The Plunge

Wedded Blitz! The Ides of Maine

You Can Count on Me

Kyle Lowry’s career-long search for trust

The biggest play of Kyle Lowry’s life was doomed from the start. He had led the Toronto Raptors into the closing seconds of Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of last season’s Eastern Conference playoffs. Lowry approached a moment that nearly every player covets. Toronto trailed by a point, with the ball and a shade over six seconds remaining. There was no doubt where Greivis Vasquez would look to throw the inbounds pass. Raptors coach Dwane Casey designed the play for Lowry, Toronto’s point guard, to create a game-winning shot for himself or a teammate off a pick-and-roll. But the Raptors believed the play would originate on the near side. “If you noticed, in that last 10 seconds, we had to shift to the whole [other] side of the court,” Lowry recently recalled.

Lowry fended off Brooklyn’s Deron Williams to free himself for the pass. The Raptors had poor spacing on the play and four Nets would guard Lowry in those six seconds. Lowry split two of them, momentarily losing the ball before snatching it back and finding a sliver of space to glimpse the basket. Automatic, DeMar DeRozan thought as Lowry slipped to the basket and a sweet spot where he had converted countless shots.

“It happened so fast,” Lowry said. “I thought I’d be able to get the shot off. I didn’t know I was that close to him when I got back to the shot.” “Him” was Paul Pierce, who stuffed Lowry’s shot and vanquished Toronto’s hopes of advancing to the conference semifinals. Pierce had disregarded DeRozan, Lowry’s All-Star backcourt mate, to station himself for the block.

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After the game, Lowry sat in the locker room, sullen and solemn as minutes ticked by. He called for his 2-year-old son Karter. “The loss stung and the shot, the play stung,” Lowry said. “But I didn’t ask for nothing but my son. I know he doesn’t care about what happens. He don’t care about nothing but his daddy.” Lowry scooped up his son and finally made his way to the postgame media conference. He crossed paths again with Pierce. “You’re an animal, dog,” Pierce said. “You’re an animal.”

Months later, Lowry was in Las Vegas as summer wound down and a new season approached. The Simpsons marathon played on FXX in his home. He felt a comfort that had eluded him over the first eight years of his NBA career: The Raptors had recently signed him to a four-year, $48 million contract. It was the first time a franchise had ever truly committed to making Lowry one of the team’s stars, and it meant he could finally look forward to a season with no trade rumors and no splitting starter’s minutes with another point guard. He talked about this status, this responsibility that he’s fought his whole career to attain: to be the guy on his team  the unquestioned leader, the one who walks the tightrope between praise and pressure, success and failure.

“You always ask for a team to be your team, right?” he said. “Every single night, that team and your teammates are like, All right, you know you need to bring it for everybody else. And if you don’t bring it, they ain’t bringing it. So when you’re the leader, you’ve got to [be] mentally focused every night. Luckily, my backcourt mate [DeRozan], we get along. I say we’re co-leaders and we understand [that] sometimes, things aren’t going to go the right way … Every single night, we’re playing for each other.”

He has revisited the season’s final play  “I had a chance to make us go to the second round and I didn’t make it happen” — again and again. A point guard like Lowry is expected to make game-changing decisions in fractions of seconds. But Lowry has had a full four months since the end of the Raptors’ season to review and rehash those six seconds against the Nets.

“I broke down that play so many times in my mind,” Lowry said. “Could have shot a jump shot; could have caught it, not even used a screen; could have went right; could have stopped and faded away; could have did my step-back like I wanted to. I could have did a lot of different things.”

But that disappointing end came in a season when many saw significant growth from Lowry on and off the court. “In one year, I think he grew up,” said Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri. Lowry always predicted he’d be a team’s star, while few others did. “I’ve always been second fiddle, man, to everything,” he said. “Everything. But I never believed that I was lesser than this person, that person, anybody. I always thought I was on the same level.”

That stubborn confidence was the fuel that gave Lowry steam on the court, and also the hindrance that threatened him from reaching his potential. And he knows it. “You do this interview with me when I’m younger, you wouldn’t even want to be around me,” Lowry said, recalling the way he’s felt on teams that haven’t given him the trust and responsibility that Toronto has, back to the days when he came off the bench for his AAU team. “It makes you sad. It makes you say, Damn, what else can happen? What do I have to do to prove that I can be somebody? That I can actually play basketball? That I’m actually better than this person or I can actually help a team win? No matter what level it is.”



