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Not an Underdog Story

Oct 21 2019
Photo by
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
Photo by
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune
Kyle Lowry
Toronto Raptors
Oct 21 2019
I

get asked all the time now to explain the feeling. 

What’s it feel like to win your first championship?

It seems like a simple question to answer. After all, I’d been working toward that first championship in one way or another my whole life. But, still, I’m just not quite sure I can capture the feeling of it in just a few words.

After you put so much time and passion into this game, there’s a lot of emotion that gets attached to the idea of being a champion. Having that validation. And the closer you get to realizing that goal without getting there — without actually reaching that pinnacle — the more it hurts. 

I never won a championship in high school. We lost in the Catholic League championship game my junior and senior years. Lost to UNC in the tournament as a freshman at ’Nova,  then to Florida when I was a sophomore. Both those teams would go on to win the whole tournament.

Then I got to the league and, well, I guess the best way to put it is that if you told someone 10 years ago that I’d one day be an NBA champion as a member of the Toronto Raptors, they probably wouldn’t have known which part was more ridiculous.

But maybe the reason I can’t explain how winning a championship actually feels is because I’m still processing it all, I’m still in it. 

And here’s the thing, even though the specific moment — how it felt, what it meant — is hard to really put into words, what I do know is that it’s mine. It belongs to me, my family, my teammates, my coaches and to all of Toronto. And, man, that’s all that matters. 

Do I think we’re getting enough respect as the defending champs? Hell no.

And that brings me to the next thing people will ask about sometimes: Do I think we’re getting enough respect as the defending champs? 

Hell no. 

But also, do I care?

Nah, not really. 

This isn’t new. Toronto will never get the respect we deserve because we’re the only Canadian franchise in the league. It’s been like that since I’ve been here. 

It was a long, hard road for me, getting to the championship — and it was a long, hard road for the team and the organization. But we got there.

They can talk their talk, and think whatever they want. But the fact remains the same: We got a ring ceremony, and all they got is a tired take. 

Don’t matter. We still the champs. 

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty ImagesPeople throw it out there a lot, but I’ve never really liked being described as an underdog.

It kind of makes it sound like I got where I am just because I’m lucky. 

Make no mistake — there’s definitely some luck involved. But that’s true of every single guy in the league — really every person who has achieved a dream they had as a kid. But when it comes to sticking in the league, competing, growing as a player to get where I am today – none of that was luck. That’s been a process.

Want to hear a real underdog story? A kid from one of the most dangerous places in America getting a four-year scholarship to Villanova. 

That’s not just an underdog story, that’s a borderline miracle where I’m from.

No matter how big the stage or the moment, basketball is a fantasy. No matter what the result or how I play, there’s no actual  pressure when it comes to basketball.

Real life is pressure.

Pressure is walking through the snow for miles just grinding it out because it’s the only way you can get around. Pressure is waiting around for your cousin who has the WIC program so you can grab free milk, and maybe some Juicy Juices if you’re lucky. Pressure is your mom working two jobs while also trying to put in enough time as a parent so her child isn’t one of the many who end up dead or in jail. 

That’s real life. 

But basketball? That’s always been a sanctuary. No matter how intense the game is.  

My upbringing molded my game. Playing streetball at Connie Mack on 22nd and Lehigh in North Philly was where I got my education. My brother, Lonnie, is five years older than me, but he’d always make sure I was on his team. When you’re the youngest guy on the court and every other player is bigger and stronger than you, the job description is simple: Hustle. Take charges, dive for balls, set picks and do not shoot (but always make it when you do).

But, most of all, be tough. That’s not optional. Fortunately, the toughness thing was always the easiest part for me. That part I didn’t need to put the work in on or refine. It was inherited — from my grandma. 

She passed earlier this year, and that was really tough because she was my person, you know? Like we just understood each other because we were very similar. She had this hard edge about her but we all knew how much she cared about everyone. Everything she did was for others. 

Basketball? That’s always been a sanctuary. No matter how intense the game is.

Still, she was not somebody to be messed with.

I’ll never forget when I was in elementary school and got in a fight. As soon as it got broken up and I got sent to the principal’s office, I was only thinking about one thing: Oh damn, my grandma is going to beat my ass! 

I swear on everything I was sitting in that principal’s office, and she was like, “Kyle, this is serious. You’re going to be suspended.” And my only response was to plead with her, “Fine,  do whatever, please just don’t tell my grandma! Please, please don’t call my grandma!”

My walk home from school that day was like a funeral march. My mom has always been much more relaxed, but grandma was the disciplinarian. And I knew I was in for it this time. 

As soon as I got home, she was there, just waiting. I felt this chill. And I’ll never forget what she said to me.

