Fatima Syed: There are very few athletes that become the heart and soul of an entire city. He’s one of them.
News Clip: [Yelling] KYLE L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-L-LOWRY!
Fatima Syed: For a whole generation of Toronto Raptors fans, he’s the King of the North, the man who made us Champions on court and off. He took us to our first ever Eastern Conference finals. A few years later, he took us to the NBA Finals to an unforgettable Game Six, where he lifted our first Championship trophy high in the sky and then gifted it to us.
Clip of Kyle Lowry: Toronto, Canada. We brought it home, baby. We brought it home.
Fatima Syed: Now, after nine seasons as a Toronto Raptor, he’s leaving for a three year, 90,000,000 dollar contract with Miami Heat. It may have been time, but his DNA is all over the organization and the city he’s leaving behind. From the boardrooms to the locker rooms to the court, he taught Raptors past and present how to persevere and win. He taught them how to use their voice and their platform to fight for education reform, demand justice and positive change for Black people around the world and give space to the first all-female TSN broadcasting team to ever cover the game. He even taught the Raptors how to have fun. He interrupted interviews with questions.
Clip of Kyle Lowry: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors. Fred, how does it feel to be a world champion?
Fatima Syed: Hyped up his teammates and coaxed the rookies to sing ‘Party in the USA’ by Miley Cyrus. More than the Toronto Raptors, they were Kyle Lowry’s Raptors. He was the heart and soul of a whole city, a whole country. His teammate Fred VanVleet said it best:
Clip of Fred VanVleet: It’s unbelievable to have guys like Kyle Lowry on your team. And so to have him be able to hold that trophy up tonight, that’s what means the most for us.
Fatima Syed: One day soon will hopefully visit Scotiabank Arena again. And we’ll see Kyle Lowry’s Number Seven jersey hanging in the rafters not far from the Championship banner that he helped raise. When he visits we’ll still chant his two syllable last name with the same gusto we always have.
Clip of crowd: [Chanting] LOW-RY LOW-RY LOW-RY LOW-RY
Fatima Syed: From North Philly to our city, he was and forever will be our Kyle Lowry, the greatest Raptor of all time.
I’m Fatima Syed, sitting in for Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Doug Smith is a Toronto Star reporter who has covered the Raptors since day one of the franchise’s existence almost 25 years ago. Hey, Doug. How’s it going?
Doug Smith: I’m good, Fatima, how are you?
Fatima Syed: I’m okay, but I’m still a bit raw emotionally about the departure of this great Man. He’s made me feel many things this past decade-ish.
Doug Smith: Yeah, me too, but probably different.
Fatima Syed: So Let’s start at the beginning. When was the first time you met Lowry? And what was his entry into the Toronto Raptors like?
Doug Smith: We first met him a training camp in Halifax in 2012, and we couldn’t wait to get him out of town. He was a cantankerous contrarian who didn’t particularly like us and didn’t particularly want to be where he was. And he was hurt and he didn’t know what the Raptors were, what his future is going to be in Toronto. And it was a rocky start. It was a rocky start for him and the reporters. It was a rocky start for him and the organization, but it sure turned out pretty well.
Fatima Syed: So, when did the franchise and the city and the organization fall in love with him?
Doug Smith: Well, I think it took a little bit of time because he was there when they decided to move from José Calderón and give Kyle Lowry the job full time. I mean, fans understood that he was going to be the guy, and he doesn’t have that kind of flashy game that jumps out at you and makes you love him right away. But I think people, the fans came to appreciate the way he played hard every night. And I think fans a lot like reporters and a lot like people around the game sort of came to appreciate him the more they saw him and the more they saw how hard he played every night and what kind of leadership qualities he had.
Fatima Syed: In your conversations with him in those early years, I’ve read a lot about how he didn’t get along with people, there are stories about how him and DeMar DeRozan didn’t even talk at the beginning, which is always surprising to read, considering their bromance and friendship now. Was there a conversation in the early years for you that you indicated that this guy was going to become the heart and soul of this franchise and this place?
Doug Smith: I don’t know if if there was one, but I think over time and maybe into a second year, we sort of developed a relationship where he respected what we did and understood that we needed to ask questions that maybe he didn’t want to answer, but he needed to answer them. He needed to be available every night to us. He was growing up as a man, too, and I think that’s the thing that some people may get overlooked. He was a very young kid when he got here as early 20s, but very young. And I think he didn’t have two children. He didn’t have a wife. He was very much figuring out his path to manhood.
