TORONTO – They’ve put up life-sized murals of Kawhi. Fans chant M-V-P over and over throughout the playoff games. Toronto restaurants are offering him free meals for life.
The #HeStay movement has been gaining momentum – since day one, Raptors fans have been doing everything they can to keep Kawhi Leonard in the city for maybe, just maybe, one more season.
It’s hit a different level during this playoff run. And with each Kawhi basket, block, steal and slam, coupled with post-season wins, Toronto Raptors fans want to believe just a little bit more that the all-star will stick around.
Leonard is having one of the most memorable playoff performances in the history of the game. He’s single-handedly guided the Raptors to a handful of victories. On Tuesday night, Leonard and the team kept the good times rolling with a dominant 120-102 win to even the Eastern Conference finals with Milwaukee at 2-2.
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“Kawhi if you’re listening to this – we appreciate you,” said Shahin Shamshiri. “The energy he’s given to this city is something else. The city is alive. It’s changed.”
Shamshiri is the co-founder of OD Toronto. The façade of the black-bricked building on Queen West has become famous of late because of the Kawhi murals that grace the front of it. Prior to the Philadelphia series, a mural of him went up.
And then a new one went up – the buzzer-beater shot, with Kawhi’s tongue sticking out as he arched the now famous shot at the basket. And inside the building, that other famous photo of the same play – Kawhi squatted on the baseline watching the ball drop, etched on the wall.
“Everybody is trying to get down here to get a photo,” Shamshiri said. “Snoop was here last night. He saw the mural and had to do a full photoshoot.”
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Shamshiri says should the Raptors make it to the championship series, they’ll be putting up yet another new mural.
“Whatever Kawhi wants and whatever photos he has,” he said. “Even a baby photo, send it over and we’ll put it up.”
But will it all be enough?
The belief that Kawhi will stay continues to blossom after every playoff win, but according to a San Antonio Spurs’ writer, not even that will be enough to keep him in Toronto.
“I’ve seen how this movie ends before. And it ends in heartbreak,” said Tom Petrini. “The way things ended in San Antonio were really bad. He’s called a snake to this day.”
Petrini covered Kawhi’s days in San Antonio. He writes for the Project Spurs website and is quick to heed caution to any Toronto fan who wants to believe he’ll stay in a Raptors uniform next year.
“The bottom line is, if Kawhi Leonard didn’t care about San Antonio why would he care about Toronto,” Petrini said.
Petrini goes on to talk about how much people adored Kawhi in San Antonio – they too put up murals across the city when he guided the team to an NBA championship in 2014.
“People worshipped him like a God,” explains Petrini. “This guy was the chosen one to take the torch. Everybody in San Antonio was ecstatic.”
And that, says Petrini, is why it hurt so much for Spurs fans when he left.
“He basically ghosted the entire city. We never got any explanation why he wanted out,” he said.
In a lot of ways, Kawhi Leonard is a misunderstood individual – his reserved and quiet demeanour allows for fans to come up with their own ideas of who he is.
“He’s so quiet and everyone could project their own ideas onto him,” Petrini says. “Even if we really never knew what was going on in his head, we had our own ideas.”
The idea Spurs fans came up with is that he’d be theirs for all his playing days. And left.
Petrini sees the same situation playing out in Toronto.
“I can’t think of one reason why he would stay there,” he said. “He’s a southern California boy. I’m sure he’d like to be back in L.A. It’s nothing against Toronto. They have a pretty good team. A lot of good players. It’s a beautiful city.”
A year later, Kawhi leaving the Spurs in the fashion he did still stings Petrini.
“Yes I’m salty,” he admits. “And Toronto fans will be too in like a month.”
Shamshiri sees it differently. He says he’ll respect whatever Kawhi decides to do – because during the Spring of 2019, Raptors fans got a taste of what it’s like to have a superstar on their team. And in the process collected basketball memories that will last a lifetime.
“Even if he leaves, we’re not mad,” Shamshiri said. “We can’t be mad. What he’s done for the city is Toronto history now.”
Shamshiri, along with tens of thousands of Raptors fans across Toronto and across Canada, hope there’s still a little bit more history to come. And a few more murals of Kawhi, too.