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Taking NBA hostage

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Anthony L. Cuaycong

Courtside

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (left) and his teammates react to his speech at a rally at Nathan Phillips Square. -- JOHN E. SOKOLOWSKI-USA TODAY SPORTS

Even in the midst of the frenzied activity that has enveloped social media since the National Basketball Association officially declared open season on free agents over the weekend, the rapid-fire scrambling that occurred stateside on Twitterverse as Kawhi Leonard engaged with the Raptors the other day proved nothing short of remarkable. Across the border, it also made for must-see TV as a Canada-based broadcast network that just so happens to have the same parent company as the franchise wooing the reigning Finals Most Valuable Player saw fit to cover his travel arrangements.

The degree to which CP24 followed Leonard’s every move bordered on the extreme. It aired live footage of the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment plane touching down at Pearson International Airport, of him and three companions in casual clothing (and sporting New Balance footwear) stepping on the tarmac and into stretch limousines, and of the ride to Hazelton Hotel in downtown Toronto, where the meeting was to take place. All the elaborate measures to keep tabs on him evoked memories of O.J. Simpson’s ride on the Interstate-5 freeway in Southern California 25 years ago, a spectacle viewed by 94 million pairs of eyes (and which so gripped the United States that it actually interrupted the airing of Game Five of the Knicks-Rockets Finals).

Not as many in much-smaller Canada were tuned in to CP24. Nonetheless, citizens — and netizens — were transfixed. Even as the streets to the hotel were lined with civilians eager to show their support for the erstwhile Raptors champion, incessant refreshes on connected devices of fans everywhere else reflected a hunger for news that underscored the importance of the decision he would be making. The fates of three teams, and of still-unsigned free agents, lay in the balance, and the utter absence of any indication as to where he appeared to be leaning served only to further the speculation.

That Leonard’s trek to his meeting was subjected to intense scrutiny ran counter to his specified preference to keep a close lid on negotiations. He warned Raptors, Clippers, and Lakers of the need to go dark so as to provide him with the space he required to make an informed choice. They have, for the most part, complied, an astounding effort in the face of the ease with which advances in technology have allowed particulars of just about anything to flow freely. Still, he couldn’t but have been affected by the outpouring of interest from a nation he just led to the top. How he was affected remains to be seen.

Parenthetically, Leonard has taken flak for supposedly holding the league hostage to his intentions. In truth, he has every right to take his time regardless of the upshot of his deliberate pace. It took eight days before LeBron James announced The Decision in 2010, and 11 days before formalizing a return to the Cavaliers in 2014. The latest has the acknowledged Dynasty Killer making known his plans on Independence Day. Should the so-called Fourth of Kawhi go through, he will have spent the same amount of time Kevin Durant did before making the move to the Warriors in 2016.

In any case, Leonard’s suitors will be prepared. The Raptors, Clippers, and Lakers may well have let other talents sign elsewhere as they continue to wait on his doorstep, but the risk is definitely worth the potential reward. If they luck out, they will find themselves casting moist eyes on the Larry O’Brien Trophy with ample reason. If they don’t, they will have gambled as best they could, anyway. It’s hard to get rings, and hard to get players who can get rings. And whenever there’s an opportunity to do so, caution must be thrown to the wind. The time for celebration, or heartbreak, will come soon enough.




 

Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing the Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is a consultant on strategic planning, operations and Human Resources management, corporate communications, and business development.