And I think as that kind of grew and developed and he matured as a person, his relationship with fans, relationship with reporters and relationship with teammates just got stronger. I don’t think there was one light bulb moment, but I do think the evolution of him as a guy off the court helped his evolution as a guy on the court and dealing with all the stuff that a key player and a sports franchise has to deal with, the responsibility to be a guy that people ask questions of every night and the willingness to answer them.
Fatima Syed: It’s interesting you bring that up, because I think for me, as just a sports fan and as a fan of the Toronto Raptors, one of the things that’s always stood out about Kyle Lowry is his off court performances. It’s the way he treated his colleagues and his teammates on camera or off camera, his advocacy. It’s his efforts. To flip the question I asked you earlier a bit, when did Kyle Lowry fall in love with Toronto and with Canada? And when did he start becoming the voice for Black communities and for all the other causes that he championed?
Doug Smith: I really think around that Brooklyn series that he missed the shot to lose, to end the game, the Game Seven, right at the buzzer, had a shot blocked by Paul Pierce-
Sports Clip: He’s looking, still looking. Gets it to Lowry at five seconds, Lowry. Williams, a tight defence. Here is Lowry on the deck through two. Lowry put it up! It’s blocked by Pierce! And the Nets win the series! As Paul Pierce, winning…
Doug Smith: I think that was it was a very key moment because he was accepted for being a guy who would take the big shot, would try the big shot. And his teammates and the fans, they care that he didn’t make it, but they loved that he would take it. And they loved the way he took responsibility for getting the team to that point. It’s a little bit hard to describe when he became a Canadian, but I think that moment when he saw how galvanizing his franchise was and his play in that franchise was that gave him a new appreciation for his role, and from that point on, it expanded beyond basketball. Like you said, he was an advocate for a lot of causes. His Lowry Love Foundation did a Thanksgiving giveaway here, a turkey giveaway in Canada and a Christmas drive for kids for needy kids and needy families. And I think from that point on, he became more one of us than just a guy who played his games here.
Fatima Syed: How important is that for an athlete? I mean, I can only maybe think of a few that have had that kind of impact on a city the way Kyle Lowry has had on Toronto. Is he special in that respect in sort of forming this bond that is making everyone feel so sad, but also so optimistic for him personally and his next career stage?
Doug Smith: He’s certainly in a very small group of athletes who reached people at a level far beyond just sports. And it’s a responsibility that I think more athletes should take on. I think they are taking it on as time evolves. It wasn’t something they did 20 years ago, but now it’s something that’s part of the job, if you want, it’s part of their social responsibility as opposed to just giving their all on the court or in the field. And I think he understood as he grew up and had kids and became a family man. That okay. He could reach people at a different level rather than just playing basketball. And that became very important to him. And it is to this day.
I talked to him a month or so ago when he was launching his NFTs and we talked about his willingness to to let people in a little bit and to go into people’s lives away from just playing games. And I think that became that was the connection that there was a very deep connection between guys like Kyle lowry, DeMar DeRozan and basketball fans across the country. And it’s because those two players especially have open themselves up a little bit and let people see them other more than just athletes. We saw Kyle with these two boys all the time.
Sports Clip: [Kids cheerfully yelling, chanting Lowry]
Doug Smith: The kids were at every game. They were in the locker room. They were on television. They were sitting with him on the podium. DeMAr and his two girls, the same kind of thing. They became, Kyle became far more open to people knowing about him and what he could do to help them, to give him some kind of role model to look at, because he grew up tough in Philly and keep kids grow up tough in Canada, in Toronto, and he wanted everybody to realize, yeah, you work at it. You can get out from your circumstances and you can make something very special of yourself.
Fatima Syed: I also want to talk about the middle of his career. We talked about the beginning. We talked about how he grew in his relationship with the city and the people around him. But on the court, he was kind of a beast. I’ve been watching him for all nine seasons, and that’s how long I’ve been in Canada. And you always just watched Kyle Lowry on your television screen or if you’re watching it live, you just, where was Lowry? What was he doing? You couldn’t help but just keep your eyes on that man. Did he grow as a Raptor? And how much credit do you give him for growing both as a Raptor himself, but also growing the team in strength and Championships and everything like that?
