Looking out on applauding Toronto Raptors fans gathered before him inside a sports bar at 10 a.m. on a Thursday summer morning, Kyle Lowry broke out in a wide, boyish smile and shook his head in amazement.
"This is awesome," said the Raptors' star point guard. "This is awesome."
Hundreds of basketball fans gathered inside Real Sports for the team's public announcement that they had re-signed the 28-year-old to a new multiyear contract, the heart and soul of the squad, and its top priority in free agency. Joined by general manager Masai Ujiri, the two spoke of the family they're building in Toronto, the winning culture and the kind of place in which top NBA players want to put down roots.
"This is a first-class organization, and coming back here, I want to do something special," said Lowry, as the bar's jumbo video screens played a montage of his most memorable on-court moments of the season. "People say 'Toronto can't do this or that in free agency,' and I just proved them wrong."
The deal was reported last week but couldn't be made official until Thursday, when the NBA's moratorium on free-agent signings ended. Terms weren't released but reports have indicated it's a four-year, $48-million (U.S.) contract. He had reportedly also met with the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets, and says he seriously considered the offers.
"[Other teams] were real factors; I did my homework and took my time. I had a couple of meetings with my family, and we went through the pros and cons," Lowry said. "The way Masai handled everything, this went so smoothly. I got the deal exactly the way I wanted it."
Fans became enamoured with the gutsy eight-year NBA veteran for his fearless performances this season, as he played through several injuries and jump-started many late-game comebacks. Lowry played a key role in leading the Raptors to a club-record 48 wins, their second-ever Atlantic Division title and first postseason appearance since 2008.
"For us to have a fighter, a bulldog, everything I want in a leader … he came back here to fight for the Raptors, and to make the decision one day after free agency started says a lot about this person," Ujiri said. "This is just the beginning of something good for the Toronto Raptors."
The Raptors acquired Lowry from the Houston Rockets in July, 2012. He had been the 25th overall draft pick by the Memphis Grizzlies in 2006, but hadn't thrived there or in his three seasons with the Houston Rockets. This, he says, feels like home.
The six-foot, 205-pound point guard posted career highs in points (17.9), rebounds (4.7), assists (7.4), field goals (457) and three-pointers (190) last season, his second in Toronto. He ranked seventh in the NBA in assists per game and tied for eighth in three-pointers.
"It was easy to come back here," Lowry said. "I talked to [teammate] DeMar [DeRozan] every day for like five, six days straight. We're so close … he just listened … we're brothers."
Ujiri said a few minutes after they agreed to their deal by phone, Lowry texted him to ask whether he could do anything to help recruit other players. For a team that had in the past struggled to land and keep free agents, its general manager says the tide has changed.
"To me, there are no excuses anymore – it's as cold here as it is in Detroit or Chicago, and they have championship; well I'd rather be in Toronto," Ujiri said. "We have the best fans in the world; I don't care what anybody says. We built a culture with our fans, and that culture is winning, and Kyle Lowry was at the forefront of that. Our guys play hard and they compete, and players in the NBA see that and want to play where there is a great atmosphere."
The Raptors made a few other moves this week. They signed first-round draft pick Bruno Caboclo to a rookie contract and traded forward Steve Novak and a future second-round draft choice to the Utah Jazz for point guard Diante Garrett. Guard Grievis Vasquez tweeted Wednesday night that he and the Raptors have agreed on an extension.
"Other teams had great things and pieces that were great, but the situation I'm in, the age I'm at, me being able to lead the team and grow as a person, that was the biggest factor," Lowry said. "You don't get many chances to say this is your team. I relish it, getting to say it's my team, and I'm the leader of this team."