Kawhi Leonard receives championship ring from Raptors to rousing ovation
Toronto shows video tribute to Finals MVP before Lowry gifts former teammate ring
At long last, the Raptors put a ring on it.
Kawhi Leonard, MVP for the 2019 NBA Finals, received his championship ring in a pre-game ceremony on Wednesday, just minutes before his first appearance in Toronto as a member of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Leonard was showered with a standing ovation from the Toronto crowd, who also stood throughout a video tribute to the one-year Raptors standout.
Leonard became the first Finals MVP to play with another team the following year after signing with his hometown Clippers in the off-season.
WATCH | Lowry gives Leonard his 2019 NBA championship ring:
"Congratulations Kawhi. The North thanks you," the announcer said after Leonard received his egg-sized ring at centre court.
The six-foot-seven, 225-pound Leonard was second in the line of Clippers snaking its way onto the floor for warmups and the crowd noise rose noticeably as he was shown on the scoreboard video screen.
Fans had been warned to arrive early for the ceremonies the and arena was closed during the anthems. The early arrivals included rapper/Raptors ambassador Drake, in his courtside perch.
Many of the fans who arrived early also left early as Leonard made the locals pay with 23 points, five rebounds and six assists in a 112-92 Clippers win.
"It's always great to see guys get a ring, especially when they're on your team now," said Clippers coach Doc Rivers. "This is a different one, though. It's a really cool one because he was the leader of the group, coming back to get it in front of a crowd. I've never experienced it like this."
The crowd noise swelled during the pre-game tribute video with Leonard and the other Clippers looking up to watch on the big screen.
The 110-second video went dark for several seconds building up to footage of Leonard's four-bounce series winner against the Philadelphia 76ers in the Eastern semifinal. Down below, Kawhi's "footsteps" lit up on the floor and a spotlight shining on the basket where he hit the famous shot.
WATCH | The National examines Leonard's impact on Toronto:
Leonard became part of Toronto sports lore with that shot.
Leonard's next challenge might be getting the ring through customs. Manufacturer Baron Championship Rings of Windsor, Ont., says it is the largest-ever NBA championship ring — with more than 640 diamonds.
Of course, he has experience with such. Asked in the morning what he had done with the championship ring he won with the San Antonio Spurs, Leonard offered one of his trademark no-nonsense, dry replies.
"I wore it a few times and then kept it in a safe place," he said.
While he just played one season in Toronto, Leonard's ties continue to run deep.
"I'm going to be connected with Kawhi for life because of what we achieved last year," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said prior to the game. "And all of us that were in that locker-room are.
"So we'll give him his ring, we'll shake his hand. Hopefully maybe even give him a big hug when we see him. And then when the ball goes up, the reality is we've got to get to playing and do everything we can to beat a great basketball team."
Earlier, Leonard said he expected a mixed reaction from the fans despite the country's past love affair with the close-mouthed NBA star.
"There'll be some cheers but definitely, I think, more boos because they want to win the game," he said earlier, engulfed by media courtside at Scotiabank Arena. "They're not going to be cheering for a player that's on the opposing team. They're still rooting for the Raptors."
WATCH | Kawhi Leonard excited to get championship ring:
But Rivers dismissed any thoughts of a negative reception from Raptors fans.
"He'll get a great one ... I don't know if he promised a championship, but he fulfilled it anyway. I think it will be an amazing reception."
Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment laid out the welcome mat with tributes on giant video screens at Scotiabank Arena and BMO Field.
"Fun guy in town," read the caption at the outdoor screen at Scotiabank Arena next to a photo of Leonard celebrating the NBA championship.
"Board man gets his ring," read the caption on the BMO Field screen beside a picture of Leonard holding up the trophy.
The references were to T-shirts Leonard famously wore.
At the downtown intersection of Yonge and Dundas streets, New Balance — a Leonard sponsor — and Leonard thanked the fans of Toronto on a giant billboard.
Leonard said he got "flashbacks" from the Raptors' victory parade as the Clippers came to the arena Wednesday morning.
Fun Guy in town. <a href="https://t.co/RdAwMTuZES">pic.twitter.com/RdAwMTuZES</a>—@Raptors
"Obviously it was different playing here for a whole country. They're all going for this one team," he said. "The ride [with the Raptors] was fun. I had a great time last year with the coaching staff, the front office and the players. It was a great experience."
Leonard signed as a free agent with the Clippers in early July, less than a month after leading the Raptors to their first NBA title.
He said he took his time making his decision, and thought long and hard about staying in Toronto.
"I gave it big consideration ... I talked to the front office in deep detail," he said. "It was a hard choice to make."
He returned to his native California after the Clippers swung a deal to get Paul George from Oklahoma City in exchange for Canadian Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Gallinari, plus five first-round draft picks.
Leonard signed a three-year max deal with the Clippers that could be worth nearly $110 million US, although the third season is at his option.
Leonard came into Wednesday's game averaging 25.1 points, 7.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists in 18 games with the Clippers.
He averaged 26.6 points, 7.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.8 steals over 60 regular-season games with the Raptors in 2018-19, turning it up a notch in the playoffs. Leonard averaged 30.5 points and 9.1 rebounds in 24 post-season games to earn his second Finals MVP award.
With files from CBC Sports