Basketball and Stoicism: How the Toronto Raptors Made NBA History
Updated: Jun 16, 2019
The reserved demeanor with which Kawhi Leonard arrived in Toronto in July of 2018 had slowly spread to those within the visitors’ locker room of the Oracle. Nearly a year later and the Toronto Raptors had just won Game 4 of the NBA Finals. The team was heading back home with a 3-1 series lead against the Golden State Warriors and the opportunity to win its first ever championship. But you would not have been able to tell that by the look on their faces. There were no smiles. There was no clapping and there was no cheering. That luxury was afforded only to the crowds that packed Jurassic Park and the streets of Toronto thousands of miles away. In that locker room, there was a deafening, chilling silence. One that would go on to make history and be replaced by the sounds of champagne bottles popping only 6 days later.
The Toronto Raptors won three games in one of the loudest and most hostile away environments in the league on their way to the team’s first ever NBA Title. Their game plan was not dominated by one player, although Kawhi Leonard deservingly received the Finals MVP, but was a collection of team accomplishments led by the toughness of Kyle Lowry. Nick Nurse’s wisdom and adaptability, perhaps a product of his 30 years of coaching experience fuelled the Raptors ability to run the offensive sets effectively and to consistently expose the gaps in Golden State’s defence through their length, 3-point shooting and pick and roll. Danny Green’s hot hand in Game 3, VanVleet’s smothering defence on Curry in the box and one, Ibaka’s 6 blocks in game 3, by the end of the 6 games each player on the team had found a way put their own unique imprint onto the gold surface of the Larry O’Brien trophy.
But for the Toronto Raptors, their journey to the NBA let alone to winning the NBA Finals is one marred by hardship and tribulation outside of the arena.
Kawhi Leonard was 16 when his father was killed. Fred VanVleet was 5 when his father was shot to death. Pascal Siakam’s dad was killed in a car crash when Pascal was 20 and Serge Ibaka’s mother died when he was 8. Kyle Lowry was raised in the rough neighborhoods of north Philadelphia by a single mother and his grandmother.
It is these experiences that nestled deep within the core of the Toronto Raptors group the ability to separate between life and basketball and stick by the motto: ‘never too low, never too high.’
The phrase along with many others had become a mindset for the team, a unit that had a shared past of undergoing personal adversity years prior to coming together.
The brilliance which the Raptors laid out on the court was in large part a product of the right mindset off the court. Their performance in the 2019 NBA Finals was not only a display of basketball excellence, it was an example of the power and practicality of the ancient philosophy of Stoicism.
Stoicism founded in Athens in the early 3rd century B.C. espouses that due to the unpredictability of the world, very often the worries that plague our minds are ones over which we have little to no control. As a result, in order to live life on our own terms we must rely on reason and temperance rather than give in to impulse and emotion.
If the ancient Stoics were tasked with creating a model of what the Stoic basketball player would look like he would look an awful lot like #2 on the Toronto Raptors. For years Kawhi Leonard has been revered for his calm almost robot-like nature on and off the basketball court. He is not vocal, nor too passionate. He rarely celebrates. He does not trash talk his opponents. But therein lies the depth of his leadership. Kawhi Leonard rarely acts on his impulses and emotions and from this he elucidates an unprecedented aura of stability around him at all times. He is never too up and never too down.
With the arrival of Kawhi Leonard in the summer of 2018, came the Stoic leadership that ultimately gave rise to a level of confidence amongst the Raptors that propelled them to the highest peak in professional basketball.
One value that came to light throughout the Finals by the Toronto Raptors was the power of taking a ‘view from above.’ By extracting yourself from a given situation, widening the lens and viewing the larger picture, you begin to see how easy it is to get lost in the often artificial severity which accompanies winning or losing in professional sports. When you see pressure more as an external impediment rather than as self-produced emotional stress that can be removed at any moment you lose composure and begin to play poorly. A view from above helps highlight the impermanence of the things we can so easily take to mean everything.
Listen to Kyle Lowry’s moving reply to a reporter when asked what pressure means for him:
The understanding that life will go on regardless of a Raptors championship brings with it a clarity to focus on the goal properly. As Kawhi Leonard put it in his own press conference when asked about how the death of his father changes the way he approaches the game he replied,
"It just gave me a sense and feel that life and basketball are two different things and just really enjoy your time and moments.”
For Kawhi Leonard and the rest of the Raptors, the Finals were about having fun and playing the game you love. The pressures of winning came secondary.
At the heart of the Stoic mindset is the belief that what is most important is not necessarily the outcome but rather the approach with which the goal is attacked. All you are responsible for as a player is playing hard in the moment and trying to win. Everything else is external. In Kawhi Leonard's words, the difference between a game in the Finals and a game in the regular season comes down to the things you have little to no control over.
Whether it is the thousands of Raptors fans on the streets of Toronto, the constant media coverage, or the ear drum shattering chants within both the Oracle and the Scotiabank Arena, the ability to differentiate between what is in our control and what is not radically alters the reality we are faced with. Once you are able to master this, Game 6 on the road in Oakland becomes no different than Game 2 against Milwaukee or a regular season game against Phoenix.
Now, the Toronto Raptors are NBA Champions. A team that had never been to the Finals before and had no player on its roster drafted above 15 was put up against one of the greatest back to back champions in NBA history. To get there alone was monumental. But to overcome and excel in the way that this group did will forever remain etched in the history of the sport.
And once the long lines of waiting to get into Jurassic Park and the long nights of searching for the right stream on r/nbastreams begin to fade away let the mindset with which this team achieved greatness not be forgotten.
Its practicality and applicability is powerful beyond the confines of the basketball court. Let the memories and the euphoria of the championship be accompanied with the belief that the pressures and hardships we face in our own lives can be overcome so long as we approach them in the right way. It does not have to be basketball, but we can use basketball and the success of this team as a reminder of the fact that it begins internally.
Whether it be at work, school, sport, remember to view things from above when the going gets tough. When in deep waters, remind yourself of the power behind the phrase ‘never too high never too low.’ Find the things you can control and the things you cannot and let the latter free. Most of them are impermanent anyway.
Surround yourself with people who are as locked in as you are to get to success and remember to always Bet on Yourself as Fred VanVleet would urge you to.
In doing so, the Toronto Raptors, their fans and the city of Toronto achieve much more than just basketball glory.
Avel Ivanov is a columnist at The Bench. He can be reached on Twitter at @av3ll.