Kawhi Leonard had a tough night on the court Thursday, but basketball fans enthusiastically welcomed the former Toronto Raptors star back to Canada all the same.
Leonard went five-for-19 from the floor as his L.A. Clippers were beaten 102-87 by the Dallas Mavericks in a pre-season game in Vancouver.
Cheers echoed around Rogers Arena as Leonard led the Clippers on to the court for warm ups and fans got loud each time he hit a shot.
“(Vancouver’s) a great basketball town, a great city,” the 28-year-old said after the game. “You see how they came out tonight, full building. So it was great just to be back.”
Thursday marked Leonard’s return to the city where he took part in his first and only training camp with the Raptors last year.
Leonard then opted to join his hometown Clippers in free agency, reportedly agreeing to a three-year, US$103-million contract.
He struggled to sink baskets early in Thursday’s contest, but ended the game with 13 points, three rebounds and two assists.
Before tipoff, Canadians Dwight Powell and Mfiondu Kabengele stood at centre court and thanked fans for coming out.
Powell, a Toronto native, is in his fifth year with the Mavericks but did not play Thursday due to a left hamstring strain.
The Clippers picked Kabengele, who hails from Burlington, Ont., 27th overall in this year’s draft. He came on late in the fourth quarter for L.A., putting up a solid block in the game’s final seconds.
Outside the arena on Thursday, some fans used the game as an opportunity to send the NBA a message.
A group of about 10 people wearing various face masks expressed their displeasure with how the league has handled recent controversy around a tweet Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey posted voicing support for anti-government protesters in Hong Kong.
NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said the league values freedom of expression, but others, including L.A. Lakers star LeBron James, have criticized Morey for his now-deleted post.
On Thursday, protesters in Vancouver carried signs reading “#StandWithHongKong” and “NBA bowed to totalitarian China. We won’t.”
Meanwhile, a separate and slightly larger group rallied in the same area, calling for the league to bring a team back to Vancouver.
The city was home to the Grizzlies from 1995 to 2001, when the franchise moved to Memphis.
Chants of “We want Grizzlies!” broke out through the arena during the fourth quarter.
Gemma Karstens-Smith, The Canadian Press