TORONTO – When it’s all said and done, Kyle Lowry’s metamorphosis from maligned journeyman to NBA champion and arguably the greatest Raptor of all-time will go down as one of the most remarkable and important career arcs in Canadian sports history.
He came to the Raptors in his mid-20s, known primarily for clashing with coaches, bouncing in and out of the starting lineup with Memphis and Houston, and his disdain for speaking with the media. Now, at age 34, he’s a six-time all-star, an Olympic gold medalist and one of the most well-respected players in the league.
He’s almost unrecognizable from the guy that arrived in Toronto, via trade, eight years ago this past weekend. Almost.
“My last four months have been great because I haven't had to talk to any of you guys,” Lowry said over videoconference from the NBA bubble at Walt Disney World on Monday, speaking to the media for the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the league suspended play back in March.
A lot’s changed for the Raptors’ point guard over the years but, bless his heart, his fondness – or lack thereof – for the media and that distinctive Lowry snark remain.
One-by-one he roasted each reporter on the call as they asked their question. He told one of them that their WiFi connection sucked and then asked another if they got taller during quarantine. The good-natured ribbing is a show of affection from Lowry... we think. It’s almost more insulting if you don’t get dunked on.
“He’s great with us,” said head coach Nick Nurse, with a laugh. “I think he’s only thorny with you guys.”
It’s taken some time for Lowry to graduate from class clown to valedictorian but that’s where he finds himself now, firmly entrenched at the forefront of the defending champs as the league gets set to resume its season in Orlando at the end of the month.
For most of his tenure in Toronto, Lowry’s been the team’s most valuable player, its heart and soul. However, after spending seven seasons sharing the spotlight – first with DeMar DeRozan and then next to Kawhi Leonard – there’s no question as to who’s steering this ship.
“I think it’s clearly Kyle’s team,” Nurse said, following the Raptors’ third practice session in the bubble on Monday morning. “His care factor is up there, his intelligence factor is way up there. We’re in good hands with him as the leader of this team.”
In keeping with his regular routine, Lowry has generally been the first player in the gym, whether it was for individual workouts in Fort Myers earlier this month or ahead of the team’s first few practices in the bubble. He’s come into training camp in great shape, according to many of his coaches and teammates, and seems ready to pick up where he left off before the season was put on hold.
Lowry’s 14th NBA campaign was shaping up to be one of his best. After embracing his role as a facilitator last season – when he averaged a career-high in assists – he’s taken on more of the offensive workload in the absence of DeRozan and Leonard, averaging 19.7 points to go along with 4.8 rebounds and 7.7 assists.
But a big part of his personal and professional growth has come with the understanding that leadership is more than just an on-court thing. It’s more than running the offence and taking charges, though that stuff certainty doesn’t hurt. It’s also about how you carry yourself off the court, the example you set, and what you do with your platform.
What has Lowry been up to over the last four months?
For one, the veteran guard was part of a group of players that worked closely with the NBA to help formulate the league’s restart plan.
“It kind of fell into my lap a little bit with how it happened,” Lowry said. “But it was interesting to come up with some of the concepts and to talk that over, and make sure that it's done the right way for all the players, coaches, and it's safe and [done] in the healthiest way we possibly can do it.”
So far, he’s been impressed with the health and safety protocols that the league has implemented on campus. A skeptic by nature, Lowry has adopted a positive approach when it comes to the NBA’s attempted restart, and that’s not lost on his teammates who are looking to him for leadership in a time of uncertainty.
“He was a big part, with the players association, of getting us here,” Nurse said. “And having him as the guy who’s kind of setting the example of, he’ll say to these guys, take this stuff seriously, take these protocols seriously, let’s be smart and let’s do it and I think it certainly resonates with the rest of the team.”
“I think our protocols and our health and safety measures have been top-notch,” said Lowry. “I think this thing will work perfectly. I think the league and the players association have done a great job, a phenomenal job of doing everything we can possibly do to make sure that we’re healthy, we’re safe and we’re in an environment where we can be successful and do our jobs at a high level.”
By all accounts, Lowry has also been one of the league’s most vocal players in regards to the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing fight to inspire meaningful change.
“It wasn’t just the George Floyd protests,” he said. “It was the protest of social injustices. It was protests for Black people in general. We are in a time where we need to keep that conversation going. We need to be heard from. We need to speak loud and clear. We need to understand that things have to be done for the situation to be changed, laws to be changed, opportunities to be given.”
“It wasn’t just about one person. One person kind of set it off, but a lot of other people have gone through this traumatization of getting killed by police. This time we needed to speak up and needed to do something. For me to be a part of that, that’s just who I am. That’s how I am. That’s how I grew up. I grew up a Black man in America. It’s definitely a tough thing to grow up that way, because you never know what could possibly happen to you. You never know if you’re going to make it out. For me to be able to talk to you guys is a blessing. So, for me to be able to do that, it’s my right, my duty and my honour to represent the Black culture.”
For young players on this Raptors team, for young players on any team, Lowry’s footsteps are worth following in.