“Well, did you win?”

I didn’t know if it was a trick or what. I just nodded.

“Uh-huh.”

Then she gave the tiniest grin and just said, “Alright then.” 

And that was that. I’d gotten much, much worse for accidentally spilling milk before, but she let this one slide. 

For a long time I didn’t understand why. But once I became a dad, it made a little more sense. It was her way of teaching me about toughness. Was it a perfect way? Will you find in parenting books? Nah, you probably won’t.  But everyone has their own different ways of doing things and showing you their love and how to become a better person. 

Don’t fight. 

But if you’re going to fight? Win. 

Sam Robles/The Players’ Tribune

I’m proud of where I’m from, and of where I’ve made it to. But one thing about growing up in a rough environment is that it’s difficult to learn how to trust people.

Trust is a luxury that a lot of people in desperate situations can’t afford. And as a result it’s easy to become isolated when you feel like you aren’t in a good situation. When I left home, and especially when I got to the league, it was hard for me to develop that level of trust you need to be part of a winning organization.

Part of the reason for that is because I learned about the business side of basketball pretty quickly after being drafted by Memphis. I arrived there as a rookie believing that I was their point guard of the future, then exactly a year later I was at the draft party when the team selected Mike Conley.

Honestly, it was a great pick. Mike’s one of the best in the league to this day. But of course at the time, I wasn’t thinking that. I didn’t see it coming at all. I had no idea they would select a point guard. As soon as that pick was made, the reality struck me that there truly are no guarantees in the NBA. 

When I got traded to Houston, I was ready to prove to everyone what I could do. I worked harder than I ever have to get minutes and respect. I was coming off the best season of my career when Kevin McHale was hired as coach. From the very start of that year, I had the wrong mentality. I thought that because I was coming off a good year, I was the man. I deserved better treatment. And coach gave me the exact opposite. He was hard on me. Really hard on me. At the time, I wasn’t able to see what he was trying to do. I didn’t get that he saw that I was a good, tough player, but still had more room to grow if I was pushed. 

I’m proud of where I’m from, and of where I’ve made it to. But one thing about growing up in a rough environment is that it’s difficult to learn how to trust people.

I didn’t know the answer to, Why is he being so hard on me? was simply, He’s making you better.

When I ended up getting traded to Toronto, it almost felt like I was getting sent into exile. I didn’t know anything about Toronto. At the time I didn’t care to know. I just thought this was going to be a pit stop until an opportunity somewhere else. 

But then, not long after I arrived, I found that I had it all wrong. This place wasn’t just a pit stop. This was an amazing city and had a fanbase that people were sleeping on. All they really needed to get it going was a winner. 

Those early days in Toronto we knew there was no guarantees that they would keep the team together. At that point a lot of us had been cast off by other organizations. We all got on the same page pretty quickly. We played for each other. And I met DeMar, who became one of my best friends and an All-Star, and we started building something. We had that trust. 

To make it to the Finals and hoist that trophy, there were a lot more sacrifices that had to be made. We lost people who had helped build this whole thing up. We let go of Case, traded DeMar, traded JV — moves that, even though you know they are part of the business, cut real deep.  

Then we built a roster of players who all get after you. And, yeah, ultimately, we got a little lucky. We had some timely plays and we got a few bounces — three or four off the rim just against Philly. 

We did what we had to do, when we had to it, in order to get things done.

And now, after all that — the work, the fun, the frustration —  only one thing matters: We the champs. 

Vaughn Ridley/Getty ImagesOne thing I know for sure is that just winning a championship won’t fulfill you. It doesn’t feel like the end of a journey.

Instead it pushes you. Because now it isn’t this dream or idea — now you know what it takes, and you know how it feels to get there. And once that happens, all you want is to do everything in your power to feel it again. That’s what’s driving me this year. That’s what got me up early to head right back to the gym a week after our parade.

We’re going to be looking forward to Ring Night. No question about that. But once that banner gets raised to the rafters, we won’t be looking up at it too long. All the focus will be on getting another one. Because that one isn’t going anywhere. It’s staying right there.

Only one thing matters: We the champs.

Last month, I brought the Larry O’Brien trophy back to my house. At one point both of my sons were playing with it. My younger son, Kam, was running and jumping around the trophy, putting his fingerprints all over it. And my older son, Karter, was just sort of looking at it in amazement. Like, How is this thing here with us right now in this moment? 

One day, when he’s a bit older, I’ll tell him how it got here. It’s a long story. But it’s a great story. And no matter what, one fact will never change.

Toronto Raptors, NBA champions. 

Kyle Lowry, NBA champion.

That’s forever.  

Kyle Lowry
Toronto Raptors