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Kawhi Leonard vs. Raptors will be the rarest kind of reunion of a star and his former team

Andrew Greif, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Basketball

LOS ANGELES -- When the Toronto Raptors became the first NBA franchise outside the U.S. to win the championship last June, Mfiondu Kabengele was in Florida.

Wanting to experience the celebration unfolding in Toronto, the city that was a 50-minute drive from his Ontario hometown, the 6-foot-10 center from Florida State grabbed his laptop and logged into a website of a Canadian television provider.

"People were flooding the streets," Kabengele said, a smile still wide from the memory. "Hanging off the street lights."

Twenty days and a championship parade later, Kabengele was a Clippers first-round draft pick watching as dozens of fans returned to one Toronto street, in particular, to wait outside a hotel they believed the NBA Finals' most valuable player, Kawhi Leonard, was inside. They hoped to persuade the Southern California native, who'd led Toronto less than a year after arriving via trade, to stay north of the border instead of leaving as a free agent.

It didn't work. Leonard chose the Clippers two days later, becoming the first Finals MVP to leave for another team before the following season.

In Canada, "Kawhi is like folklore now," Kabengele said. "He did his thing one year, gave them everything they needed and then disappeared. It was crazy."

 

When Leonard plays against Toronto on Monday at Staples Center for the first time since leaving town, nothing crazy is expected. Leonard still talks with some former teammates and has watched the Raptors during a 6-2 start that has them No. 2 in the Eastern Conference.

"It's going to be fun to see the guys and just congratulate them and be able to shake hands and compete," Leonard said Saturday.

Still, the reunion will be unlike any Clippers coach Doc Rivers can remember. Matchups between a player and his former team often can be fueled by hard feelings. Monday is notable for the apparent lack of that. Days after Leonard departed, Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he "can't blame a guy for wanting to go home." In August, Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry said he was "happy for him. Truly. I am genuinely happy for him."

"It's one of those leave-good situations, not one of those leave-awful situations, and let's be honest, in our league it's usually the other way," Rivers said. "He's had the benefit, the rare benefit, of being able to leave in a happy state. That's rare. Has it happened?"

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