North of the 400

North of Toronto, South of a championship

Goodbye Phil, Goodbye Amir

Yesterday was admittedly a pretty big day for Toronto sports, even by its usually outlandish standards. Two of the best athletes in the city left on the same day. I want to take a moment to look at each of them.

1. Exit stage left: Phil Kessel. Arguably the most talented player the Leafs have had in years and certainly the most divisive they’ve had since Tie Domi, Kessel is now a Pittsburgh Penguin.

Kessel’s time in Toronto was marred right from the get-go, when then-GM Brian Burke traded away two first-round picks for the forward. Could the trade really have been six years ago? A story of mine at the Good Point suggests it’s been nearly that long. I defended the trade then; these days, I don’t feel the same way, although I don’t know I care enough to bang out that many words on an off-season trade anymore, either.

The trade is easy to nitpick now. The Leafs lost out on a second-overall pick and Kessel, never much of a talker, burned bridges with the media. By the end of his time here, the Toronto Star’s Dave Feschuk was insinuating Kessel was a coach-killer and even positive stories on him still mentioned an image of laziness. Even now, as he leaves the city, sportswriters are throwing him under the bus for eating too many honk dogs.

In Scottish lore, there were people called sin-eaters. When someone died, these people went to the house and ate a piece of bread, symbolically taking the sins of the deceased onto themselves. The more I think about it, the more I think Kessel filled a similar role for this Leaf team. For basically his whole tenure here, the Leafs were bad. They made the playoffs once and collapsed on an almost annual basis. Problems abounded, but the media honed in on Kessel.

Why? Maybe because he didn’t play along with their games and make them feel like one of the team. Maybe because his trade symbolically defined an era of putting it all on red and seeing the ball land on black. Maybe because somebody had to fill that role and the media weren’t going to throw people they liked being around under the bus. But as the Leafs seasons collapsed into defensive miscues and teams that seemed rudderless, it was the guy who played hurt and alongside replacement level talent and still managed to score 60-points a season who caught the flak.

In all his time here, Kessel was one of the most exciting players on the Leafs to watch. Think I’m kidding? Go watch clips of him in full stride, taking a pass and moving in on the net. At his best, Kessel is a pure skater who can score with ease. He wasn’t always at his best because teams realized they could shut him down and not worry about players like Bozak or Clarkson. Even so, Kessel had moments like this, where he made it all look almost effortless.

I hope he scores 50 in Pittsburgh next year.

2. Exit stage right: Amir Johnson. Perhaps not the most talented Raptor, but certainly one of the most compelling, a fan-favourite who was a lot of fun to watch even when the team wasn’t and someone who genuinely loved the city, hanging out in Toronto long after the season ended. He is now a Boston Celtic. 

When Amir Johnson came here in 2009, the Raptors were a mess. It was their last season with Chris Bosh and they came within a hair of making the postseason, but were eliminated on the last day. The next year, the Raps were in free-fall, winning as many games as the total of different players on their roster: 22.

Over the next couple of years, there was some ugly ball played by the Raptors. This was a time when Andrea Bargnani was avoiding contact and playing away from the basket, when Aaron Gray was making 40 starts at centre and when the Raptors offense struggled to score 90 points per game.

Through it all, Johnson was a blast to watch. He struggled with fouls, yes, and had some injury trouble. But he was a reliable bench option, good for about ten points and ten rebounds per 36 minutes. He was also a lot of fun to watch, someone who gave a lot on the court and looked like he was having a blast, too.

It sounds silly, but in the years after Vince Carter, who admitted he didn’t always try his hardest, after Bosh who left right as he hit his peak and after Hedo Turkoglu, who basically didn’t want to be in Toronto, it was refreshing.

In my files, I’ve got a pitch I wrote for The Classical that I don’t know if I actually sent. It was for a Why We Watch on Amir Johnson. Here’s a small excerpt:

Johnson came to the Raptors in Bosh’s last season. After Bosh left, he settled into a starting role, mostly in the same role: the other big alongside Barganani. He’s also filled another role, too: the fun Raptor.

He has his own Youtube channel, AmirTV. Along with DeMar DeRozan and Sonny Weems, he was part of a group calling themselves The Young Gunz. He’s released a mixtape. And he’s active in Toronto in a way few others are: right before the season’s start, he took part in a Toronto zombie walk. He hangs out here. Bosh was a nice guy, but he didn’t live here.

My pitch is a huge mess – probably why I never bothered sending it – but I think that label is as true now as it was in late 2012. Johnson was a lot of fun, on the court and off. Even now, as his role on the team has been eclipsed by DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Terrence Ross, Johnson was still a sentimental favourite, someone who had bad ankles and still picked up fouls at a ridiculous rate, but had captured something among the fans. Just look at the goodbyes he’s getting from blogs like Raptors Republic.

Remember, it wasn’t all that long ago they were literally giving Raptors tickets away. I was at a game with my friend Eric and an usher came up to us and just handed us a pair of free tickets to another game. We didn’t even have to ask. They have a lot of cultural cache now, thanks to consecutive playoff runs and Drake’s stamp of approval, but for a while there wasn’t much to cheer for. But there was Amir.

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