Toronto's Most Influential Athlete of the Decade
Updated: Jan 3, 2020
With the decade officially coming to a close on Tuesday, we here at The EH Sports have had plenty of time to reflect on the decade that was for our closest sports mecca. It has been a wild ride for all teams in Toronto and has produced many heroes throughout the whole decade. Many of our writers decided to throw their thoughts in on which one of these "heroes" was Toronto's most influential athlete of the decade.
Kawhi Leonard - Ameer Hamid
The Raptors of the 2010’s were known as an elite regular season team, but by the time the playoffs came around every year they would choke it all away, usually to the likes of LeBron James. There was the loss to the Brooklyn Nets at home in game 7 where Paul Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry’s potential series winner. In 2015, the Raptors set a new franchise record in wins, and were then subsequently swept by the Washington Wizards. In 2016, the franchise would then reach new heights by advancing to their first Eastern Conference Finals after beating the Indiana Pacers, and the Miami Heat. The Raptors would then face the Cleveland Cavaliers and push the series to game 6, where they would be defeated by the eventual NBA Champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
The franchise was at an all-time high, but it would come crashing down as the Raptors would experience heartbreak at the hands of LeBron and the Cavaliers, being swept in back-to-back seasons. It felt as if this Raptors team was cursed, and that something needed to be done. The franchise became a joke in the eyes of the media because of the “LeBronTo” memes, and this killed Toronto Raptors President Masai Ujiri to see his team become a punchline for NBA Twitter. But with King James moving out to LA, perhaps it would be the Raptors best chance to win a title. This Raptors core as we knew it had run its course, if the Raptors had title aspirations they would need a change, and a big one at that.
On July 15th 2018, the Raptors would trade franchise icon Demar DeRozan along with Jakob Pöeltl and a protected 2019 first round draft pick, to the San Antonio Spurs in exchange for 2014 NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. The deal would be met with skepticism because the Raptors traded the one star player that wanted to stay and play in Toronto, for a disgruntled superstar in Kawhi Leonard, who everyone knew wanted to be traded to Los Angeles. It was a gamble, but an estimated one by Masai Ujiri. The Raptors get one year of Kawhi Leonard, that when healthy is a top-5 player in the NBA and who knows if he falls in love with the city, maybe he stays. If he leaves then you finally can blow up this team, like Masai wanted to do back in 2013 when he had a deal to trade Kyle Lowry to the New York Knicks, until the Knicks backed out at the last minute.
The Raptors would go on in the 2018-2019 regular season to have the same success that we had become accustomed to, but the real test would be around playoff time. The Raptors would lose Game 1 of the first round to the Orlando Magic because of a D.J. Augustine 3-pointer, and the naysayers were back in full effect. The doubters of load management were chirping that you were resting Kawhi for 20 games in the regular season to go on to become the same old Raptors once the playoffs started. These doubters would be silenced as the Raps laid the smackdown and would go on to win the next four games to bounce the Magic from the playoffs on the back of Leonards play.
The city of Toronto has never had an athlete as good as Kawhi Leonard, and that was on clear display during the series against the Philadelphia 76ers. Yes, everyone will talk about the Kawhi’s game-winner in game 7, but the Raptors don’t get there in the series without Leonard’s stellar performance in game 4 in Philadelphia. The fading three-pointer that Leonard hit with Embiid contesting him in the closing minutes was critical to seal that win. Then perhaps the clutchest non-nba finals shot in the history of the NBA. The Kawhi-DeRozan was validated with that series win against the 76ers and from there it was all gravy.
The Raptors of the past would have crumbled if they dealt with the adversity they faced in the Milwaukee Bucks series. The Raptors blew their Game 1 lead and got blown out in Game 2. That’s when Kawhi was asked where does the team go from here and he said, “I’m going back to Toronto for Game 3.” From there the team went on to win four games in a row, during this series the team really took on Kawhi’s identity, yes Fred VanVleet caught fire, but the team was down double digits twice in their game 6 victory over the Bucks, but that never fazed this Raptors team.