Doug Smith: I give him a lot. He changed his body when he first got here in 2012, 2013. And even in 2014, he was a pudgy little round fella, and he took it upon himself to change his body. He knew he had to to become a survivor in the NBA, like a star in the NBA, and he did. And that was a very telling moment. He went away, I guess the summer between, the summer of 2013, I guess, would have been. He changed his diet. He worked out extremely hard in the summer when maybe in the past he hadn’t worked out all that much because he knew his survival it relied upon, it was necessary for him to survive in the NBA. And it was necessary for him to thrive in the NBA and went on to become a six time All Star. He didn’t grow anything, but he grow inches at all. When he changed the shape of his body, he’s much less pear shaped today than he was when he got here in 2012, let’s put it that way. And he knew it. And you could see that allowed him to play harder. It allowed him to play harder for longer because he was in better shape. And once he started doing that and saw the rewards and saw how good he could be, he just kept at it.
Fatima Syed: And how much of that personal growth do you think fed into the team itself?
Doug Smith: Oh, it fed greatly into the team, Fatima, because players saw it, teammates saw it, coaches saw it, we saw it. There’s something about him that people want to drag people to places that they maybe don’t want to go. His leadership skills are they’re not really verbal. He doesn’t get in guys’ faces, but his leadership by example and his leadership by consistency trickles down through the organization. And it did. And the use of the word culture around sports organizations bores me because it’s so nebulous and so weird. But if there is such a thing as a Raptor culture of hard work, consistent play, dedication to your craft, his DNA is all over it. The legacy is going to be the championship, obviously. But even in the time leading up to 2019, you can see the Raptors becoming a Kyle Lowry kind of team. And it sort of trickled down to other players. Fred VanVleet, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle made DeMar a bit of a tougher basketball player. Norm Powell, same kind of thing. And I think that’s where that 2014 to 2019 period of Lowry. That’s going to be what people should remember. Is that he got this team to be a consistent winner by consistently playing hard, and other people followed him.
Fatima Syed: You’re going to make me cry, Doug. You really are.
Doug Smith: That’s not the- that’s not the goal, that’s for sure.
Fatima Syed: Well, before we talk about his legacy, let’s talk about the championship, because that was such a big moment for Kyle Lowry himself. It was years in the making, and it came at such a tumultuous time, with DeMar DeRozan leaving. It seemed like a professional struggle between Kyle Lowry and Masai.
Doug Smith: To say the least.
Fatima Syed: Yeah. And the organization seem to be just trying to figure out how to move forward.
Clip of Masai Ujiri: First of all, I want to not only apologize to DeMar DeRozan for maybe a gap of miscommunication, there is no measure to to what this kid has done.
Fatima Syed: And then we win a championship, and the thing that I took away from that is standing in the crowd at Toronto City Hall and just everyone just chanting Lowry’s name.
Sports Clip: [Announcer yelling] Let me hear it!
[Crowd chanting] LOW-RY LOW-RY LOW-RY L0W-RY!
[Announcer yelling] The man that’s got all the heart, let’s hear it for KYLE LOWRY!
Fatima Syed: That for me is the loudest thing that I remember.
Doug Smith: Yeah.
Fatima Syed: What does that mean for Lowry? And what’s the significance of him being there?
Doug Smith: It’s obviously the pinnacle of his career unless he gets another one. And I doubt that he will, because they’re hard to get. But every year he would tell us he wanted to hold that gold ball. He called the Larry O’Brien trophy, the gold ball. For his entire time in Toronto, he wanted to hold the ball, and he got to. And the night in Oakland, watching him stand there cradling that trophy was really emotional because I knew exactly what it meant to him and how hard he worked to get there.
Clip of Kyle Lowry: Yeah. I can’t really think right now. This is crazy. It’s awesome, man. Toronto, Canada. We brought it home, baby! We brought it home!
Doug Smith: And, yeah, that was a Kawhi Leonard team, a lot of people thought, but it was a Kyle Lowry organization, and I think that’s more important. He’s going to be in the Hall of Fame at some point, and he’s going to go on the Hall of Fame as an NBA champion. And I think to him that means the world, because there aren’t that many. Every team wins, a team wins every year, but it’s hard. It takes an incredible, unspeakable amount of work. It takes a little bit of luck, timing. All kind of good fortune has to occur as well. But you can’t ever take it away from a guy, and not everybody gets it. And he’s got one. And I think that night in Oakland, it was it wasn’t like the weight of the world had been lifted off his shoulders, but the sense of accomplishment was incredible.