Marie Holloway will never forget when her son Kyle lost hope in his father, Lonnie Lowry Sr. His dad had been an intermittent presence in the lives of Kyle and his older brother, Lonnie Jr., despite living 10 minutes from their North Philadelphia home. One day, when Kyle was about 12, his father kept promising that he would pick Kyle up so they could spend an afternoon together. Kyle checked for his father throughout the day, and Lonnie Sr. never showed up.

“That was the day that I knew he just gave up on his dad,” Holloway said.

For Holloway, the memory of that day remains vivid. That is not Lowry’s case. “Honestly, that was so long ago,” he said. “I probably gave up on my dad when I was born.”

Instead, Kyle grew close with his brother. It was Lonnie Jr. who made him dribble around the neighborhood with his off hand and play pickup hoops against older boys. “He helped as much as he could,” Lowry said of his brother. “Still, he’s five years older than me. He don’t know how to be a dad. I’m eight. He’s thirteen. He doesn’t have a clue. He taught me how to be a basketball player. He taught me how to work hard, not how to be a man. For a kid not having a father, I don’t think you can fill that void.”

Dave Distel, one of Lowry’s youth-league coaches, saw how Lonnie Sr.’s absence affected Lowry. “It took extraordinarily long for most men to even get the chance to talk to him because he just had that stigma in his head that somebody’s out to fuck me,” Distel recalled. “Somebody’s going to screw me and I don’t trust anybody. The only people I trust is my mom, my grandmother, and my brother.”

Distel worked slowly to gain Lowry’s trust. He convinced Lowry to join him at Cardinal Dougherty High School, where he was an assistant. The Philadelphia Catholic League was bruising, full of athletes who played below the rim and preferred going through opponents to leaping over them. The style suited Lowry, who was powerful, stocky, and pugnacious. “A Philly player is what a basketball player is,” he explained. “It doesn’t matter if you’re six feet and they put you at power forward or if you’re seven-feet-two and they put you at point guard, you’ll get it done because you’re mentally tough. You understand how to play … We’re playing on concrete growing up. You ain’t trying to be athletic out there because you get hit the wrong way, you run into a metal pole.”

When Lowry began the college recruitment process, he asked Distel for help. His first choice was to attend school outside of Pennsylvania. Xavier, in Cincinnati, soon emerged as a top choice. Sean Miller, then an assistant at the school, had doggedly recruited him. Lowry informed Distel that he would announce his plans to become a Musketeer after his official recruiting trip a few weeks later. Before that happened, Thad Matta, Xavier’s then-coach, phoned Distel and said that they had another recruit ready to commit. Matta would save the spot for Lowry, but only if he could commit right then. Lowry refused. “If they can’t wait for me to come down for my official visit,” he told Distel, “they don’t really want me.”

Lowry then repeatedly found himself the odd man out in the recruiting process’s game of musical chairs. Whenever one opportunity popped up, another seemed to close. He scheduled visits with North Carolina, Connecticut, Kansas, and Syracuse, only for other recruits to fill each team’s roster spots before Lowry could visit. Distel suggested that Lowry stay near home and attend Villanova. Initially, the idea didn’t sit well with Lowry. “If you from Philly, you ain’t a Villanova guy,” he said. “Villanova is the suburbs. That’s all you know about Villanova.”

Lowry agreed to talk to Jay Wright, the school’s coach, and play in an open gym session with some of the Wildcats players and friends of the program. Lowry did not make a good first impression on Alvin Williams, a former Villanova point guard who played for the Raptors at the time. “Kyle was just always a stubborn, hard-nosed, hardheaded kid,” Williams said. Wright had recently recruited a number of strong guards in Randy Foye, Mike Nardi, and Allan Ray. Wright knew of Lowry, but the coach didn’t think Villanova possessed great odds of signing him. More importantly, Wright wasn’t sure that he even wanted Lowry. “In the beginning, he was a rough kid,” Wright recalled. “We didn’t know if he wanted to be at Villanova. Villanova is like la-la land out in the beautiful, wealthy suburbs of Philadelphia. This kid is a tough kid from North Philly. We don’t know if he’s going to like Villanova. There was nothing about him that showed that he was going to like Villanova, and we had a lot of great guards. We just thought it’s probably not going to be a great fit.”

