In his 10 short months as a Toronto Raptor, Kawhi Leonard has already made history, leading the team to its first National Basketball Association finals in their 24-year history.
Toronto businesses are now stepping up in a last-ditch bid to make sure his tenure doesn’t end anytime soon. With the forward set to become a free agent on June 30, real estate investors, restaurant owners and tattoo shops are rolling out the red carpet, offering everything from free food for life to luxury penthouses to persuade him to stay.
Dozens of restaurants and bars across Canada’s biggest city have joined the “Ka’Wine & Dine” initiative, which offers Leonard free food, rides and shop perks for life if he re-signs with the Raptors rather than depart for Los Angeles or some other U.S. basketball mecca.
“We’re a downtown restaurant, we see the economic impact of winning teams in Toronto,” said Julius Chapple, a spokesman for Rodney’s Oyster House on King Street West, which has joined the “Ka’Wine & Dine” movement. “A culture of winning brings millions of dollars to the city of Toronto, so longer term, there’s massive value to having people like him stay.”
The head of a condo brokerage has even offered the 27-year-old player his choice of a penthouse at the Four Seasons, St. Regis or Ritz-Carlton residences to live in while playing for the team.
“We want to get the support of the city behind Kawhi and ensure he’s comfortable in a multi-million dollar condo that is built for a king,” Simon Mass, chief executive officer of The Condo Store Realty Inc., said in an emailed statement.
Kraft Heinz Co. has also gotten into the act, offering the Raptor unlimited Kraft Dinner macaroni and cheese meals.
Leonard’s play in recent weeks has endeared him to basketball fans across Canada who’ve been starved of playoff success since the team joined the league in 1995. Series wins against the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers, and most recently the Milwaukee Bucks, have set the stage for the finals show-down with the six-time champions Golden State Warriors starting Thursday.
Leonard has led the charge all the way, averaging more than 31 points per game in the playoffs. That already places him third among all-time Raptors playoff scorers after just one year. His buzzer-beater shot in the seventh and deciding game against Philadelphia will be forever etched in Raptors’ fans memories. And his thunderous one-handed dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo to clinch the series near the end of Game 6 against Milwaukee only added to his stature.
Fans went wild across the city after the Raptors came back from a 15-point deficit against the Bucks for the series win over the league’s best team in the regular season. Streets were crowded with screaming fans and cheers could be heard across downtown, echoing from condo balconies. The rapper Drake, the Raptors’ ambassador and a court-side fixture at all home games, sported a hoodie during the game with "Kawhi Me A River” written on the back.
“He’s been unbelievable - he’s the best player in the league,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said of Leonard after the game, during the conference trophy presentation in front of the raucous home crowd.
Ujiri now looks like a genius after landing Leonard in a trade last July with the San Antonio Spurs alongside Danny Green for players including long-time Raptors forward DeMar DeRozan.
Tickets for the first two games of the finals -- Thursday and Sunday -- are already sold out at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena. The cheapest tickets are going for about $699 on StubHub, while court-side seats can be had for up to $25,000.
Despite the offers of free real estate and food, Leonard is hardly in need of financial support. He already makes about $23 million in the final year of his five-year contract signed with San Antonio. According to ESPN, the Raptors will be able to offer Leonard a five-year, US$190 million contract, while other teams might pitch a four-year, US$141 million deal.
All the Kraft Dinner in the world may not be enough to keep him. Hailing originally from Los Angeles, he’s one of the most attractive free agents up for grabs this year. Few basketball pundits expect him to stay in Toronto, though he said little about his plans beyond this year.
Recent odds posted by SportsBetting.ag give Toronto fans some reason for hope: They list the Raptors as the team most likely to land Leonard for next year, followed by the Los Angeles Clippers and then the Lakers.
In the meantime, fans are savoring the moment.
“We want to do what we can to ensure that our MVP stays in Toronto where he is loved and respected for being the best of the best,” Mass said.