lowry over his early missteps with excuses. If nothing else, Lowry's fiercely loyal, and part of him always knew he needed those voices in his life – even if he wasn't fully ready to listen.
Nevertheless, Miller always understood Billups was his best chance to reach Lowry on the most important levels, that Billups' mentoring of Lowry promised the best possible path for the young guard's career. The thing was, Billups loved Lowry and saw so much of himself in him. Billups wanted to make Lowry understand the consequences awaiting at the crossroads of his career.
Between morning basketball workouts in Las Vegas and afternoon golf outings, Billups worked over Lowry. Billups' story lent credibility, a riches-to-rags-to-riches tale of rising again. For everything Billups has become in the NBA, he had gone the way of Lowry in his first several years: rudderless, teetering and on the brink of fading into the league's abyss. These weren't lectures, but lessons.
"I told him, 'If you squander this opportunity, this is it for you,' '' Billups told Yahoo Sports. "I kept telling him, 'You going go Toronto was like me going to Detroit.' That was my last real chance, and that was the case for him there now, too.
"Kyle's always been a little stubborn, a little bit of a know-it-all. Those things held him back. But I think he finally looked deep into the mirror and realized, 'Hey, it's not my game that's causing problems, it's everything else.'
"He had to learn to listen to constructive criticism. He had to learn to lead. In this league, perception is reality. Once you've created a reputation, it is hard – really hard – to shake it. He has an older generation mindset of competitiveness, with a younger generation skillset.
"Kyle has the perfect combination. And now he's sharpened it."
Two years ago, the Houston Rockets traded Lowry to the Raptors. Two stops, two bad endings. He had been the 24th pick of the Memphis Grizzlies in 2006 but a year later, they selected Mike Conley fourth overall and it became clear whom the organization had committed itself. Houston made a deal for Lowry, and he flourished for a season under coach Rick Adelman. The Rockets made him a starter, and Lowry made everyone see his talent in the 2010-11 season.
Only Adelman left, and Lowry couldn't get over it. He fought new coach Kevin McHale on everything – and relationships were even worse with the assistant coaches. Lowry lost his starting job and lost the clear-mindedness to lead the locker room.
"He never gave the coaching staff a chance," assistant coach Kelvin Sampson told Yahoo Sports. "He wouldn't let Kevin coach him. Kyle's greatest strength is the bulldog in him, and when that bulldog is channeled the in right direction, he's tough to handle on the floor. And when it isn't, he's tough to handle everywhere else."
Through the tribulations playing out in public and private, one thing never changed in those three seasons in Houston: Lowry was such a student of his craft. Perhaps people never saw it with him, but it's always been true. In Houston, he became a devoted pupil of the analytics movement. He watched Shane Battier's habits so closely and still incorporates those lessons into his regimen.
"His preparation for every game is some of the best I've ever seen," Lowry says of Battier.
Always, too, Lowry loved sitting with GM Daryl Morey and his old assistant, Sam Hinkie, poring over the data revolution that had seeped into the basketball world.
"I guess I was a great analytics player before I even knew what it was," Lowry says with a laugh. "The things they emphasized – free throws, 3-pointers, layups – were things that were a big part of my game. You can really help yourself if you understand analytics. Not sure you can pick the best team in the world by just using it, but it helps. There's no doubt in my mind."
Morey and McHale still felt strongly about Lowry and his talent, and made a bid at the trade deadline to bring him back to the Rockets, league sources said.
Looking back, the unraveling under McHale still festers with Lowry. He wishes he had been smarter, surer of himself, less combative in carving out his turf in the NBA. He wishes he had grown up sooner. For Lowry, reaching peace with these revelations gave him the chance to change everything with the Raptors.
"I would have done things differently in Houston," Lowry says. "I really respected Kevin McHale. I wish I would have had an opportunity to play for him longer. The things he was teaching me, well, I didn't understand right away. When you get away from someone, though, see it from the outside looking in, you go back and think, 'Damn, I could've learned some more things from the guy.'
"I wanted to stay with Coach Adelman and needed to get over that. [McHale] came in with a different philosophy, and I wish I could've adapted to it quicker."
Months later, after a trade to the Raptors, Lowry was sitting in a mid-April exit meeting with Raptors executives Bryan Colangelo and Ed Stefanski, and coach Dwane Casey. With Jose Calderon gone for good, Colangelo laid it out to Lowry in simple terms: Can you play for Casey?
Do you have any issues?
"I'll play my ass off for him," Lowry said.
For the first time in years, Lowry had a summer that didn't include rehabilitation for an injury, and everyone agreed: He had to come back in fantastic shape, strong of body and mind – no excuses.