But during the open gym, it became clear that Lowry’s addition could be a boost for the team. “He was just a different type of guard,” said Curtis Sumpter, a Villanova forward at the time. “Being from New York, I’m used to playing with flashy guards, scoring guards, just that New York style of play. Kyle, he was just so tough. He wasn’t the flashy guy. He wasn’t coming down to try and throw 150 crossovers and make all these fantastic moves. That wasn’t his game. He was just so solid and able to read the defenses and make the pass at the right time and get guys in the right position to score.”

Wright’s assistant, Billy Lange, began recruiting Lowry. Lange was young, about 30, and the son of a basketball coach. Lowry bonded with him like he had with few other adults. They talked basketball for hours. “The two of them were masterful,” Wright said. “Dave Distel was telling Kyle what to say to me. Billy was telling me how to handle Kyle. I don’t know if they really plotted it, but they probably were doing it together.” Lange did not try to influence Lowry’s decision or tell him what to do, and Lowry appreciated that. “He does not trust easily,” Lange said. “He wasn’t going to trust you just to trust you. There had to be a reason.”

Lowry eventually chose Villanova. But once he arrived on campus, he lasted not even a week before he considered transferring. Lowry told Distel that there were too many people telling him what to do and when to do it. Wright believed that Lowry was challenging him and his staff too much. “We knew he was going to be a handful,” Wright said. “I can’t say that I was surprised. But I was kind of shocked that it happened that fast.”

By then, Lange had left to accept a head coaching position at Navy. “I started to think there’s another male figure that’s letting him down,” Lange said. “I felt really bad.” After Lange’s decision to leave Villanova, Lowry felt betrayed. He remained close with Lange’s wife but ceased talking to Lange.

Lowry considered transferring, but Distel managed to talk him out of it. “Where do you want to go?” Distel asked. “Wherever you go, you’re going to have to sit for a year. You’ve already started classes here. You’re not going to be able to play this year, and these people want to help you.”

Lowry decided to stick with Villanova, but soon became sidelined by a torn ACL. Wright believes that is when Lowry started trusting his coaching staff. “I think it was the first time in his life he didn’t have basketball,” Wright said. “No one was getting anything from him basketball-wise. He didn’t know if he would ever play for us and we still loved him and cared for him just the same.” Wright had seen glimpses, he thought, of the real Lowry. The coach saw how devoted to his mother, grandmother, and brother Lowry was, and figured that underneath his hard exterior, Lowry had to be a good person. “I knew he was really smart even though he wanted to act like a tough street kid and act like he didn’t like anybody,” Wright said.

Lowry recovered remarkably and missed only the first few games of his freshman season, after which he was named to the Big East All-Rookie team. There were moments that year when his teammate Ray would think to himself, Holy shit, this kid is a human pit bull on the court.

When Sumpter suffered a serious knee injury during Lowry’s sophomore season, Wright replaced him in the lineup with Lowry, and Villanova’s famous four-guard starting five was born. Foye and Lowry led the group with their tough, aggressive play, and Villanova remained ranked in the top 10 throughout 2005-06 and captured the school’s first no. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament before losing to eventual champion Florida in the Elite Eight.

After the season, Lowry met with Wright. Neither had imagined that Lowry might be contemplating entering the NBA draft when the school year began. But Lowry had garnered enough accolades and enough scouts had seen him that Lowry believed he would be selected in the first round. “A lot of pressure would be on me,” Lowry said, describing the situation he’d face if he decided to remain at Villanova. “You want the pressure, but in college they scrutinize you. The longer you stay, the worse off you are.” Lowry chose to leave school and enter the draft.

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

For Lowry, the NBA draft ended up being “the scariest shit of my life.” He found out that his creatinine level  which measures the filtering functions of one’s kidneys  had tested abnormally high. A handful of franchises red-flagged him. Lowry worried about not just his future playing career, but his lifelong health. The Cavaliers summoned him back to Cleveland on the eve of the draft to reevaluate him. Lowry flew there the morning of the draft and rushed to return to Philly for a party Distel was throwing in his honor. He arrived roughly midway through the first round, after the lottery selections.

