Kyle Lowry’s northern exposure
How loyalty, hard work is paying off for Toronto’s first-time All-Star point guard
Updated: February 13, 2015, 12:24 PM ET
By Mike Mazzeo | ESPNNewYork.com
Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Lowry was nearly dealt, but after signing a new deal, he has Toronto among the East elite.
TORONTO — Kyle Lowry’s bags were packed for New York City. He called a friend to box up the rest of his belongings. When the Toronto Raptors stumbled out of the gate with a 7-11 start to the 2013-14 season, GM Masai Ujiri traded high-volume scorer Rudy Gay, and the 28-year-old point guard was under the impression he was next.
“I didn’t think I was getting traded anywhere besides the Knicks,” Lowry says. “I thought that was the trade, and Masai was truthfully telling me that I’m gonna trade you somewhere where you can be a starter. I honestly thought that was going to happen. I had two duffle bags ready to go. I’ve been traded once during the season and once during the offseason. So I was mentally prepared.”
Ujiri was open with Lowry and his agent, Andy Miller. The Raptors were about to enter rebuilding mode. A deal sending Lowry to the New York Knicks seemed imminent.
After failing to find a long-term NBA home in Memphis, Houston and Toronto, Lowy’s next attempt would come at Madison Square Garden.
It’s funny how things happen, though. The deal never materialized, and now, after signing a long-term deal, making the Raptors a force in the Eastern Conference, and emerging as top-tier NBA player by almost any measure, Lowry is on his way to New York in a wholly different context — as an All-Star starter, representing the team and city that just might come to define his hardworking career.
Lowry’s transformation over the last year-and-a-half from near-permanent New York resident to Canadian Hero All-Star starter visiting the Big Apple came in phases, nearly all of them underscored by the grit that has defined Lowry from the beginning.
After the Knicks wouldn’t meet Ujiri’s demand for a future first-round pick in a deal for Lowry, the point guard forged a new kind of on-court chemistry with the teammates left behind after the Gay trade, most notably DeMar DeRozan. They rallied, and surprised some people. By the playoffs, Lowry almost single-handedly carried his team to a grueling, seven-game first-round series with the rival Brooklyn Nets, captivating a hockey-loving country of 35 million.
It came down to the final possession in the final game. With the Raptors trailing by a single point, Lowry drove the lane but got his shot blocked by Paul Pierce as the buzzer sounded.
“It sucked,” Lowry says. “It was a disappointing moment because we were so close to going to the next round, and I felt like we could’ve done anything last year. It took me a little while to get over it, but it’s something that you learn from. I don’t think I dwell on it. Honestly, I never think about it until people bring it up. It is what it is. I’m not the first to get his shot blocked like that, and I won’t be the last.”
The season was over. But Lowry, entering free agency, felt he had unfinished business in Toronto.
After stints in Memphis and Houston, Lowry discovered his All-Star level north of the border.
Lowry was heavily-courted. The Rockets, Heat and Lakers all coveted his services. Contention would have been possible if he returned to Houston alongside Dwight Howard, James Harden and (as it appeared at the time) Chandler Parsons. There were real conversations about teaming up with LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, too.
“It was like, ‘OK, what do you do?’ ” Lowry says. “Do you go play with Dwight and James? You would have to take a lesser role, but your team would probably go farther. Or you go to L.A. and be behind Kobe or do you go to Miami and be behind LeBron or do you come back to a place where you know who you are?”
The Raptors, though, had unique things to offer, including something Lowry had felt as Canada got fired up for the team during their playoff run.
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“It’s a country you’re playing for, not just a city. You’ve got a friend on the team (DeRozan) in the same backcourt, a leader who doesn’t care what you do; he just wants you to be happy. No recruiting, no pitching, nothing. Just, ‘Whatever you do, bro, I’m gonna be happy for you.’ It’s kinda hard to leave that. It was close. It was very close.”
The Rockets, Lowry says, were probably the closest competition. But there was uncertainty. What would Carmelo Anthony do? What would James decide? Lowry didn’t want his fate to be decided for him. And he wasn’t interested in playing second, third or fourth fiddle, either.
“I made the decision to say, ‘You may not ever get a chance to say it’s your team again. Take advantage of it,’ ” Lowry says. “I told Masai to give me the (fourth-year) player option and he did. That’s when I knew it was time to stay. I didn’t wait for the cookies to crumble. I wanted to make my decision based on me, not on anybody else.”
The Raptors and Lowry agreed on a four-year, $48 million deal, with a player option for the final year. He had received financial security essentially for the rest of his and his family’s life.
He put the rest of summer to good use, practicing his jump shot, his mid-range game, his post moves. He “stole” some tricks from the two point guards he would pay to watch — Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. Conditioning and dieting were also a huge focus, with Lowry wanting to improve his endurance.
“I’m never complacent, because that’s not how I got here,” Lowry says. “I got here by working hard, and I’m never gonna stop working hard. Because why stop working hard for something you worked so hard to get?”
All of his hard work has translated into a career season. Lowry enters the All-Star break averaging a career-high 18.6 points and 7.2 assists. He ranks 14th in the NBA real plus-minus and 35th in PER.
It wasn’t easy.
The Raptors got off to a 13-3 start this season, then DeRozan went down with a torn groin tendon. Reports at the time were that Lowry’s most trusted teammate — the linchpin of his return to Toronto — would be out indefinitely.
