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Kawhi Leonard given hero’s welcome in return to Canada as Clippers fall to Mavs in Vancouver

Months after bringing an NBA title north of the border, Kawhi Leonard was given a warm reception during an NBA preseason game in Vancouver — even though he was wearing a Los Angeles Clippers uniform.

The man who left the Toronto Raptors shortly after winning the team’s first ever league championship was given a hero’s welcome in Vancouver, with fans cheering wildly when Leonard hit the floor for pre-game warm-ups.

Two rallies outside Rogers Arena before NBA game
Two rallies outside Rogers Arena before NBA game

The fans continued to make themselves heard every time he made a basket during the Clippers’ 102-87 loss to the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday night at Rogers Arena.

“It was great just to be back,” Leonard said of Vancouver, where the Raptors played a preseason game last September.

Leonard said he was pleased but not surprised by the warm welcome.

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“Just going around the summertime, even after me signing with the Clippers, Canadians came up to me that are in America…and said thank you for everything I’ve done. They were very nice people.”

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Leonard finished the game with 13 points, shooting five for 19 from the field, in 22 minutes.

Pre-season NBA game draws protests to Vancouver
Pre-season NBA game draws protests to Vancouver

Second-year star Luka Doncic had 15 points and 13 rebounds for the Mavericks, while teammate Kristaps Porzingis led all scorers with 18 points.

The Mavericks never trailed during the game, scoring the game’s first basket and finishing the first half with a 55-35 lead.

While not as refined a player as Leonard, Mavericks seven-foot-three centre Boban Marjanovic — a cult figure known for his recent cameo in John Wick 3 — drew cheers from the crowd after a first-quarter dunk.

Marjanovic also tried to keep the peace, separating teammate Doncic from Terance Mann of the Clippers after the two got into a heated verbal exchange in the third quarter.

“We’re both competitors,” Mann said of his run-in with Doncic. “So that’s how it goes, that’s basketball.”

Duelling protests

There were duelling protests outside Rogers Arena ahead of the game.

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A group of diehard local basketball fans rallied in the hopes of bringing the Vancouver Grizzlies franchise back to the city.

Bring Back The Grizz
Bring Back The Grizz

Led by Kat Jayme, the filmmaker who produced a documentary about Grizzlies big man Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, a small group of fans got together in the hopes of seeing the NBA return to the city nearly two decades after the ill-fated local team moved to Memphis.

Many fans in the arena wore retro red, teal and black Grizzlies gear, and during the fourth quarter chanted “we want Grizzlies!”

READ MORE: An oral history of the Vancouver Grizzlies

A separate rally was held in support of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong.

Protesters, many of them wearing masks, held signs and chanted, “Fight for freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”

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They also handed out leaflets that read: “The NBA bowed to totalitarian China. We won’t.” The leaflets urged fans entering the stadium to chant “free Hong Kong” near the end of the first quarter.

The protest comes as the NBA’s relationship with China became strained after Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted a tweet expressing support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong.

NBA under fire in China over Houston Rockets GM’s Hong Kong tweet
NBA under fire in China over Houston Rockets GM’s Hong Kong tweet

Prior to the game at Rogers Arena, organizer Lee Haber said the NBA’s lack of support for Hong Kong protesters illustrates how the league “values access to the Chinese market more than people being able to express their thoughts and beliefs.”

With three minutes remaining in the first quarter, Haber and another person stood in the upper bowl of Rogers Arena and chanted “free Hong Kong.”

Earlier this month, protesters with T-shirts and signs supporting Hong Kong and Tibet appeared at a Washington Wizards preseason game, with security kicking several people out after they refused to give up their signs.

Speaking at a Time Magazine event on Thursday, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the Chinese government wanted Morey fired for the comments, but that there was no chance of that happening.

Silver went on to say the league has already suffered “substantial” losses as a result of the controversy.

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—With files from Simon Little and The Associated Press