TORONTO - When Kyle Lowry was first introduced to the city of Toronto back in the summer of 2012 he was forced to share the stage with a new teammate, Landry Fields, the two acquired by the Raptors three days apart.
Lowry, Toronto's fallback option after a failed attempt to woo Steve Nash, was brought in from Houston to battle incumbent point guard Jose Calderon for the starting gig. Then general manager Bryan Colangelo had high hopes for Lowry but at that moment, a consolidated news conference in the concourse of the Air Canada Centre, he was just another player. He was due to earn $5.8 million that season.
For Lowry those days are long gone. Thursday morning represented the Raptors' first opportunity to make sure he knew that.
With the official announcement of Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez's extensions on hold, likely until early next week, this day was all about Lowry. It was his moment, well deserved, not unlike his freshly signed contract and significant pay raise.
"This is awesome," Lowry said, borrowing the phrase from GM Masai Ujiri, who had used it moments earlier.
Ujiri and his star point guard sat side by side on stage in Real Sports Bar and Grill, located across from the ACC in the heart of downtown Toronto. This was not your run-of-the-mill press conference. It was an event. The Raptors had opened up the festivities to their fans, who played hooky from school and work on a Thursday morning to support a player they have adopted as their own.
They screamed, they chanted, they took photos and Lowry - an introvert, who doesn't generally hand out smiles - couldn't wipe the smirk off his face.
Retaining Lowry had been the Raptors' top priority from the moment last season's playoff run came to an abrupt end. They spared no expense in showing the 28-year-old how much he means to the embattled franchise and they wasted no time in getting him locked up. Lowry agreed to terms on a four-year, $48 million deal last Wednesday, officially putting pen to paper Thursday morning when the free agent moratorium period was lifted.
Lowry was courted by a number of teams - including title contenders in the Houston Rockets and Miami Heat - when free agency unofficially opened on July 1. "They were real factors," Lowry admitted. Returning to Toronto, however likely, was not a lock. Along with his family and agent, Andy Miller, he considered his options, weighing pros and cons and doing his due diligence before coming to a quick decision. It didn't take long for him to realize where he wanted to spend the next three years, with a player option for the fourth.
"I think the process was a difficult one but at the end of the day it was an easy one, it was the best one," Lowry said. "I didn't really think about it, honestly, until a week before free agency started. I knew it was going to be kind of stressful, but stressful in a good way. At the end of the day it was easy, it was easy to come back here."
"I didn't want to wait for everybody else," he continued, taking a subtle shot at a few of his fellow free agents, who appear to be in no rush despite holding up the process for the rest of the league. "I'm not going to wait for this guy to make a decision, I wanted to make my own decision and I wanted to make it when I was ready and I was ready after day one. So that's how easy the process was."
Houston and Miami offered him a chance to compete for a championship right out of the gate but Toronto countered with their recently constructed winning environment, high aspirations, and an opportunity for incremental growth on the way to their ultimate prize. Most importantly, Lowry - an alpha dog by nature - wanted to lead a team to the promise land. Make no bones about it, the Raptors are Lowry's team.
"The driving factor was winning," he said. "Honestly, I knew the money was going to come. I knew the years [were] going to come, so that wasn't too much of a worry. I just wanted to be in a situation where I can win and personally grow, as a man and as a player, and help a team and help an organization get to the point where they're holding that trophy up."
With the spotlight comes the pay cheque.
"I was [financially secure] before," he joked in response to a question about his new pay raise. "[But] this helps."
His new contract will be more than twice the size of his previous one, a four-year, $23.5 million deal signed in 2010, having earned a total of $28.8 million over the first eight years of his career.
Lowry's one-time reputation for being a malcontent, like his anonymity, is a thing of the past. Of course, he's not the only one that stands to benefit, shedding a less than flattering league-wide perception as a result of this remarriage with the Raptors.
"Everyone says Toronto can't do this, or Toronto can't sign back their own free agents," Lowry acknowledged, with a tip of the cap to the franchise's disappointing history. "I just proved that wrong. I'm back."
Before the Raptors can establish themselves as a preferred destination for the NBA's brightest stars, they know they must take care of their own. Even in a year's time - as the team has turned its fortunes and its fan base has reminded the league why they're one of the best - Ujiri continues to notice a significant change in how the city is perceived when speaking to players around the association.
"100 percent," said the Raptors' GM. "I think people saw what happened here."
"Players want to win and players want to be treated well and we try to treat players well," Ujiri continued. "I think Kyle Lowry was at the forefront of that. Players in the NBA see that and they want to come play where it's a great atmosphere, they're treated well and there's a culture of winning. We expect more players to come here."
According to Ujiri, Lowry was ready and willing to do his part in the recruitment process almost immediately after agreeing to terms last week. Still technically a free agent, Lowry texted the Raptors' GM shortly after the two reached a verbal agreement to ask him if there was a player he could call and try to steer in Toronto's direction.
"I wish I had more money to sign another player," Ujiri joked.
While all-star and leading scorer DeMar DeRozan remains an integral part of the team's future - and played a significant role in Lowry's decision to return - the unmistakable face of the resurgent Raptors was sitting centre stage.
The team is his and, evident in Thursday's morning's turnout, so too is the city. He won't be sharing the stage, or the spotlight any time soon.
Two years ago, almost to the day, Colangelo gave Lowry the keys. Now, Ujiri has given him the whole car.
"You don't get many chances to say it's your team," he said. "Honestly, you don't get many chances. As a competitor, as a professional, I relish in that, the fact that I get to say it's my team, I'm the leader of the team."