TORONTO – One morning earlier this week, Cliff Lee was going through his Kyle Lowry jerseys, trying to decide which one to wear to Lowry’s long-awaited return to Toronto.
It was a tough call. Lee has over 40 Lowry jerseys, from the No. 3 shirt he wore when he arrived in Toronto in 2012 in a trade with Houston (Andrea Bargnani wore No. 7 at the time), to the sleeved camouflage jersey, the blue Toronto Huskies jersey, and the red Christmas jersey with cursive writing from 2014.
Lee finally settled on the red “Earned” jersey — red with “North” written in a white chevron– from the Raptors’ thrilling win over Golden State to capture the 2019 NBA title.
“They weren’t supposed to wear those for a lot of games that season, but they kept winning in them so they just kept wearing them. They’re pretty hard to find,” said Lee, who has about 400 Raptors jerseys tucked away in the basement of his Brampton, Ont., house.
They’re “out of sight, out of mind,” he said with a chuckle, from his wife Jennifer Evangehlo-Lee, who’s become a big Raptors fan.
Lowry hasn’t played a game in Toronto since February of 2020, before COVID-19 first shuttered the league, and then saw the Raptors exiled to Tampa, Fla., because of pandemic restrictions in Ontario.
Lowry and the Miami Heat play the Raptors on Sunday in what will be an emotional night both for the 36-year-old player who forged a strong bond with Toronto, and the city that fell in love with the hard-headed, hardworking Philadelphia native.
“He represents a lot of things that the Raptors represent, right?” said Lee, a Raptors fan since their first season in 1995-96.
“Kyle was never the fastest, never the most athletic. He wasn’t jumping out of the gym. But he worked hard and it was all business. No celebrating after big shots. It was just: we know the job’s not done. And we’re gonna keep continuing to grind until the job is done.
“And the fact he went from a bench player who clashed with coaches to an all-star and a champion, (who showed) great leadership and loyalty. He embodies a lot of things that the Raptors do,” added the realtor, whose goal is to see the Raptors play in all 29 NBA cities. He has 10 cities left.
Lowry was traded to Miami last summer after nine years in Toronto, where he was a six-time all-star. While he left big shoes to fill on the floor, members of the community say he left a gaping hole off it.
“Not all angels have wings. In this particular case, he comes in a pair of Adidas,” said John Yan.
Yan is the executive director of The Angel Foundation for Learning, one of the numerous charitable organizations to whom Lowry gave his time.
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Yan arrived in Toronto in 1962 from China, one of a handful of families who became Canada’s first Chinese refugees since the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1923.
So it was a full-circle moment, and a happy coincidence, when Yan returned to his own elementary school in Toronto’s Regent Park neighbourhood with Lowry’s Holiday Assist. Lowry surprised dozens of wide-eyed children from one of the city’s neediest communities with an all-expenses-paid shopping spree at Toys R Us, bundling them onto a school bus with a wide smile.
“Despite what’s happening in the world, to have a bright light like Kyle come in and spread some love, you can’t describe it,” Yan said.
The Toronto Catholic District School Board honoured Lowry and his wife Ayahna Cornish-Lowry with an award in 2017 for the work of their Lowry Love Foundation.
“He has scored even more off the court than he has on, in our eyes anyway,” Yan said. “We really miss him because he’s done so much for the young people that we deal with at the foundation . . . it’s a big gap unfortunately.
“If we had the money, we’d pay for his contract (to play for Toronto),” he added with a laugh.
Second Harvest, Canada’s second-largest food rescue charity, was also a beneficiary of Lowry’s big heart. His foundation donated hundreds of food hampers and hosted Thanksgiving dinners for needy families.
“(The Lowry family) also helped raise awareness around hunger in Canada, which was awesome, because we have some serious hunger challenges in the country,” said Lori Nikkel, the CEO of Second Harvest. “We loved working with them.
“It was so great to have him in the community, going to these (Thanksgiving) events, because these kids are never going to a basketball game. It’s unlikely, right? Tickets are so expensive. So, just to see their hero, I think, was life-changing for so many of them.”
Lowry was originally scheduled to return on Feb. 1, but it was one of several he missed for personal reasons. He told the Toronto Star that he wouldn’t have made that trip to Scotiabank Arena anyways, since there were no fans due to the pandemic.
In an article he penned for The Players’ Tribune, Lowry said he’s “excited as hell” to play in Toronto on Sunday, and spoke about the all-caps “LOVE” he has for the city.
“It might just be a normal night in some ways, you know what I mean? Because regardless of the jersey I’m wearing, a lot still hasn’t changed . . . and won’t ever change. It’s never going to be a wrap between me and this city.”
The night’s sure to be an emotional one for his former teammates as well. Fred VanVleet needs just three three-pointers away from breaking the franchise record for threes in a season. He has 236. Lowry holds the record with 238.
VanVleet paused when asked what he learned about shooting from the veteran guard during their five seasons together.
Because he learned about a lot more than just shooting.
“I think really just getting attached to (Lowry) at the hip and incorporating myself into workouts early on,” VanVleet said after Friday’s 102-89 win in Orlando. “He had 11, 12, 13 years of league reps under his belt, so just finding little things that could help whether it was balance or footwork or just repetition and just staying next to him and seeing how he gets it off, seeing how he hunts ’em, and just finding a rhythm.
“So just standing next to him and trying to be a sponge and learn as much as possible.
“But, that’s a loaded question. There’s a million different things I could give you that I’ve learned from him.”
Beyond a homecoming for Lowry, the game is key for both teams as they jostle for post-season positions down the stretch. Ahead of Saturday’s games, the Heat had a one-game lead over Milwaukee atop the Eastern Conference. The Raptors are sixth, with an identical record to the fifth-place Chicago Bulls, who hold the tie-breaker. Toronto is three games ahead of seventh-place Cleveland. The top six earn playoff spots and thus avoid play-in games.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 2, 2022.