At 6:30 a.m. Saturday, Richard Tiangco was awakened by a simple tear emoji text message from a friend and knew immediately what it meant — Kawhi Leonard was no longer a Toronto Raptor.
But Tiangco, like many of the Raptors fans interviewed by CBC News, bore no ill will for the 2019 Finals MVP.
“It’s sad, but you know what, he brought us an amazing year that our city may not see for many years,” said Tiangco, who later that morning was walking just outside Scotiabank Arena through Jurassic Park, the Toronto outdoor public square with the big screen that had become a fan focal point to watch playoff games.
“If you’re a true basketball fan, you’ll appreciate what he did for us.”
Fans are disappointed, sad, and frustrated, but ultimately, they thanked him for his role in delivering the city its first NBA championship.
Reports began circulating early Saturday morning that Leonard had signed a $142-million US, four-year deal with the L.A. Clippers, putting an end to the obsessive Kawhi watch that had gripped much of the city.
‘Spent all my data’
“I must have spent all my data for the month refreshing my social media at work, at home, in the car,” Tiangco said. “I think the whole country was doing that.”
Many Torontonians had been waiting, desperately, for news about whether Leonard, a free agent, would stay with the Raptors, or return to his hometown and join either the L.A. Lakers or the L.A Clippers.
Sad to see you go, <a href=”https://twitter.com/kawhileonard?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@kawhileonard</a> & <a href=”https://twitter.com/DGreen_14?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@DGreen_14</a>! Thank you for helping the <a href=”https://twitter.com/Raptors?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@Raptors</a> bring home our first NBA championship. The whole team inspired a new generation of Canadian basketball fans and talent.
Julia Glaremin, a seasons ticket holder for the past six years, said when she woke up around 6:15 a.m., the first thing she did was check if there were any updates about Leonard. She too had been on Kawhi watch for the past four days, constantly refreshing her internet browser.
“I’m from Europe. I know what it’s like to live in a foreign country,” said Glaremin. “I have sympathy for the guy in a way, but then again, at the same time I’m like ‘c’mon, this is a fantastic city.'”
“The guy wanted to go home,” said Glaremin, who had come to Jurassic Park to take a picture for a friend. “So I can’t really blame him, but at the same time I guess we have to rebuild.”
At a downtown Toronto basketball court, Gabriel Edeoghon echoed Glaremin’s sentiments.
‘Why would you go to the Clippers?’
“I just don’t get why you would go to the Clippers when you have a whole country behind you and you could try to do it for a second time with the Raptors. But I guess he just wanted to be home and nothing beats that, right?”
Geoff Lau, 24, a medical student at the University of Toronto, said he was walking home around two in the morning when he found out about Leonard’s new deal.
“It was a tough time. I want him to be happy, I truly do, but it hurt more than I thought it would. We did everything we could.
“It feels like a bad breakup. Now I’m bitter, [but] ask me in a couple months — we won a ring. He gave it to us. I can never be too mad at him.”
Like many fans, Lau was convinced Leonard would stay put in Toronto.
“I thought he felt comfortable here. I thought we managed his injury well. We were respectful to him and his team and we gave him everything he could have asked for in an organization, besides being in L.A.”
But Lau suggested the behaviour of the city, particularly over the last few days, may have given the notoriously private player some pause.
Watch: Cleveland Cavaliers fan consoles Raptors fans after losing Kawhi Leonard
Since winning the NBA title, Leonard’s every move had been under close scrutiny, hoping it could reveal some clue as to his intentions toward the city.
Leonard sightings were posted on social media — his trip to Niagara Falls, him eating at a restaurant or purchasing moving boxes at Home Depot.
It got to the point where Toronto Mayor John Tory held a news conference, pleading with residents, and the media, to leave him alone.
But Kawhi-mania continued, culminating Wednesday with a news helicopter following a van from Pearson International Airport that some speculated may contain Leonard. The occupants of the vehicles had reportedly just arrived from Los Angeles in the Raptors’ private plane, leading to speculation that Leonard was one of them. But none of that was ever confirmed.
Watch: Mayor John Tory sends thanks
Meanwhile, a large crowd had formed outside the hotel where Raptors president Masai Ujiri had been spotted earlier in the day, with the assumption being that the hotel is where the meeting between Leonard and the team may be taking place.
“I think we came off a little bit too thirsty and that could have affected him for sure,” said Las. “You never want to come off as too desperate.”
Watch: Superfan Nav Bhatia on news of the trade
But Raptors fan Terry Turner expressed disappointment that the support of the fans seemed to make little difference in Leonard’s decision.
“It just felt like there was no loyalty,” he said. “For the fans support for Kawhi, it felt like it was just all for nothing.”
However, Toronto’s mayor posted a video on Twitter to thank Leonard for the inspiration and excitement he brought to Toronto. He then offered him good luck — but not too much.