My favourite story from the Kawhi magical playoff run was after the Raptors lost Game 2 of the NBA Finals, Nick Nurse was in the locker room telling his team that all they have to do is go to Oakland and win one game, that’s when Kawhi spoke up and said, “F--- that let’s get both.” After, the Raptors did just that and perhaps what the most impressive thing was their demeanour after the Game 4 win in Oakland, they had an assassin-like mentality of we’re not done yet, and there was no celebrating whatsoever post game. The entire team adopted Kawhi’s mentality and that’s what eventually made them NBA Champions.
The impact that Kawhi has had on this franchise goes beyond the one season that he was here, he still is in a way. His attitude has been passed on to his former Raptor teammates, because of Kawhi being here players like Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have taken a tremendous step to a point where they could both be All-Stars this season. Kawhi’s one season here will last a lifetime with Raptors fans and players alike.
Kawhi is the greatest athlete to ever play in the city of Toronto. What he did in one year will be similar to the "Carter Effect", and that this guy took us over the hump and to places we could have never dreamed of. Leonard's impact not only affected the present more than any Toronto athlete this decade, but it will influence future ones as well.
Kyle Lowry - Brandon Neild
Before there was Lowry, the Toronto Raptors deployed names such as Jarrett Jack, T.J Ford and Jose Calderon to the court at the point guard position. While all of those names were solid options, they weren’t what the Raptors needed to compete. Whether they were too old, too small or too European it was clear a change was necessary. A 1st round pick and a Gary Forbes throw in got the deal done with the Houston Rockets; landing number 7 in the “6ix”. So what really makes him the best of the best in Toronto sports this last decade?
In his first season up north, after a hot start, he not only battled an injury that would hold him out of the lineup; but also found himself in a battle for the starting position with the above mentioned Calderon. That led to his worst statistical season as a Raptor. Now queue the motivational music on your IPod, because Lowry did the same for his career.
The arrival of Masai Ujiri and DeMar DeRozan’s basketball game helped kick started the evolution of a captain. OUR captain. His points per game climbed to 17.9 from 11.6, while averaging 7.9 assists (6.9 the year prior). After being snubbed an all-star vote that year, he still refused to slow down. Lowry has been an All-star selection the last 5 consecutive years. He’s eclipsed 20+ PPG (points per game) averages twice, looking to do so a 3rd time in his 8th season with the team.
Kyle has never been deemed the most talented player in a Toronto jersey in his tenure, yet he is undoubtedly the heart and soul. He is the voice heard in the huddles. He sets the intensity on both sides of the ball. He dictates the emotion of not only the team, but the media. His smile forever captured in the reflection of that beautiful Larry O'Brien trophy.
Speaking of emotion, we all remember the DeRozan trade. Lowry watched as his teammate and best friend was blindsided by a trade. Someone he grew not only on the court with, but someone so close off the court their brotherhood was envied league wide. With all that emotion from the trade, Lowry understood his best course of action was to use that and fuel his game play. To buy into what the Raps organization was doing. While his points dropped, his assist average climbed to a career best 8.7 APG utilizing new additions Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green.
In the most recent playoff run, he finally overcame the adversity and disappointment of the years prior. He battled a nagging thumb injury sustained against the 76ers, and remained a consistent in game option. In the finals, he kicked started the eventual end of the Warriors dynasty; coming out hot nailing THREE threes and scoring the first 11points for the Raptors. That helped secure their first ever championship, and first ever championship experience for me, the Toronto sports fan.
Not only is he now an NBA Champion, but he’s a 5x All-star and easily cements himself top 10 in every major category in Toronto Raptors player history. Over the last decade Lowry has not only helped revolutionize Toronto basketball, but has truly been THE ambassador for Toronto sports (screw you Drake). That is why Kyle Lowry is the most influential Toronto sports athlete of the last decade.
Josh Donaldson - Brant Dubeau
For most of my life, Blue Jays baseball was irrelevant. Growing up following the Leafs and Jays the playoffs were a pipe dream far off in the distance that we would never reach. That was until the summer of 2015.
In the offseason before, the Blue Jays shipped out fan favourite (and one of my personal favourites) Brett Lawrie along with some prospects for third baseman Josh Donaldson. At the time I was a little hesitant to get excited as I just lost my favourite reason to go to games for an incredible talent who never seemed to stay healthy in Oakland. My mind was changed rather quickly.
