Kawhi Leonard changed the narrative for the Raptors

TORONTO — Last September, on Media Day before the 2018-19 season, Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri delivered one of his infamous speeches.

That was the first time Kawhi Leonard was introduced as a Raptor (you remember it from the laugh), but the mood wasn’t one of excitement. Instead, in classic Torontonian defeatist fashion, the line of questioning focused on whether Leonard even had any interest in suiting up for the Raptors, and that’s when Ujiri interjected.

“Believe in this city, believe in yourself,” Ujiri preached. “We can stop talking about coming to the city or wanting to come to the city, that’s old talk. We want to win!”

At the time, his pep talk fell on deaf ears, which was understandable. It’s one thing to be told, but it’s another thing to truly believe it. For a fanbase that was so utterly broken by LeBron James and the horror show that was the postseason, self-esteem was hard to come by. And although it was understood that the Raptors finally had a truly elite player for the first time since Vinsanity, the same defeatist attitude pervaded. Most fans became jaded after years of failure, and they needed to see what Ujiri was preaching in order to believe it.

Fast forward eight months to Mother’s Day, when Leonard called the series against the 76ers by hitting the biggest shot in franchise history. Ask any of the 20,917 fans in attendance for Leonard’s baseline fadeaway over Joel Embiid: Now do you believe? And the answer is invariably: How can you not?

It’s not just that Leonard pushed the Raptors into the Eastern Conference finals, where they will be underdogs against the juggernaut Milwaukee Bucks. The significance of that basket goes beyond the course of these playoffs, or whether or not that moment will sway Leonard’s decision this offseason. It’s far bigger than that.

Leonard’s shot was an act of exorcism for a franchise that built an entire identity around being loveable losers. Simply put, this was uncharted territory for the Raptors, who mostly adhere to Murphy’s Law in the postseason. Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong, as in Vince Carter would attend graduation on the day of Game 7, Jonas Valanciunas would miss three point-blank tip-ins, J.R. Smith would thoroughly outperform DeMar DeRozan, 36-year-old Paul Pierce would come out of nowhere for a game-saving block, and James would do everything from hitting game-winners at impossible angles to sipping beer court side.

According to Raptors convention, Leonard’s jumper was not only supposed to rim out, it should have caromed across the court and swished through the other net. So when the ball bounced four times before mercifully dropping in, the first reaction in Scotiabank Arena was disbelief. Something finally broke right for the Raptors, and it took everyone a split second to shake free from their cynicism. There was such an outpouring of relief in the building that even Ujiri himself was reduced to tears, because this was exactly what he envisioned when he made the trade. He wanted to make fans believe again, and it worked.

The funny thing is that Leonard wasn’t even aware of what he had achieved. To him, this was just a new experience, and he’s just happy to extend this season into the next round. Leonard was outright asked before the playoff started if the Raptors were (in so many words) cursed, and his deadpan response was, “what hump?” The idea that this franchise was always destined to fail in new and more embarrassing ways was, in Leonard’s opinion, ridiculous.

He was right, and the fans were wrong. There is reason to believe in the Raptors, and Leonard is it. No matter what happens for the remainder of this postseason, whether he stays in Toronto or goes west to his family, Raptors fans will always have Game 7. Tomorrow and for years to come, children across the city will be recreating that moment in gym classes, while parents will call “Kawhi” before swishing balls of paper into the recycling bin. And to all it will summon the same giddiness.

It will be remembered as the inflection point when Raptors cynicism officially died out. With one incredible shot, Leonard changed the narrative of an entire franchise.