His college teammate, Foye, had already been picked seventh by the Celtics, although his rights were traded twice before Foye finally signed to start his career in Minnesota. Draft experts had debated which of the two Villanova guards would become the better pro. Some believed Lowry had greater NBA upside, but concerns over his medical condition, past injuries, and attitude turned some organizations away. “I think he’ll get drafted,” an NBA scout who requested anonymity told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 2006. “I think he plays hard and all that, but I don’t think he’s an NBA starter. Why give him money?”

Lowry dropped into the late first round, where Memphis selected him 24th overall. In just the 10th game of his rookie year, he suffered a broken wrist that kept him sidelined for the remainder of the year. He worried that his career would stagnate and that when he returned, he might be demoted to the D-League. Lowry hoped he still had a future in Memphis. While he was recovering, he would often visit teammate Mike Miller’s house — even when Miller was not there. Lowry would punch in the security code and could practice shots on an indoor, regulation hoop while watching television — all in the same giant room. He couldn’t wait to get back on the court, and envisioned himself running the team and growing with the Grizzlies. Then, at the next summer’s draft, Memphis chose Mike Conley Jr., another point guard. Lowry was stunned.

“We felt that Mike was the best player available,” recalled Memphis general manager Chris Wallace. “We had Damon Stoudamire toward the back end of his career and we had Kyle, who had been there the year before. But the selection was more about Mike Conley and where we felt he could eventually be as an NBA player.”

Lowry and Conley are good friends, but Lowry realized his NBA future would not be in Memphis. Their respective positions in the draft sealed Lowry’s fate. “No matter what you do, you’re twenty-four,” Lowry explained. “He’s four.” In early 2009, Lionel Hollins was named the team’s head coach and Lowry was told that the team would devote the starter’s minutes to Conley. Lowry was unhappy with his role, and some in the organization considered him a bad influence on the roster, a description that still upsets him. “Lionel didn’t say shit to me,” Lowry said. “It was crazy. I’m twenty-two, twenty-three years old. How am I a bad influence on guys who are older? I just wanted to play basketball … I’m not trying to be on somebody’s bad side. But I think Lionel just needed a scapegoat and I was the young guy and I had a little bit of an attitude. Who wouldn’t have an attitude who’s trying to play? You’re not even giving me a chance to play.”

Memphis traded Lowry to the Houston Rockets in February 2009. “We were having difficulty in developing him and Mike Conley at the same time because both of them saw themselves as starting point guards, and rightfully so,” Wallace said, adding that he considered Lowry to be a natural leader. “We were struggling as a team. There was not a great deal of veteran presence on the team. We weren’t winning that many games. We decided at that point to put a priority on developing Mike Conley, so we moved Kyle.” The Rockets only had to give up Rafer Alston to receive Lowry and Brian Cook in a three-team deal that also included the Orlando Magic. The deal delighted Houston’s front office, who believed they had given up very little to secure a point guard who could lead the team for years to come.

In Houston, Lowry grew to appreciate the tutelage of his new coach, Rick Adelman. Adelman admitted he knew little about Lowry when the team acquired him. “He figured out how to make his teammates better,” Adelman said. “He knew where Kevin Martin wanted the ball or when to call plays for him to get him involved in the game. There’s just not a lot of timeouts in our game, and you need your point guard to understand that he has to get everybody involved.”

Lowry’s reputation grew. In 2010-11, he started 71 games. That season, the NCAA held its Final Four in Houston and Billy Lange, the former Villanova assistant with whom Lowry had once been close, attended the event to network with other college basketball figures. He decided to reach out to Lowry and try to reestablish their relationship. Lowry agreed to meet. The city was so packed that they couldn’t find a restaurant to eat in, so instead the two just drove around in Lowry’s car.

“I’m still pissed at you,” Lowry said. “I’m still mad at you for leaving me.”

This kid is in the NBA, right? Lange thought. He was a two-and-done. He went to the Elite Eight.

“He was real with it and it was the same reason that I loved him from the minute we got together,” Lange said. “It’s all about relationships with that guy.”

Lowry kept improving and developing with the Rockets, even as he split playing time with Aaron Brooks. “When I had him, there was no in between with Kyle,” Adelman said. “He was a real inconsistent shooter, especially at the 3-point line. He really didn’t have an in-between game. He’d just attack all the time, and once in a while he’d get hot from the 3-point shot.”