It was clear from the get go that, despite Joey Bats and the gang being here for so long, that this was Donaldson's team. He was a leader in the clubhouse, an incredible talent at the plate, and just an all around firecracker with a passion for the game that is tough to match from anyone around the league.
Everything about Donaldson was a fan's dream. He could crush baseballs, make a play on just about anything near third base (without a glove half the time), and happened to possess the greatest walk up song in Blue Jays history. Once the drum solo hit, you could literally feel it "calming in the air tonight"..... Oh lord.
He put the team on his back and dragged them as close as he could in the playoff race before reinforcements arrived in David Price and Troy Tulowitzki. He finished the year with a .297/.385/.559 slash line, a career best 41 home runs and 123 RBI, along with a league best 122 runs scored.
To top it all off, he brought home the only MVP trophy across the three major sports teams in the decade. No, he didn't manage to bring home a title like Kawhi, but he did spark the two greatest Blue Jays seasons I've ever been alive to witness.
Things may not have ended very well for the slugger in Toronto, but for the three and a half seasons he was here, you knew Blue Jays fans would always had a reason to be on the edge of their seat.
Sebastian Giovinco - Mauro Cesario
This is obviously not your average pick and goes hand-in-hand with my bias as a soccer fan but hear me out. Since joining Toronto FC in 2015, Giovinco became a dominant force in the league and helped the team became an immediate contender in Major League Soccer. In his four years spent with Toronto FC, he set several individual team records, won the 2015 MLS Golden Boot (league’s top scorer) and MVP, helped the team to back-to-back MLS Cup appearances and played a crucial part in the 2017 MLS Cup victory and was an MLS all-star in each of the 2015-18 campaigns.
To give context as to why he’s my pick over others mentioned, it comes down to this, Toronto will never be known as a soccer city and will always be overshadowed by the Maple Leafs, Raptors and Blue Jays. That being said the impact he had during his time here in Toronto was unlike that of any other athlete in my opinion. As a fan of European and international soccer, Giovinco made soccer relevant to me here in Toronto and definitely a lot of others, especially by bringing a MLS Cup championship to Canada for the very first time. It might not have been anywhere close to the same capacity or turnout of the Raptors Championship parade but the Toronto FC championship run and parade definitely helps put this sport on the right track from a development standpoint.
Giovinco playing and dominating the sport in the MLS will help to grow the sport of soccer in Canada. During Giovinco’s time here, both Toronto and Canada has been put on the map in various ways: firstly as an MLS Cup winner for the first time, secondly as a finalist in the CONCACAF Champions League and now set to be co-hosts of the 2026 World Cup.
Jose Bautista - Nick Bowins
From the man that brought you the most memorable baseball moment for Canada’s team since Joe Carter’s World Series clinching home-run in Game 6 of the 1993 Championship, I bring to you, Toronto’s Most Influential Athlete of the Decade, Joey Bats.
Jose Bautista was one of the most dominant athletes on a Toronto based team in the 2010’s, as he tortured opposing pitchers, flipped bats to the moon, and brought a swagger and presence to the Jays that was unparalleled.
Coming to the Jays during the 2008 season, Bautista was not much of a known quantity, and had not yet developed into the slugger we now know him as. In the 2010 season, we saw his career come to fruition, as he jumped from 13 home runs the year prior, up to 54 this year. From this point onward, Bautista never looked back. He mashed a total of 272 home runs in a Blue Jays jersey, alongside an incredible 716 runs batted in. Despite Joey Bats being known as a power threat, largely due to his 2 seasons of leading the league in home runs, it shouldn’t be forgotten how good of an eye at the plate he had, collecting 745 walks, again leading the league twice.
Overall, not many players had the impact on Toronto sports that Bautista had during his career here, including his 8 years this decade. His go ahead home-run in the 2015 ALDS is one of those memories that will stick with me until the end of time, his statistics will remain in Blue Jays record books for a long long time, and the impact he had on his peers, whether formerly or currently with the Jays organization, sparked an energy in the city that rejuvenated the love of baseball for a lot of people. With all this said, Jose Bautista is my Toronto athlete of the decade, and from my own personal fandom, it isn’t even close.