It’s a country you’re playing for, not just a city. You’ve got a friend on the team (DeRozan) in the same backcourt, a leader who doesn’t care what you do; he just wants you to be happy.
– Kyle Lowry
In their first game without him, the Raptors lost to the lottery-bound Lakers in overtime. Critics wondered if the team could survive DeRozan’s loss.
“I remember when we lost to the Lakers, I was like, ‘All right, let’s go out here and fix it.’ Lowry says. “I picked up my stuff up and said we’re gonna battle. And that’s what we did. I had worked so hard for this moment, and I wasn’t going to let it slip through my hands.”
The Raptors stayed afloat, winning 12 of their next 20. Controlling the ball more than ever, Lowry put up gaudy statistics across the board — scoring 30 or more points on three occasions — but swears it was never about that. “If you start worrying about your shooting percentages, you start not taking the shots you know you can make,” Lowry says. “You start worry about taking shots because you don’t want to mess up your percentage. For me, I’m still going to shoot the halfcourt shot if I can. I don’t worry about my percentages too much. It’s about winning games.”
Although Lowry’s numbers have dropped since DeRozan’s return — in that 16-game span, he’s shooting only 38.2 percent from the field, which may be related to calf, hamstring, and finger injuries — in general the Raptors have survived, currently holding the No. 2 seed in the East.
In the process, a new kind of trust has emerged.
Lowry once clashed with Raptors coach Dwane Casey, but the trust between them has grown such that not only does Lowry have the freedom to attack the paint out of the pick-and-roll, and run the offense the way he knows best, but Casey told reporters that he’d be willing to get in a “physical fight” with the other East coaches if Lowry wasn’t named an All-Star reserve.
As Lowry has delivered for the Raptors, Canada has noticed. Lowry became an All-Star starter by fan vote, which was the product of a nationwide campaign with contributions from the prime minister — Stephen Harper — as well as the likes of Drake and Justin Bieber.
When Lowry found out he was named an All-Star starter for the first time in his nine-year career, he described himself as shocked, astonished and excited at who he’ll be sharing the court with. “I’m like a kid in a candy store in that situation. I’m nine years in and I know these guys are my peers, but I just watched Steph score 51.”
Said Casey: “The way he played last year and the way he’s played this year, you’re willing to go through a wall for him. That’s why I said that — though a lot of it was obviously in jest. He’s played like an All-Star, he deserved to be an All-Star. I thought he deserved it last year, but the way he’s led our team and played hard for this organization, it’s good to see.”
Ron Turenne/NBAE/Getty Images
A fierce competitor on the court, Lowry has no problem shifting into family mode off of it.
Above Lowry’s locker, there is a sign that says “GOOD LUCK DAD.” It was made by his soon-to-be 4-year-old son, Karter, and has remained there since the playoffs ended.
“He’s my life. He’s my guiding light. He’s the reason I do what I do now,” Lowry says.
Lowry’s on- and off-court personalities couldn’t be more different.
“I’m a wuss. I’m a pushover and a wuss. But it’s worth it. And that’s the joy of being an NBA player. Because I can go out on the court and be an animal, be a beast. I ain’t a pushover,” Lowry says. “But when I go home when I’m with my family, my friends and my wife and my child, I’m just Dad and a husband. I’m just ‘Dad, go get this’ and ‘Kyle, go get that.’ It’s different.”
Lowry’s father wasn’t in his life growing up, but he certainly will be in Karter’s.
“I know what I wanna be and what I don’t wanna be, which is an absent parent,” Lowry says. “I wanna be hands-on.”
Lowry guesses he has four or five years of prime production left, and is happy to be spending them with his wife, Ayahna, and Karter, in Toronto. He sees great diversity in the schools, and has routines of parenthood — shooting baskets together, watching cartoons, playing Hungry Hungry Hippos — that make him feel at home.
I’m never complacent, because that’s not how I got here. … I got here by working hard, and I’m never gonna stop working hard.
– Kyle Lowry
“I think a father is someone that’s biological,” he says. “I think a dad, that’s my daddy, d-a-d-d-y, that’s my pop, he’s my guy. I think when a kid says, ‘That’s my dad,’ I think it’s just a little bit more loving and happy.”
Will it last for the long haul? Is the NBA the home Lowry has always wanted?
NBA history would suggest winning is the glue that most meaningfully bonds a star to a city. In that regard, the Raptors have a young core, continuity and depth on their side. The ability to hit 3-pointers in bunches helps, too. Contending, say experts, is a matter of protecting the paint and contesting perimeter jumpers on the defensive end.
DeRozan says it’s up to the players: “It’s definitely feasible. All we’ve gotta do is continue to play consistent basketball. Honestly, we understand that we can play with anybody in the league. There’s nobody in this league we feel like we have to worry about or we’re scared of. As long as we play consistent basketball, anything can happen.”
“We wanna get to 50 wins,” Lowry said. “That’s a big mark for us. And I think we wanna bypass the first round. That’s what we wanna do. I know we wanna go farther. But we wanna go and try to win big, and internally, we wanna try to go to the Eastern Conference finals. That’s what we wanna do. I think every team should wanna do that, but that’s our team goal. We don’t just wanna win small, we wanna win big.”