Adelman left Houston in 2011, replaced by Kevin McHale. The transition did not sit well with Lowry, who felt the familiar sting of being left behind by an authority figure he’d learned to trust. “From Rick Adelman to Kevin McHale, it was a big difference,” Lowry said. “Things are a lot stricter with McHale, and with Rick, things are a lot different, offensively, defensively. You go from being successful as hell with one coach and being comfortable with the coach to, yes, I was really successful with Kevin McHale, but I just didn’t do it the right way. If I did it the right way, I would still be in Houston.”

Kelvin Sampson, one of McHale’s assistants, said Lowry never accepted the change. “It’s important for him to chase conflicts,” Sampson said. “Conflicts don’t bother him. One of the things that make coaches and players great is they’re not afraid of confrontation. Not everybody can coach a confrontational player. You have to know how to coach Kyle, but you have to make sure Kyle knows who the boss is. Kyle is never going to conform and be the first guy in the class, sitting in the first row and never take his eye off the teacher. Kyle, in his own way, will figure out how to get an A in the class, though. He’s just not going to do it the conventional way.

“I don’t think Kevin had anything to do with it,” Sampson continued. “I think it was the coach that replaced Adelman. That could have been Doc Rivers. That could have been Jeff Hornacek. Whoever replaced Rick was going to go through a transitional period with Kyle because Kyle’s very opinionated. He has his way of doing things and he’s one of those guys  he’s going to give it to you and you’ve got to find a way to give it back in a way that he’ll respect you.”

Lowry played like a near All-Star before being sidelined the last quarter of the 2011-12 season with a bacterial infection. Goran Dragic played well in his absence, and the Rockets decided they could trade Lowry to shed salary cap and acquire draft picks. In July 2012, he was sent to Toronto for Gary Forbes and a first-round draft pick.

“I didn’t want to get traded,” Lowry said. “I knew [Toronto was] trying to get Steve Nash. This is what they said: They wanted Steve Nash to be the point guard for two years and then me learn behind Nash and to get paid and be the starter after Steve called it a career. I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be a backup. You’re not trading for me to be a backup.’ They did the trade anyway, but they didn’t get Steve.”

Even with the failed pursuit of Nash  who landed with the Lakers — Toronto had another entrenched starter in Jose Calderon. “Jose is a great player and [an even] better person, but I felt we needed a so-called ‘point guard of the future’ and a player the team could build an identity around,” wrote Bryan Colangelo, Toronto’s general manager at the time, in a recent email. “This is not a knock on Jose, but Kyle was definitely that guy.

“I truly believed we would be much better with him running the team‎ so a mid-to-late 1st was not a high price. ‎Turns out I was only close to right  number 12 was less than ‘mid’ ‎and my timing was a year off as far as team performance.”

Alvin Williams, the former Raptors point guard, remembered Lowry from the Villanova open gym years ago. After Williams retired, he joined Toronto’s coaching staff and became the team’s director of player development in 2010. The Raptors had fallen on tough times, enduring four straight losing seasons. Still, Williams remembered the enthusiasm around the team when he had helped lead them into the postseason with then-superstar Vince Carter. “Just get them to the playoffs,” Williams told Lowry, “and you’ll see the difference in excitement and everything around you.”

But Lowry’s tenure with the Raptors got off to a difficult start. Again, Lowry felt like he was being overlooked. He had suffered an injury in training camp that prevented him from getting into the best possible shape. When the season began, Lowry came off the bench behind Calderon.

Lowry decided that he would be a part of the team, but he would keep his distance from the organization. “You all want me to be this guy?” Lowry said of his mind-set. “You guys traded a first-round pick for me to be this guy that sits on the bench, that plays fifteen, twenty minutes? I was not happy.

“It was part because I knew what I just came from being, which was almost an All-Star in Houston until I got sick and got hurt. I went from being almost an All-Star to back on the bench,” he said. “I was not a bad teammate. I was just really in a world of my own. I was just like, All right, I’m going to go to work. That’s all I’m going to do. I’m not going to fraternize. I’m going to go to work, come home, that’s it. Because it wasn’t my team. I was a role player.”

