The Gravity Of Kyle Lowry

But how do you move on from gravity? For nine seasons Kyle Lowry has been the compelling center point of a Toronto team that has orbited, collapsed, and reformed around him. The team’s story and its style — the hard-edged, dogged, make-life-difficult default — were borrowed from Lowry like a well-loved book, pages worn soft and yellowed by the fingers passing over them, adopted like cadence, a particular lilt in a voice spreading, beloved, beyond its original speaker.

Less a history keeper than someone who delivered some worth recording, Lowry, reluctant at first alongside DeMar DeRozan, saw the shape that such a young franchise could take and rather than leverage it for personal legacy, took a longview. With DeRozan there, neither had to take the full weight — of pressure, expectation, promise — they could split and shift it, prime themselves for the eventual cast they’d share for franchise face.

How strange it must have been for someone as young as Lowry then, his baby fat hiding hard edges of physicality he’d later lean into to lead with, to be in a place like Toronto. Due north of Houston and Memphis, their heat-dazed and slow moving rhythms, crossing into a welcoming country but a cold, occasionally circumspect climate. All but assured it was a stopover, a seasonal reset, hardly expecting a soft spoken DeRozan to approach him in the locker room just weeks after Lowry’s arrival and ask, earnestly, did he want to try something, did he want to buy-in.

It was the power of pride initially, it had to be. The both of them were hardly bound to the other and only varying, light ties to the franchise. A game of chicken, then, of who would blink first, balk, admit that to try and make something out of the Raptors — the Raptors? — had been a good laugh, one they could come back to wherever it was their paths were going to split and send them. But by now you know that neither DeRozan or Lowry ever blink, so the dare never materialized and they only built on the truth of it.

In that same brave, bold, and really only one option space, they both found their games. For DeRozan, a nervy pull-up from anywhere and footwork that outworks without breaking a sweat. Cocky without the ego. For Lowry it was a saccharine sweet smirk on two indefatigable legs, body as ready collateral. Cocky with a bit of an ego — at least then. It was through the work on court, never-ending, gradual, little glimpses of joy through some pretty dark storm clouds, that they both found each other, too. Ports from, and for, each other’s storms.

It was particularly cruel then how DeRozan was dealt, abruptly and secondary to the allegiance melting call of a disenfranchised Kawhi Leonard. DeRozan could at least put up the practiced wall of “it’s a business”, while Lowry was left to bear the vacancies of heart and roster, neither quite cooperating.

To Leonard, Lowry was at first reluctant. Here was everything his outsized basketball brain could want but the cost was too close, hardly clean. He resisted through the late fall and early winter, knowing enough of the climate by then that those sun starved and bone damp days would at least mirror his mood. But through that terrible shearing of Lowry’s trust came the emergence of a new, truer self. He must have known, for how much he still was reeling but how zeroed in his sight, seeing Leonard for what he was, what he opened up: Lowry’s widest road, his straightest shot, total and absolute potential. So, Lowry did what his new role — Captain, finally, singularly — demanded, and handed over the team he and DeRozan had forged and fostered to the superstar loner and he never looked back.

Ask Lowry what he wants for the Raptors, either in their brightest championship afterglow or murkiest Tampa days, and the answer will be the same — to see his guys shine. The young core (now not so young, but frozen in the Neverland of Lowry) of Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Chris Boucher, thriving, winning, improving, and being paid for it. It’s the measure of how far Lowry has come, that when asked about his future the scope of it shifts secondary to what he wants to the players he had a hand in raising the ceiling for. He wants their careers to eclipse his. He wants to see them move from the boundaries a once neglected franchise imposed on him and DeRozan, if only because the attention span of the average NBA fan so rarely ventures cross-border. But watch Lowry, before the whistle of any game, and see him work like a magnet. Draw vets and rookies, temperamental stars and lunchpail role-players to him all the same. It’s hard to find more proof of Lowry’s league-wide respect than the whole of the league rolling their eyes at his stubborn body drawing charge after charge off them one minute and their arms, hands, eyes, looking for his once the buzzer has gone, pulled into his gravity.

How do you move on from that?

Like most of what Lowry has done in his maturation as a player, he’s made it look easy, bearing most of the weight onto himself. The core of the team, living so long in Lowry’s universe, understand intuitively the way its rules work, and that routine trickles down to the new faces from Toronto’s abrupt folding last season to the very freshest from this year’s Draft. Lowry has always been preparing for the eventuality of his role shifting, if not well back from the fore of the tea then lifted from it by forces greater — the will of a GM, a front office, with perception that only looks forward or else they’d be out of a job. The roster had been drilled when the conditions were right (a championship season and its fervent and audacity-propelled attempt the next to repeat), weird (the Bubble), and a complete wash (Tampa). The team that Lowry built should know by now Toronto basketball, inside and out.

So long as Lowry stayed then no real, new, next iteration of the Raptors could start. He’s intrinsic, too strong a force, running through team chemistry as much as rhythms on the floor. There was no looking past him. In his leaving, he has removed himself as the blind spot that blotted out, like so many constant bright stars do, what shape the team’s future will take. He also handed back a needed, but not necessary, jump-start into that future.

Lowry could have left without guilt, all promises kept on the power of the verbal contract he made in saying, “And if you start something? Man, you finish it.” Instead, he opted for a deal that utilized his gravity, pulled something back to lend momentum, push things forward.

To be held in Lowry’s orbit for so long was its own rare gift in a league that ratchets up its velocity every season. The Toronto he inherited to start was an outpost, a blip on the radar. The Toronto Lowry’s leaving has become the kind of place where a certain kind of player, one with tenacity, a compulsion toward work and an outlier’s tendencies is drawn to and can thrive in. A system where athletes are known to develop, improve, and don’t need to wait for the light of the superstar eclipsing them to dim before they can get started. Where the gravity can feel like two feet firmly planted, a soft place to land, the flow of a perfect pass, or, occasionally, a flipping rush that will feel like a very determined grown man going through the legs of another, just to see if it works. A malleable, hopeful universe that happens to glint like a toothy grin, but was formed to be shaped by those who mean to push it forward.