The return of sport was meant to be a unifying factor in the face of Covid-19 as a sense of normality gradually began to return through the resumption of various sporting codes.
Fans of the Toronto Raptors are not familiar with success.
They recognise scrappy underdogs like Morris Peterson or Jorge Garbajosa.
They regale in brief flashes of trivial exhibition success, like dunk contest wins by Vince Carter and Terrence Ross.
They know that – conceptually – the Raptors are capable of winning games every now and then.
Success, on the other hand, is a foreign concept, and they refuse to discuss it at length, as if to say it openly will evoke the curse of Alonzo Mourning and it will then vanish before their very eyes.
But it’s time to finally admit that the Raptors are – on paper at least – the best they’ve ever been throughout their mediocre 24 years of existence.
And that claim starts and ends with one name: Kawhi Leonard.
Throughout the season, Kawhi was a dominant force unlike any other Toronto has ever seen: lengthy and instinctive defensively, while proving unstoppable offensively.
His load management meant that he appeared in only 60 games, but despite this, he was – without a doubt – the best player to ever don a Raptors uniform.
Better than Vince. Better than Bosh. Better even than Hedo ‘Ball’ Turkoglu.
Presently duelling the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs, the talking heads should be focused on Kawhi’s performance on the court, among the leading scorers and fighting through an apparent illness in a gutsy yet flawed Game 3.
Alas, the conversation has been steered in a direction more familiar to the snake-bitten Toronto enthusiast: the inevitability of Kawhi’s departure.
Whether it’s inside sources or a troubling lack of verbal commitment from the man himself, pontificators have sifted through the tea leaves and things look dire.
It’s as if the proverbial mug that is Toronto has not only been discarded, but flung viciously against the wall, splitting into the ceramic fragments of our hopes and dreams.
It’s nothing new, of course – the city has flirted with greatness in the past, only to be left holding the bag as the biggest superstars flee for greener pastures.
Remember when David Price was set to take the Blue Jays to the promised land? Or when Jermain Defoe was the biggest acquisition in Toronto FC history?
They may come, they may play and they may even succeed briefly, but they’ll turn their noses up when it’s all said and done. That’s simply the way it has always been.
And now, Kawhi looks to be the latest in a long list of mercenaries.
The worst part of this, of course, is that if he leaves, the Raptors basically fall off a cliff and almost certainly enter a rebuilding period.
Kawhi came at a steep cost, to the tune of DeMar DeRozan – the man who never turned his back on Toronto and was instrumental in ushering the Raptors into the most lucrative era they’ve ever experienced.
By dealing DeRozan away, franchise president Masai Ujiri removed the very heart of the Toronto Raptors, leaving us all to gasp in shock as he held it in his hands for a few moments, pondering its significance, before injecting a new heart.
A better heart.
The heart of a fun guy.
This Raptors peak has been infuriatingly enticing for years – undoubtedly very good but never quite good enough to actually contend.
The pieces had been shifted in minute ways until at last Ujiri threw his hat into the ring with a final gambit that dealt one of his most important players for an NBA great.
Is it a costly rental that only yields another early post-season exit? Or the catalyst that finally brings Canada’s only NBA franchise that coveted Larry O’Brien trophy?
It’s hard to say at this juncture, but Raptors fans can only hope and plead that – whether or not the team has the mettle to go all the way this year – it won’t all be over as soon as free agency opens.
Let’s not have another Damon Stoudamire, or Marcus Camby, or Tracy McGrady they beg, their tattered purple Hakeem Olajuwon jerseys the manifestation of two decades of unrealised potential.
Let’s have another Kyle Lowry. A man who wants to stay. A man who will stay.
After all, don’t the people deserve it?
They routinely pack the Air Canada Centre (don’t even mention the word Scotiabank) and travel well as some of the most raucous crowds in the NBA.
The support of an entire nation rests with that one humble little franchise, despite suffering through so many years of bumbling ne’er-do-wells.
Kawhi Leonard has already been the best player in Toronto Raptors history.
If he doesn’t abandon the franchise as so many others have done before, he could quite easily be the greatest player, too.