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Lewenberg: Raptors impart tough love on Valanciunas

Josh Lewenberg
4/8/2014 7:19:08 PM
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TORONTO - Over a dozen cameras and upwards of 30 reporters gathered in the hallway on the third floor of the Air Canada Centre, jockeying for position outside the Raptors practice facility Tuesday afternoon.

No, they were not staking out a spot for the playoffs, now 11 days away. They were not there to take in the team's final scheduled regular season practice. They were not on hand to inquire about the injured Kyle Lowry or Amir Johnson, both of whom had returned to the court.

The gravity of Jonas Valanciunas' drunk driving charge and arrest had transcended basketball, it was bigger than sport. It was news, and rightfully so.

The Raptors' starting centre was arrested early Monday morning for impaired driving in Wasaga Beach - roughly two hours north of Toronto - where he spent Sunday evening visiting friends.

Valanciunas did not speak to the media Tuesday, as he had not yet met with his legal representatives, but those that did - GM Masai Ujiri, coach Dwane Casey and a couple of his veteran teammates - said all the right things.

Understanding the severity of the 21-year-old's poor judgment, the organization made their message clear. Without condoning his actions, they stood united in support of their youngest player.

"Like I told him, I'm upset with him and disappointed in him but he's mine," said Casey. "So we love him."

"He made a mistake, like any other young man has probably done before. We all make mistakes and it's what we do after it [that] is how we're going to be judged."

The news of his arrest was surprising to those within the organization. Coaches, teammates and even fans have come to know the wide-eyed sophomore for his sincere, albeit quirky personality. Monday's events seemed out of character, to say the least.

"He's a great person, great kid," said Ujiri, maintaining Valanciunas hasn't, to his knowledge had prior plights with excessive alcohol use or bad decision making. "We've never had any issues here with him, that's the honest truth."

Valanciunas met with Ujiri for an hour on Monday. The following morning he sat down with Tim Leiweke and Larry Tanenbaum before addressing his coaches and teammates ahead of practice.

"He sat in my office there yesterday," said the Raptors' GM. "He knew, face in his hands, that he was sorry about it."

"He's very apologetic," Lowry echoed. "I mean he's sick right now. He's really hurt by it, he's really embarrassed by it [and] very disappointed in himself. I can tell you that for sure."

Per NBA policy, no punishment - from the league or the team - can be handed down until the legal process plays out. Although the Raptors are unlikely to issue any supplementary discipline, the league will come down on Valanciunas with a suspension - of likely two games - when and if he's convicted or there's a plea of guilt.

The ramifications for Valanciunas - the player - are modest. He'll continue to play. Any suspension he faces won't take into effect until the beginning of next season, at the earliest. He will not be required to attend his initial court date on Apr. 22, shortly after the Raptors begin their first-round playoff series. He's been enjoying one of the best stretches of his career and there's no reason why that shouldn't continue, assuming he can stave off the legal distractions that are likely to ensure.

For Valanciunas - the person - the consequences are intricate. He has some damage control, some image repair to do. Most importantly, he has some growing up to do.

In the last year, his second in the NBA, we've watched Valanciunas blossom on the court, sometimes losing sight of the fact that he is also growing and learning as a young man. Valanciunas - less than a month away from his 22nd birthday - made a mistake, a stupid one. Thankfully no one was hurt as a result.

Given what we know about the young seven-footer it's not hard to believe that the apology he made to his team, to his coaches, to the organization and fans was a sincere one.

Some athletes, upon putting themselves in a similar predicament, have apologized mostly for being caught, which doesn't seem to be the case for a remorseful Valanciunas. What many of those other athletes haven't had is the support system the Raptors can offer their young centre. Both Casey and Ujiri have positioned themselves as mentors and father figures, not only for Valanciunas but for all their players, while the team's locker room is filled with positive influences who have already begun to steer the sophomore in the right direction.

"Be smart," Casey told him. "We all have to be smart. All of us have to be smart in what we do, how we carry ourselves off the floor, where we are [and] who we hang out with."

"I talked to him and I made him understand that the things he did were wrong," Lowry said. "He just has to suffer the consequences that come with that."

"It's unfortunate that it happened to such a good kid in JV," the 28-year-old point guard continued, "but it happened. He's 21, he's going to learn from it and I'm sure he's never going to make that mistake again."

Ultimately, that's the true test, as Casey wisely pointed out. How does he learn from Monday's incident? Will he grow as a result of it? He made a mistake. What does he do next?

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