What would he have said back then about his chances of re-signing in Toronto? “I’d tell you, ‘You can kiss my ass,’” Lowry recalled. “I never thought I’d be back. Put it like this: I thought, I’ll do my two-year bid and I’m gone. That was it.”

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

Masai Ujiri replaced Colangelo as Toronto’s general manager in the summer of 2013, and the roster he took over was in a state of flux. Ujiri first made calls around the league to learn about his players. All the feedback on Lowry, he found, had nothing to do with basketball. Instead of his pick-and-roll and defense, others talked of his body language and the way he frequently challenged authority.

“Kyle, when I look at this, it’s all things you can control,” Ujiri said when the two met in his office. “Guys who don’t have a 3-point shot, there’s nothing you can do about it. Guys that are slow-footed and can’t play defense, there’s nothing you can do about it. Body language, challenging authority, all that stuff, there’s plenty you can do about that.”

Ujiri challenged Lowry. “Do you want to be a $3 million player, $2 million player for the rest of your career and become a minimum player or do you want to be a $10 million player or more?” he asked. “Talent says you are that type of player, but the attitude and the way you carry yourself says the other. You can be so much better.”

Around the same time, Lowry connected again with Billy Lange. The two had spent some time training together the previous summer. Lowry told Lange he wanted to train again during the 2013 offseason. By then, Lange knew that Lowry had trouble dealing with authority figures, specifically those whom he believed had earned his trust and then left him.

“Look, there’s clearly some deep-rooted issues,” Lange told him. “I’m always around to talk if you want. I’m not going to force it. But if you don’t grow out of it, those issues are going to haunt you for the rest of your life and then those issues win. You don’t win.”

Andy Miller, Lowry’s agent, also showed faith in Lowry’s ability. Miller put him in touch with one of his other clients, Chauncey Billups, who had had a rough beginning in the NBA before finding stardom and stability in Detroit.

“Chauncey pushed me,” Lowry said. “He pushed me mentally to challenge myself. He just has this aura about him like you don’t want to upset him. You want to make sure he’s like, ‘Good job.’ There are some people in this world that you just be like, ‘Man, just give me some praise.’ And the little bit of praise, the sky’s the limit for that. There’s not many people I say I look up to. I don’t look up to people like that. [But] I look up to him.”

Lowry entered last season’s training camp healthy for the first time in years. Calderon had been traded the previous season, so Lowry had the starter’s job, but the team struggled until December, when it sent Rudy Gay (who came to Toronto in the Calderon deal) to Sacramento. “It was nothing against Rudy, nothing against his talents,” Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. “The fit just wasn’t the right fit for [DeRozan and Gay] to be on the same team … It could have been on me and I didn’t do a good job of making sure they got a rhythm. We were trying to do a lot in a short period of time. That could have been it, too, but after Rudy was not there, things kind of clicked and the rhythm was there.”

“There was no flow to our game,” Ujiri said of the Raptors before the Gay trade. “There was no spacing. Three of them require having the ball in their hands. There was no chemistry. Rudy made us more talented on paper, and he’s a fantastic, phenomenal player. It just didn’t work out and, unfortunately, he was the fall guy. It was tough for everybody. It was really tough for me. I was close to Rudy. I was having a good time, too, kind of mentoring Rudy and taking him through it. He was a victim of our business in some ways.” The move also saddened Lowry, who had looked forward to reuniting with Gay, his former Memphis teammate, when Toronto acquired him the previous year.

DeRozan approached Lowry shortly after the trade. Lowry’s name would surface constantly in trade talks as well, most often to the Knicks. If the teams had agreed on a deal, the resulting shakeup in the Atlantic Division would have been dramatic. By giving up Lowry, the Raptors would have turned 2013-14 into a rebuilding season, and New York would have contended for a low seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs. But Toronto had already fleeced the Knicks at the beginning of the season in the deal that unloaded Andrea Bargnani on New York, and the Knicks declined to send another first-rounder to the Raptors for Lowry.

“We’ve got two weeks where we’ve got to do whatever and figure out if we’re going to go up or going to go down,” DeRozan told Lowry, knowing that either of them could be traded if the Raptors didn’t play well enough to convince management they could make a postseason run. “I told him it was all or nothing,” DeRozan remembered saying.

