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Kyle Lowry's greatness transcends the trophies and triumphs

·NBA reporter
·8 min read
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Kyle Lowry is no longer spoken about as a basketball player with strengths and weaknesses. Nobody entertains inane sports conversations like whether he’s better going left or right (it’s definitely to his left, off a screen, catching and vaulting for three in one fluid jolt), and nobody tried to study the science behind how Lowry was always able to freeze his body just right to sell charges. Lowry is simply appreciated, which is a beautiful outcome for someone who was erroneously slandered for so long.

At some point, Lowry did what very few athletes do: he transcended his sport in Toronto.

For some, that came early on during the franchise's turnaround in 2014. You already know the story of how Lowry had his bags packed for New York, but what you might not remember is that Lowry was at a crossroads in life, being challenged by his boss Masai Ujiri, by his idols Chauncey Billups and Alvin Williams, and by his own journey of fatherhood. Lowry answered the call after the Rudy Gay trade, took ownership of the team, and willed the Raptors back to the playoffs.

Almost the entire fanbase was sold by 2016. Svelte Lowry was in his bag that season, with legendary performances like dropping 43 including the turnaround game-winner on the eventual champions, and going shot-for-shot with 41 points against unanimous MVP Stephen Curry’s 44. The playoffs were extremely sloppy, and Lowry was cruelly labelled as a choker for needing to decompress (the conversation around mental health for athletes has come a long way in a short time) but he still dragged the Raptors kicking and screaming to the conference finals with a 35-point closeout of the Heat in Game 7 of the semis before penning one last masterpiece against Cleveland in Game 4 to even the series at 2-2 with another 35 to his name.

The moment where it became universal was the championship run. Kawhi Leonard was the hero, but Lowry was the protagonist that we all saw ourselves in. He was the only guy who rode with us through all the ups and the downs, and he was the only player who the front office retained while every other fan favourite was upgraded. 

So it was Lowry’s name that Scotiabank Arena chanted when they completed the Canadian sweep of Milwaukee (in keeping with our reputation we give two games before getting serious), and it was his sheepish grin that melted the hearts of a nation. Later in Oakland, when Lowry scored the first 11 points to shut down Oracle Arena for good, Serge Ibaka yanked it out of the hands of some billionaire and made sure to pass it to his captain, so that Lowry would be the first ever Raptor to lift that gold ball. He was crowned the greatest Raptor of all time from that point onward.

Before that there was a debate to be had, but the murkiness of the conversation rendered it meaningless. What did it mean to be the greatest before the Raptors were great? Lowry made it mean something because he made this franchise great. The franchise didn't win more than 47 games in its first 18 years of existence before Lowry made them perennial playoff contenders with eight-straight years of 48 wins or more. And for the contrarians who attribute everything to Kawhi, who is the best player to put on the jersey, there’s a difference. Kawhi is like that convertible you rented on your honeymoon as you cruised by the bay with the top down recreating scenes from a commercial. Kyle is the minivan that takes you to work, ferries your kids to practices, and where you can pop the trunk and sit out the back to watch the stars in the twilight of a family camping trip. Best is temporary, greatness is forever. 

Like all franchise greats, Lowry will live on as the standard for all who follow. To be very clear he is not any of these guys, but it’s the same effect where every Bull is compared to Michael Jordan, every Celtic is measured by Larry Bird, or Spur against Tim Duncan. Lowry’s ethos is the north star that guides the search for future Raptors, and it’s something that is so simple yet rare: he put winning above all else. He did so on lazy Sundays in February in games that hardly mattered, he stepped in for charges against 300-pounders, he tunnelled through defenders just to try to sell a bogus call, he wouldn’t say die down 30 points with a quarter to go, and even with only 0.5 seconds left and a 7-foot-5 thicket of limbs waving in his face, Lowry could still make you believe.

If it sounds like Lowry was mythologized, it’s because he was. He is like a god in this city. Lowry paraded the streets like the Pope during the five-hour coronation with three million in attendance, and you can't say the night of June 13 wasn't a religious experience. And if he were a god, Lowry would be the god of hope, the patron saint of the underdog, the one who made magic happen if only because the things he did doesn’t compute in the rational brain. The halfcourt prayer against Miami, the telepathic turnaround setup to Kawhi, the swim move over Kemba Walker — what are those if not miracles?

Kyle Lowry celebrates after hitting a miraculous buzzer-beater to force overtime in Game 1 of the 2016 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Kyle Lowry celebrates after hitting a miraculous buzzer-beater to force overtime in Game 1 of the 2016 Eastern Conference semifinals against the Miami Heat. (Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

But the danger of deifying Kyle is under appreciating his very human journey. Beyond the wins and the title, Lowry gave us the gift of seeing a boy grow into a man over nine years. One of the greatest things about basketball is how naked it is — every raw emotion is transparent. So we saw the petty side of Lowry, the side that dares players half his size to meet him in the tunnel (they never showed up). We watched the stubbornness, the inane spats with referees. Lowry showed us the goofiness, teasing his friend DeMar DeRozan until he snapped back, one time using a bottle to mimic a reporter’s microphone as he grilled DeRozan about his shot selection in a way that no actual reporter would dare. He grieved when he spoke for the Raptors when they boycotted a playoff game because police officers shot nine rounds into Jacob Blake’s back while his children watched from the backseat. We know who he is because he showed us his humanity.

In what was supposed to be the last time Toronto reporters spoke to Lowry before he left at the trade deadline, I asked Lowry about his birthday, which happened to fall on the same date. He was turning 35 and I wondered how he changed as a person from when he first joined the team at 26. Now the thing with Lowry is that he’s either giving you snark, or he will give you game. I just happened to be lucky because I said he was turning 30 for the fifth time and he found that funny because dads appreciate dad jokes.

“I was literally trying to figure out who I was. I always knew my niche was to play hard, but it’s also like how do I help everyone else? I’m not looking to help me. I’m good. I want to help everybody else and continue to help everyone else grow," he said. "That’s part of the maturation that I feel like I’ve become. I’ve become a person that wants to help the world … I’ve grown a lot.” 

Lowry knew his exit was coming for some time but like everyone else he just didn’t want to say it. The last two seasons after the championship felt like the epilogue to a great adventure. We enjoyed the moment, had fun with it, and then said many goodbyes. The protagonist of this fairytale decade was closing the book whether we liked it or not. 

So how did Lowry spend his last days? He ensured that a piece of him remained in all who would write the next story. Lowry cloned himself in Fred VanVleet, then grandfathered Malachi Flynn. He pushed and encouraged his beloved forwards OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam. I’ll let you in on a trick that every Raptors reporter learned long ago: if you want a good quote, don’t ask Lowry about himself, ask him about his teammates. That's literally all he talked about this season. We approached Lowry as if he were the coach — it was never about him. 

The reality is that people can only take you so far in life. We were treated to the best years in franchise history and we saw the actualization of its greatest player. Lowry left Houston with the reputation as an immature coach killer and he leaves Toronto as a model citizen everyone swears by. Lowry has already promised to retire as a Raptor, his No. 7 will be forever immortalized, the mayor says a statue is in the works, and he will likely become the first player to enter the Hall of Fame as a Raptor through and through. The odyssey of Lowry was a happy one, the greatest this franchise has ever known.

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