July 5, 2019 / 4:36 PM / 5 months ago

Kawhi-mania grips Canada with speculation over his next team

TORONTO (Reuters) - Kawhi Leonard, the Toronto Raptors’ two-time NBA finals most valuable player, has captivated Canada for the second time this year as Raptors fans eagerly watch for the basketball superstar’s next move.

May 12, 2019; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) and Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) wait for the game winning basket by Leonard to drop in during game seven of the second round of the 2019 NBA Playoffs at Scotiabank Arena. Toronto defeated Philadelphia. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Leonard is a free agent, meaning he could sign with the Raptors at a contract worth $190 million for five years. Or he could accept $150 million for four years with the Los Angeles Clippers or Los Angeles Lakers, the two other teams considered in the running for him, according to ESPN.

Media reports said he was expected to make a decision on Friday.

Leonard, 28, was instrumental in the Raptors’ historic win last month when the team clinched its first National Basketball Association championship.

Leonard has not indicated his position, which has led Toronto fans to offer their own incentives to keep him in the city and with the Raptors.

Simon Mass, CEO of The Condo Store Realty, promised a paid-off penthouse at Leonard’s choice of luxury hotels in June. A group of Toronto restaurants teamed up to create “Ka’wine & Dine”, offering Leonard free food for life at participating restaurants if he re-signs with the Raptors.

The team’s management did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Google Trends shows the search for “Kawhi Leonard” rocketed to peak popularity between June 30 and July 6, with Canada leading the searches.

Leonard made his mark on the season as a star player who landed a buzzer beater against the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference play-offs. He followed that with a consistent strong performer and was named the most valuable player for the finals in the Raptors’ defeat of the reigning Golden State Warriors.

Leonard has became a beloved figure in Toronto, accepting the key to the city on behalf of the team at the Raptors’ victory parade last month. The Toronto Star reported in May that merchandise with his name sold out quickly in local stores.

“He brought us a championship and he did it in a year,” said Kelsea O’Brien, a writer at the fan site Raptors Republic. “There were so many years when we had hopes and glimmers of hope, but that came to fruition and he did it, and the whole city fell in love with him and we’re up in the air and don’t know if he loves us back.”

Reporting by Tyler Choi; Editing by Dan Grebler

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