The parade buses pulled out of the OVO Center, puttered east down Lakeshore Boulevard, cut north up York Street and turned onto Ontario University Avenue before stopping in Nathan Phillips Square, where a horde of red-clad Raptors fans—some of whom had sacked out there in sleeping bags the night before—waited to celebrate the city’s first major sports championship since Joe Carter’s home run delivered a second straight title for the Blue Jays, in 1993.
From a perch atop one bus 33-year-old point guard Kyle Lowry took it all in. He sprayed the crowd with champagne. He hugged Drake. He made small talk with Justin Trudeau. When fans chanted One more year at Kawhi Leonard—the Finals MVP who will become an unrestricted free agent on June 30—Lowry hovered above Leonard, stuck his palm in the air and tweaked the wording: Five more years. He hugged the Larry O’Brien trophy, pressing it to his throwback Damon Stoudamire jersey. Fitting: an homage to the Original Raptor from Mr. Raptor.
The journey took him from Cardinal Dougherty High to Villanova, where his game blossomed after his college career nearly fell apart. Coach Jay Wright remembers his two years with Lowry vividly. “He wanted to do things his way,” says Wright. “The other side of it was you always knew he was intelligent and he had a good heart. Really, it was a strange combination.” Lowry’s insistence on doing things his way had Wright wondering if the four-star recruit was worth the trouble: “It got to the point where I said, ‘If you don’t do it our way, you’ve got to go.’ ” In August, Wright warned Lowry: Don’t ditch freshman orientation. On the first day Lowry was a no-show. Wright was incensed. He intended to toss Lowry off the team. When he tracked Lowry down, he was in the hospital. He had torn his ACL in a summer league game that morning. But he was back on the floor in December and missed only seven games,
The journey took him to Memphis, where he saw the team draft another point guard, Mike Conley, after his rookie season, then to Houston, where he chafed under the direct, brusque style of coach Kevin McHale. It finally took him to Toronto, where be developed into an All-Star but couldn’t overcome LeBron James in the playoffs, where he bottled up his anger in the aftermath of the Raptors’ trading his best friend, All-Star shooting guard DeMar DeRozan, where he played with amazing fire in the Finals, culminating in a 26-point, 10-assist effort in Game 6 at Oakland, ending the Warriors’ reign.
“Words can’t describe the feeling,” says Lowry. “Wow. Just f------ wow.”
Last summer Raptors president Masai Ujiri believed his team had plateaued and needed a shakeup. So Ujiri fired Dwane Casey a month-and-a-half before he was named the Coach of the Year, and replaced him with assistant Nick Nurse. Then he flipped DeRozan, center Jakob Poeltl and a first-round pick to the Spurs for Leonard and shooting guard Danny Green, gambling that Leonard—coming off an injury-ravaged season—could push the team to a championship level. Lowry was crushed.
A hash-it-out meeting between Lowry and Ujiri should have happened last fall. It needed to happen in early February, with the Raptors struggling and the strained relationship between Lowry and Ujiri—who interpreted his star’s put-your-head-down-and-do-your-job mentality as indifference that was poisoning the locker room. “We needed to figure some things out,” Ujiri says. “We needed to communicate. We needed to sit down and talk.”
Lowry is hardheaded. He knows it. He knows where he gets it: His grandmother Shirley Holloway, who raised Lowry with his mother, Marie, was just as stubborn. “About everything,” Lowry recalls. Don’t walk down the stairs like that. Don’t cook grits like that. On Sundays, don’t think about coming near the kitchen until she was done cleaning. “Like, ‘Everybody get out of my goddam way or I ain’t cooking breakfast,’ ” Lowry says. “You don’t get breakfast when she’s cleaning. How I am, that’s straight from grandma.”
That streak cut both ways. It earned Lowry a reputation as hard to handle. He didn’t think he deserved it with the Grizzlies, who drafted him in the first round in 2006 only to give up on him midway through his third season. “I had bad coaches,” says Lowry. He definitely deserved it with the Rockets. Lowry spent two and a half seasons playing for Rick Adelman, connecting with the coach’s laid-back approach. After the 2010–11 season, Houston replaced Adelman with McHale, whom Lowry, then 25, clashed with immediately. “You have to earn [Lowry’s] trust,” says Wright. “He’s not giving that away easily.” After one season together, Lowry requested a trade. “I didn’t buy in,” says Lowry. “I have apologized to Kevin. I didn’t know he was trying to coach me. At the time, I didn’t understand it.”
That stubbornness, though, fuels Lowry. After being traded to Toronto, a rival executive (Lowry declines to name him) told him he should prepare for life as a backup. Lowry has played 497 games for the Raptors—and started 481. A former teammate (“Jared Jeffries,” says Lowry. “Yeah, you call him out”) once told Lowry he would never make more than $5 million per year. In 2017, Lowry signed a three-year, $100 million deal.
A tense meeting with Ujiri wouldn’t be a first, either. Ujiri didn’t trade for Lowry. He was hired in 2013, a year after the Raptors acquired Lowry from Houston for a first-round pick and little-used swingman Gary Forbes. Ujiri loved Lowry’s talent. His fearlessness. His ferocity. He hated his body language and his defiant attitude. Before training camp that fall, Ujiri called Lowry into his office. He challenged him. He said Lowry could be a $4 million per year player or a $12 million per year man. Lowry heard him. He responded with a career-best season, improving his scoring average from 11.6 points to 17.9 and propelling Toronto into the playoffs.
Lowry resists the label. He’s the longest tenured member of the NBA champs—seven years, and counting, during which he made five All-Star teams and led Toronto to five division titles—but he thinks of himself more as a cog in the wheel. Lowry isn’t much for reflection—“I’ll reflect when I retire,” he says—but he appreciates the journey, which began at 20th and Lehigh in North Philadelphia, on the blacktop courts near where Connie Mack Stadium once stood, where the undersized kid with the baggy shorts and oversized T-shirt fired up shots until dinner time—then went back and tossed up a few more.