Originally published in SLAM 178

by Adam Figman

Alvin Williams clearly remembers his first meeting with Kyle Lowry. They were at Villanova University, on the Main Line in the suburbs of Philadelphia, where Williams was training during an offseason in the midst of his 10-year NBA career, and Lowry was a high schooler, visiting the campus on a recruiting trip. Williams, an established hooper from Philly, was simply reaching out to an up-and-comer from his hometown. Lowry wasn’t really having it.

“I thought he was a jerk,” Williams says. “Kyle was tough. He was tough to get along with, from my standpoint. He was stubborn. I didn’t really like his attitude at all.”

Though Williams quickly bonded with the point guard (who did end up attending  Villanova before being selected 24th by the Memphis Grizzlies in the 2006 Draft) that tough-to-get-along-with rep followed Lowry around during his first few years in the League. “You won’t run into people who knew Kyle early in his career who say he was a nice guy,” Williams says.

Now, though, eight seasons into his career, Lowry’s reputation has evolved. He’s the guiding force and possibly the most important player on the Toronto Raptors, a team somehow sitting at 47-33, good for a surprisingly high third place in the Eastern Conference. He’s averaging 17.8 points, 7.5 assists and 1.5 steals per game, the first two of which are career highs. He was either the first or second player left off the East All-Star team. And his rep as a tough-nosed, difficult-to-coach hardhead has softened; he was highly coveted before the 2014 trade deadline and will be once again this summer when he hits free agency.

It’s been an undeniably great 2013-14 for the 6-0 Lowry, a process that began as soon as the 2012-13 campaign concluded. “Coming off of last season, we had a meeting at the end of the season and just decided it’d be his best summer ever,” says Joe Abunassar, who manages Impact Basketball and has trained Lowry every offseason since he was drafted by the Grizzlies. “What we did early was get his weight down and get him in great shape physically—normally guys would take some time off after the season, but he didn’t really take time off at all. He got going with mostly low impact cardio training.”

After spending time in his hometown of Philly, Lowry went to Las Vegas to train with Abunassar through the hot summer months. They worked on improving his jumpshot, which had been Lowry’s Achilles heel early in his career. They ran hundreds of pick-and-rolls, making sure the then-27-year-old would be prepared for every possible outcome. And Joe made sure his client and friend was in tip-top shape, ready for the slog of another 82-or-more-game year. (Lowry has been on the court for 2,799 minutes this season, the most of his career—and three games still remain.)

“Kyle’s summer—and I’ve had guys for a long time—it was as good as any summer anyone’s had,” Abunassar says. “His focus was unbelievable.”

In late September, Lowry convened with the Raptors overlords—chairman Larry Tanenbaum, team president Tim Leiweke, senior basketball advisor Wayne Embry and general manager Masai Ujiri, who called the meeting—to discuss his future. The group loved what Lowry brought to the table, talent-wise, and knew that the team would go as far as their bulldog of a starting point guard would bring them. And it wasn’t much of a secret: If he failed, he’d likely be shipped out of town before the trade deadline and the organization would turn its focus toward the upcoming Draft. If he succeeded, they’d keep him on board for a Playoff run.

“They put a lot on my shoulders,” Lowry says now. “They pretty much told me, How you go is how we’re going to go. They put their hearts and trust into me to be a successful player and lead the team, you don’t want to let down and disappoint them, so you do what you have to do in order to not disappoint them and let them down. That was a goal for me—I personally wanted to make sure I didn’t let those guys down. I wanted to make them proud.”

Safe to say he’s done just that. So when the All-Star rosters were announced in January, many expected Kyle’s name to be on the list—alas, he was left out. “It wasn’t a big thing to me,” he says. “I mean, I would’ve loved to accomplish that. I would’ve loved to achieve that accomplishment, but it didn’t make me say, Oh man, I’m mad. It basically made me say, OK, it’s not my time. Just keep working harder and maybe it’ll happen.”

Kyle’s evolution has likely been a shock to many—especially some who dealt with the point guard early in his career as he struggled to gain his NBA footing—but some say this is exactly where they expected him to be at this point in time. Count both Abunassar and Williams in that camp, along with Lonnie Lowry, Kyle’s big brother, who steered lil’ bro into hoops way back when. “My brother wanted me to be something,” Kyle says. “He knew I loved the sport, and he loved the sport, and he just put the ball in my hands and made me run with it.”

