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Kawhi Leonard and Ryan O’Reilly: mirror journeys to two national titles

MEDIUM, 06 / 15 / 2019

NBA and NHL players are rarely compared. Besides being professional athletes, they don’t have a ton in common. But I couldn’t help noticing last week that the MVPs of each league’s Finals, Toronto Raptor Kawhi Leonard and St. Louis Blue Ryan O’Reilly, have traveled an eerily similar path over the last year.

Both born in 1991, 27 years later Leonard and O’Reilly would get traded in the same month to new teams that had never won a championship.

Each club would be taking a calculated risk.

In the 2017–18 NBA season, after rehabbing a rough injury to his quadriceps, team doctors gave Leonard the green light to suit back up with his San Antonio teammates. But he played just nine games — making the personal decision in February to pull himself from the lineup.

That decision triggered criticism and controversy – and ultimately led to the trade. As Raptor General Manager Masai Ujiri told the Toronto Star: “Without all this medical drama that there is, we have no chance of talking to a player like that. Zero.”

Meanwhile, St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong had Ryan O’Reilly on the brain. The Buffalo center was battling his own demons at the end of the ’18 season. The Sabres had become perennial losers, and O’Reilly had shared some raw honesty with the Buffalo News:

“We’re stuck in this mindset of just being OK with losing…It’s disappointing. It’s sad. I feel throughout the year I’ve lost the love of the game multiple times. You need to get back to it because it’s just eating myself up and eats the other guys, too.”

Some people were questioning O’Reilly’s “mental toughness.” Not Armstrong. The Blues acquired O’Reilly in a trade where they sacrificed two first-round draft picks and three roster players: Tage Thompson, Patrick Berglund and Vladimir Sobotka.

In O’Reilly’s first conversation with Armstrong after the trade, he told his new boss: “Let’s go win a Stanley Cup.”

Similarly, in the hours after Leonard was traded to Toronto, he texted his new teammate Kyle Lowry: “Let’s do something special. I know you’re mad, your best friend left (DeMar DeRozan), but let’s make something happen.”

Each player knew there were huge expectations in their respective new cities. But more importantly, each knew that they had something to prove to themselves. Then they went out and did it.

On the hard court, Leonard led his Raptors to a second place finish in the Eastern Conference, just two games out. He averaged 27 points per game, 7th in the NBA, and pulled down seven rebounds per game.

In the six-game NBA Finals against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, Leonard averaged 28.5 points, 10 rebounds and 4 assists. His numbers drew comparisons to “Larry Legend’s” incredible run in the seven-game Celtics-Lakers series of 1984.

On the Thursday night that the Raptors won their first ever NBA championship, Leonard won 11 out of the 12 votes to be named Finals MVP. One sportswriter must have had his drink spiked.

Back on the ice, just 24 hours earlier in Boston, Ryan O’Reilly was waiting in the slot when he deflected a shot into the net to score the first goal on the way to a 4–1 victory in game-seven. The St. Louis Blues had won their first ever Stanley Cup — and O’Reilly was awarded the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.

O’Reilly scored 26 points in 26 playoff games — and was the first player to score a goal in four consecutive Cup Final games since “The Great One” did it in 1985.

In the NBA and the NHL, when your numbers are being compared to records set by Larry Bird and Wayne Gretzky, additional words are unnecessary.

Two stars, each making history in their first year playing in a new city. They proved what they’d set out to prove. But both knew that the titles took far more than an MVP.

Leonard put it this way:

“It was a whole group collectively. Tonight Fred played amazing in that fourth. Kyle played amazing tonight throughout the whole game. Pascal played big. I just kept striving and pushing and I ended up with the trophy, but everybody deserves it.”

O’Reilly echoed those sentiments:

“Guys showed up and worked for each other. It’s the most impressive thing I’ve seen, the way we’ve always been able to bounce back and keep fighting and never giving up. There’s so many incredible players here that worked so hard for this.”

Professional hockey and basketball are totally different animals. Yet Kawhi Leonard and Ryan O’Reilly shared more over the last year than they may ever realize. Two cities are awfully grateful.