Fatima Syed: Could you see that physically? Like for those of us who are watching that Championship moment at home, the things that I saw was Kyle Lowry being the first person to hug Masai or Kyle Lowry being the first person to get that trophy and raise it into the crowd. But for someone who is there, could you see him physically being the nebulus of the team and getting the credit, getting the gratitude, getting the reputation that this was his leadership that got this team to this moment.
Doug Smith: It’s funny. We stood the locker room at the Oracle Arena. The visitors locker room is big, rather expansive. And we were off on a side. Myself, Masai was there, Wayne Embry, a couple other front office guys, and the team was on the other side, and they were spraying champagne and drinking beer, and it was ruckus, and it was crazy. And it was all the stuff you saw on television. Kyle was a little bit off to the side because one he told us he doesn’t drink, so he didn’t want to be around the champagne, which is a reasonable explanation. But you can almost see him looking over like, this is my family. I’m the dad. And I got them this.
I remember a moment later, he was maybe three steps away from the middle of the celebration, looking on a lot like a father would look on to his kids, having the greatest birthday party of all time kind of thing. And at that point, you saw him on the court smiling, and we saw him interview room smiling. And he came in the back of the press room and sat there with the trophy and answer questions for a while, ask the question or two. But that moment in the locker room where he was a little bit detached from the crowd, you just sort of see him exhale or maybe the the biggest, longest, most important exhalation of his life, because he just, we did it, and I did it. And it was a pretty cool moment, frankly.
Fatima Syed: So after everything he’s been through, how easy or difficult was the decision to leave for him, do you think?
Doug Smith: I think it was less difficult than most people think. It was time. Nine years is a long time. I don’t think the Raptors were interested in a three year contract. I think if you want to stick around for a year, maybe two, they might have worked out a deal. But if he wants to play for three more years, he was going to have to do it somewhere else. And I think a 90,000,000 dollar pay day is a great thing for him, because I think athletes should get paid every cent they can get paid every year because their careers are so short and so fraught with peril. So I think he has, obviously will have an affinity for Toronto for the rest of his life. But a business decision right now was, okay, it’s time to go. And I think both sides, the Raptors and Lowry realized that. Certainly no hard feelings, it is probably like you said, I’ve covered this team since before it was on the court. And this is by far the best breakup. Everybody’s happy. And I think you don’t get that a lot in pro sports because nothing generally ends good. This one’s ending pretty darn good.
Fatima Syed: You said earlier, very eloquently that Kyle Lowry’s DNA is all over this organization. What does Toronto Raptors look like without Kyle Lowry? Is this sort of back to square one, back to the drawing board kind of moment, or is his impact just going to create a foundation from which this team can grow?
Doug Smith: I think they’re going to be fine. I don’t think they’ll go into this coming season as Championship favourites, but the team is pretty well placed to just move on. It will be a relatively seamless transition. They’re certainly not going back to being out of the playoffs for three years and spending seven years building up to something. They’re pretty good right now. If you start, you know guys like Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam. They love the Scottie Barnes, the draft pick, Gary Trent Jr, Chris Boucher. Maybe they get Khem, Them Birch back. It’s still a very, very good team, and a lot of it’s good because they know how to win. And a lot of them, VanVleet, Siakam, Anumoby, chiefly among them, learned how to win playing alongside Lowry. And I think that’s, again going to be his legacy, his impact for years after he’s gone, because he taught those, he helped those kids learn how to win the basketball game. And they’re not going to forget just because he’s not in a locker with them.
Fatima Syed: How are you going to remember Kyle Lowry, Doug?
Doug Smith: As one of the nicest contrarians I ever met. I like Kyle a lot. We have a very good professional, mutual respect relationship. I’ll remember him as maybe one of the hardest playing players I’ve ever covered. And a basically good guy. The fact that he is a contrarian and a bit prickly, it’s good. It’s part of his makeup. If you understand that, you’re fine with it. I’m going to be very glad when my career is over, that I got to cover nine years of Kyle Lowry.
Fatima Syed: And I’m going to be very glad that I got to read your stories about Kyle Lowry and that he was part of our life for nine years.
Doug Smith: It’s a long time. Long time.
Fatima Syed: Well, thank you so much, Doug, for giving me even more emotions that I had when I started this conversation.
Doug Smith: It’s my pleasure, Fatima, you can talk about basketball any time I’m around.
Fatima Syed: That was Doug Smith, a Toronto Star reporter who has covered the Raptors since their inception. And that was The Big Story. You can find more at thebigstorypodcast.ca. If you want to send us a message, you can find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m Fatima Syed, Thanks for listening.
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