That’s when the Raptors began to turn their season around, and eventually supplanted favorites like the Knicks and Nets to win the Atlantic Division. Lowry played brilliantly and established himself as one of the best point guards in the Eastern Conference. Many felt he would be named to the All-Star team. “Hands down, there wasn’t a better point guard in the Eastern Conference than Kyle, who led [his] team to win their division and third in the East, and it was on Kyle’s shoulders,” Casey said. “There’s no excuse for him not being on [the All-Star team].”

“I’m not a goal-driven guy,” Lowry said. “I’m a winner. If I win, all that shit comes. I think it’s something that it looks good on your legacy, on your career and for your kids to look back on, for your family or my son to say, ‘Hey, my dad was an All-Star.’ It’s a great individual accomplishment that if you are a competitor you want to be an All-Star. You want to be able to say, ‘Shoot, I was an All-Star.’” But Lowry, who had once been known for being too focused on his individual playing time and numbers, said he preferred that his teammate, DeRozan, be voted an All-Star. “I feel like if he didn’t make it, it would have really bothered him,” Lowry said. “Even now, he wants more. He has that taste. If I get the taste of being an All-Star, I’m probably going to want it more.” Ujiri tracks Lowry’s growth as a leader to a back-to-back road swing in January. The Raptors dropped the first game, a narrow loss against Miami, and two nights later they fell in another close game to Indiana. They were two slim losses against the best teams in the Eastern Conference — in the middle of an 8-2 stretch for the Raptors. The players might have been able to write the games off as competitive road losses under tough circumstances, but Lowry wouldn’t let himself or the team off the hook. “We shouldn’t have lost that game,” Lowry fumed. “We can beat those guys.”

Meanwhile, Lowry and Casey began to depend on one another.

“He’s learned to trust me,” Lowry said of his relationship with Casey. “I learned to trust him a little bit more. I think he’s gotten better as a coach. I’ve gotten older and better as a player.”

“I had to get to know him as a player and understand to try to put him in a position to be successful,” Casey said. “That was on me. You have to learn a player … You don’t want to take that edge away from a guy like Kyle. That makes him who he is  his personality, his toughness. Sometimes hardheadedness makes him who he is, and I don’t want to change that.”

Casey apprenticed as an assistant to George Karl in Seattle in the late 1990s. The SuperSonics had a brash, talented, talkative point guard back then: Gary Payton. Casey appreciated how Karl coached and coaxed Payton, how the coach allowed Payton to be himself in a way that didn’t take away from the team. Lowry had started to find that balance, and for once, he no longer had to look over his shoulder or be viewed as a second option.

The city of Toronto rocked when the Raptors returned to the playoffs last season for the first time in five years. “It was definitely something you can’t explain, that you don’t expect,” DeRozan said. The Raptors played better than many NBA experts anticipated, but they still lost a seven-game series in the first round against a Brooklyn team with loads of playoff experience.

With the season over, Lowry prepared to enter free agency. He had taken Ujiri’s challenge to heart and proved that he was beyond an average NBA player. He’d finally gotten the chance to lead an NBA team, like he always believed he could, and he exceeded expectations. With his contract up, teams were waiting to lure Lowry away from Toronto.

“I was very open to leaving,” Lowry said. “I was like: Look, I have a chance to go somewhere else, why not look at it? … I did my pros and cons. I did my lists. I did my research. I did the, what the salary cap is two years from now, three years from now. I knew who was going to be a free agent. I wanted to make sure I was going to the best situation for me personally, but to also try to win as much as I possibly can.”

The Rockets grabbed the first free-agency meeting with Lowry, who began the session by apologizing to McHale. “I was an immature kid, and I wish I would have learned a lot more from him, and I wish I had a chance to play for him longer,” Lowry recalled telling his former coach. McHale responded that if he rejoined Houston, Lowry would have to regain the trust of the coaching staff. In a different time, the request may have irked Lowry. He had worked hard to position himself for this moment, this free agency, and to become one of the league’s better point guards.

“It wasn’t about basketball with that,” Lowry said. “It was about being a team player, being a stand-up guy. It never was about basketball with me and [McHale]. It was about other things, about being a complete professional.”

Both sides were interested in a possible reunion, but the Rockets were invested in trying to lure other marquee free agents, like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh. They weren’t planning to make any moves until LeBron James announced where he would be signing and the rest of the free-agent dominoes started to fall. Ujiri, in the meantime, met with Lowry.