And when Lowry returned to training camp in September, Casey witnessed the difference. Casey could see how he had transformed physically. Lowry was stronger, leaner and exuding the body of a true pro. And then, Casey witnessed it on the court – no more gambling on defense, no more taking off possessions to gather his wind. Lowry had listened to Billups and Miller, who implored him to hire a personal chef and change his nutrition habits.
The results helped transform the Raptors and transform Lowry's career. Once he had taken care of himself, it became so much easier to evolve as a leader. For the Raptors, this has been the most profound difference: how Lowry interacts with his teammates; how he leads them every practice, every game.
Lowry would blow up players with long, loud diatribes, stay far too long on them for a mistake that had come and gone. And yet once Lowry found peace with himself, it channeled into the Raptors.
"When Kyle first came, he was a live wire," Raptors forward DeMar DeRozan told Yahoo Sports. "That's just him. But to see the patience in him come out – with everybody – I think that's been key to us winning."
Fatherhood changed so much for Lowry. He's married to his childhood sweetheart, Ayahna, a 1,600-point career scorer at St. Joseph's University who understands the game's ups and downs. What's more, the birth of his 2-year-old son Karter has made those nights of bringing home his frustrations merely memories. At day's end, he sees that young boy reaching out to him, and it all washes away. Lowry isn't a father, he says. "I'm a daddy." His own father was never in his life, but Lowry reads books and plays games and takes a bundled Karter for walks in the Toronto cold.
"You can't take your problems from your job home, because you will really impact your life there," Lowry says. "I can't be mad at something that happened two games ago and take it into the next day. Now, it's over. If I get mad at [Jonas Valanciunas] or get into it with DeMar, man it's got to be over.
"And once you learn to do that with yourself, you can do it with others. I'm my own toughest critic, but I've learned to let it go and try again tomorrow. And that's helped me with the rest of the guys, too."
For a coach fighting for his job this year, the dynamic with Lowry promised to be telltale to Casey's survival. For Lowry and the Raptors, Casey's been a perfect leader at a perfect time. In his years as an assistant coach with the Seattle SuperSonics, Casey had closely studied the relationship between George Karl and Gary Payton. For Casey, this has been indispensable in learning to create a partnership with Lowry.
"Kyle's delivery, his approach, reminds me so much of G.P.," Casey says. "Guys would make a mistake and Gary would drop a few F-bombs and lay into them. What Gary was saying was true – the content was great – but guys couldn't get past the delivery."
A year ago, there were times Lowry would become so incensed with the young Lithuanian center, Valanciunas, that "it would take Kyle right out of what he was trying to do himself on the court. The thing was, Kyle would be screaming and I don't think J.V. understood what he was saying half the time anyway.
"But now Kyle's learned to relate to players, to say it in a tone that's accepting. That's been his growth process, our growth process."
On an early March afternoon, Lowry sits inside the e11even restaurant and finds so much satisfaction out of the way the lunchtime crowd gravitates to him. They want a winner here, and it means the world to Lowry that he's becoming synonymous with the franchise's renaissance. An old Villanova and Raptors guard, Alvin Williams, told Lowry something upon his trade to Toronto that still resonates.
"If you ever get this city to the playoffs, they'll never forget you."
Even now, they still treat Williams like a prodigal son upon his return – all because the Raptors won a playoff round with Williams over a decade ago.
All these months later, most of all, it is Chauncey Billups' words still resonating with Kyle Lowry. Winning changes everything for a point guard, changes the way everyone sees you, Billups told him. Billups was right about something else, too. Toronto could be his Detroit, the city to change course and change his story.
Suddenly, Lowry is the dynamo for the Eastern Conference's third seed, these Raptors who are so much in his image: Refusing to go away, refusing to stop coming. Here was Kyle Lowry, best shape of his life, his best season and it's all unfolding the way he badly wanted to believe it could, the way that Big Shot told him over and over could still be for him.
"I thank Chauncey all the time, and I tell him, 'I want to try and be better than you,' " Lowry says. " 'But first, I want to be … like you.' He would tell me to handle a situation the way that he would, to never get frustrated, to be a man. I still hear him saying, 'You've got to take responsibility for your talent.'
"Shoot, I'm nowhere near him. …He's an All-Star. He's a Finals winner. A Team USA gold medalist. He's Mr. Big Shot. Some of those are goals might be too late for me to achieve, but they're some things still there for me to chase.
"If I wanted to do this, I had to grow up. I've had to look in the mirror, and tell myself: You can't talk about changing, you've got to live it. You've got to do it.
"Whoever they thought I was, this is me now. You've got to show them. And I'm showing them. I think I'm showing them all now."
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