“He followed me and my friends around and played sports with us,” Lonnie says. “We’re five years apart, but honestly, from age 7 on up, he literally played sports with me and my friends—tackle football, basketball, baseball. Anything we did, he came and played with us. That probably toughened him up more than anything.”

And, of course, Lonnie played hoops, so Kyle did, too. Basketball kept both boys out of trouble, as did the duo’s foundation: their mother and grandmother, who ran a tight ship in the Lowry household. “We were scared of our mom—our mom and our grandma,” Lonnie says. “We knew they weren’t playing. We were the kids where everybody would be playing, and it’s 8 o’clock, and you can hear my grandma screaming our names out down the street to come in the house. A lot of our other friends didn’t have that. Our grandma would come out—it’s 8 o’clock, let’s go. We knew what it was.”

The duo avoided trouble and stayed on the right path, though the city’s violence would creep into their lives by simple proximity. One day in either 2001 or 2002, during a pick-up game at Connie Mack Court in North Philadelphia, shots were fired in the gym. Everyone fled. According to a National Post report, the ever-competitive Kyle wanted to keep playing immediately after. “It was just a bad place at a bad time,” Kyle says. “The neighborhood I grew up in, it was definitely one of those places where it definitely wasn’t easy to get around, wasn’t like you can just say, Hey, I’m gonna go walk around the corner, without your brother. There’s violence, drugs, things like that.”

Lonnie, despite only being half a decade older than Kyle, coached his younger brother’s AAU team, slowly coming to the realization that his sibling had a very serious hoops future. Even back when they were kids, the younger Lowry had an insanely competitive spirit, and as he got older, Lonnie says there were multiple moments when he was blown away by his brother’s talent. He pinpoints a game in 2003 when Kyle’s AAU team was in Fort Wayne, IN, for the Run ‘N Slam, facing a skilled group called The Family. Though his squad was expected to lose, Kyle dropped 41 points in a victory. “[The Family] had like eight high-major kids, and he just trashed them, from start to finish,” Lonnie says. “I was just like, Whoa.”

He played two seasons at Villanova—one in which he came off the bench and often clashed with coach Jay Wright, then one in which he settled in, started, scored 11 points per game and helped the Wildcats reach the Elite 8—before getting drafted by the Grizzlies in 2006. That he’s bounced around the NBA for a bit since—playing two and a half seasons for Memphis, then three and a half for Houston, and now about to finish his second in Toronto—could be credited both to a set of unfortunate situations (the Grizzlies drafted PG Mike Conley with Lowry already on the roster) and how far he needed to come as a person (after the Rockets ditched coach Rick Adelman, Lowry reportedly refused to give new coach Kevin McHale a full effort).

Now situated in Toronto—at least until this summer, when he’ll be keeping an open mind toward all free agency opportunities, in the T-Dot or elsewhere—Lowry has been one of the main factors behind the team’s decision to avoid the all-tank-everything route and attempt to make at least a small splash in the postseason. As could probably be expected, Lowry is quick to deflect the attention to his teammates: “We take a little bit from everybody on our team,” he says. “From me, every single night I know these guys are gonna go to war for me, and in the same way they know I’m gonna go to war for them. We get our swagger from Greivis, because he has the best swag on the team—he’s definitely swagged out. From John Salmons, how humble he is—he’s always ready to go. DeMar [DeRozan], too. Everybody takes a little something from everybody, and it builds an uncanny, cool team.”

And as for Kyle individually, it looks like his career is finally steered in the perfect direction. His NBA mentors Chauncey Billups—whom he met through Abunassar—and Chester, PA-bred Jameer Nelson helped him reach this new level of maturity, as has simply getting older and the birth of his 2-year-old son, Karter. “Having a healthy kid is one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me,” he says proudly.

“He’s made tremendous strides as a player, but more so as a young man,” Williams says. The former Toronto Raptor guard literally watched the evolution of Kyle Lowry from a stubborn young pup in high school to his current status as a more level-headed, valuable member of a soon-to-be Playoff contender. “The person he is now is so far from the person he was when I first met him. He still has his moments, but he’s so much different, such a better person than he was back then. He has a ways to go, but it should be emphasized that he makes it an every-day goal to become better in that locker room and as a player off the floor. He really does, man.”

Abunassar agrees wholeheartedly. “We talk about attitude and [Lowry’s] approach more than anything else,” he says. “It’s a learning process. He’s started to realize his off-the-court mannerisms and his mannerisms in the locker room are just as important as his value on the court. That team is winning, and his attitude and approach has a lot to do with it.”