“Kyle, what a place,” Ujiri said. “The momentum, if we ever got good here  it would be crazy. This place could be wild and you could be the start of that. Why would you want to go be one of three guys  a third guy  when you can start something big here?”

Lowry thought back to the first game of the 2001 NBA Finals, when Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers beat a Lakers team that was on one of the most dominant playoff runs in history. People rode around in their cars for hours honking their horns. “[We saw] a different spirit of sports fanatics,” Lowry said.

In the playoffs the previous spring, Toronto had felt the same way. The Raptors were growing, getting better, and it was Lowry’s team. He re-signed in Toronto for $48 million over four years. Marie Holloway understood her son’s decision: “How can you not want to go back to a city that showed the kind of love they showed?”

The Raptors are looking to improve on last year’s playoff run, but they’ll have to do it in an Eastern Conference that underwent seismic shifts this offseason. The Cavaliers, after adding LeBron James and Kevin Love, are being penciled in as likely contenders to make the NBA Finals. A healthy Derrick Rose has renewed the faith of Chicago Bulls fans, who will also look forward to receiving a boost from Pau Gasol and touted rookie forwards Nikola Mirotic and Doug McDermott. Washington, Brooklyn, and Charlotte are all expected to improve, and despite Paul George’s season-ending injury and the loss of James, the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat should remain competitive. And Toronto, under Lowry, will be a year older and wiser.

“Why not us?” Lowry asks. “Why not go out there and play your butt off every night? Just give it your all. You can’t worry if you look cool playing basketball. A cool basketball player is a garbage basketball player. Tony [Parker] ain’t the coolest, smoothest guy, but Tony gets it done. Timmy [Duncan] ain’t. Manu [Ginobili] is pretty cool. But he plays hard as hell by being cool. He ain’t being cool on purpose. He just got a cool game.”

Back in Las Vegas, I asked Lowry how growing up in Philadelphia and playing high school ball during Allen Iverson’s peak with the Sixers had influenced him. He pulled up a YouTube video he said he’d watched many times, including the night before: a documentary about Iverson’s career that details his doggedness on the court. “That answer your question?”

Yet, unlike Iverson, Lowry has never been one to travel around and hang out with an entourage. “I’m a Chauncey Billups guy off the court,” he said, referring to Billups’s reputation of leading quietly and by example. “You get what I mean? You take something from everybody. I steal something from everybody — not in a bad way, but I will take something from everybody if it’s making me a better person or a better player.”

Change and maturation can be gradual processes. Lowry has “stolen,” to borrow his term, various bits of wisdom and character-building experience from the important figures in his life and career. He learned to trust and then rebuild trust with Lange; he learned to be a professional from Billups; and he learned to be a leader under the tutelage of Ujiri and Casey. Still, those closest to Lowry point to the birth of his son Karter three years ago and Lowry’s marriage to his longtime girlfriend — Ayahna Cornish, once a top player on Saint Joseph’s women’s team  as his true step forward.

“Every day I’m in that gym, I know it’s for a reason,” Lowry said. “I want to be the best, but I know [Karter] wants me to be the best. Even if he doesn’t understand it. I want to make sure I can take care of him for the rest of his life or my life. As long as I’m alive, I want to be able to say, ‘I’m taking care of you.’”

Lowry’s philosophy on the court is simple: “If you come to [a] game and you’re bringing your son  he might have never seen a basketball game  and you guys are sitting in the nosebleeds, I want your son to say, ‘Whoever no. 7 is played his hardest.’ Every single time. And he might have only seen me one time, but that one time he seen me, I’m going to play like it’s my last.”

That’s why Lowry hopes he will be in the same place with the same opportunity to win a playoff game for the Raptors. He has grown in life, he feels, and that blocked shot will make him better the next time his team needs him to create a play with the season on the line. “I tried,” Lowry said. “I did what I was supposed to do. It just didn’t work out. Next time, I’ll make sure it works out. And if that fails, I’ll try again.” 

Filed Under: 2014-15 NBA Preview, Kyle Lowry, NBA, Toronto Raptors, Villanova Wildcats, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Rudy Gay, masai ujiri, Philadelphia

Jonathan Abrams is a staff writer for Grantland. His book, Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution, is due out in March.

Archive @ JPdabrams