TORONTO -- Jose Calderon's return to Toronto played out as if it was scripted. The Detroit Pistons point guard scored 19 points and dished nine assists on Monday, shooting 8-for-12 from the field. He hit a huge three-pointer halfway through the fourth to fend off a Raptors run and added back-to-back assists in the closing minutes as the Pistons pulled away. After the 108-98 win, Calderon stopped to high-five cheering fans as he walked off the floor.
Perhaps the most impressive part, though, is the fact he played at all.
"He was hurt tonight too, he wasn't supposed to play," said Detroit forward Corey Maggette.
Calderon played through an injury to his right arm that, the night before, Pistons head coach Lawrence Frank said stopped him from shooting on the final possession in Chicago. Calderon told reporters pregame that it was nothing, that it wasn't a problem. He told his teammates something different.
"What he said was he didn't want to let his team down, he didn't want to let his fans down in Toronto," Maggette said. "I mean, who does that?"
Calderon, of course, did that. For people in Toronto, it's as unsurprising as the reception he received at the Air Canada Centre. For seven and a half seasons, the point guard gave all he had to the Raptors organization. He outlasted T.J. Ford, Jarrett Jack and Jerryd Bayless, staying steady despite incessant trade rumors and an actual trade that fell through after it was agreed upon. This season he unseated Kyle Lowry as a starter before being dealt to Detroit at the end of January. Before his first game back, he wrote a thank-you letter to the city, the organization, and "above all to the incredible fans."
Part of the payoff for his professionalism was a series of standing ovations. The crowd collectively rose during starting lineup introductions, then again in a timeout midway through the first quarter, as a tribute video shown on the Jumbotron accompanied the public address announcer's reading of a list of Calderon's accomplishments: The Raptors' all-time leader in assists and free throw percentage, second in games played, top-five in points and steals. Seeing the video and hearing the chorus of cheers, Calderon raised his hand to acknowledge the applause but his eyes kept going back to the coach in front of him.
"Whew," Calderon said after the game. "It's hard to explain but it felt great. I think it's going to be one of the better moments in my career for sure ... When they showed the video with the different times as a Raptor with the longer hair then shorter hair, and less hair and more hair, and it was a lot of great moments there that came to my mind and [I] just was thinking about it. And it was a tough one because it was during a timeout so I didn't know if you check the board -- the coach was talking -- or just saying ‘thank you.' It was great."
"It's just good to see that respect level that he had here," Maggette said. "You won't see it in the NBA a lot. You would swear it was like Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant or somebody ... It's unbelievable what he did. I think the biggest thing, having the ovation, is the class. He stayed a class act and when you do that with organizations, they really reward you."
Before the game Calderon said it was weird being back. It was weird to be in a hotel, to take a bus to the arena. It was weird getting there and walking past Toronto's locker room. "My teammates were joking about that, like ‘don't turn left here, just keep going, keep going,'" he said.
At halftime, it almost happened. Walking through the tunnel at the ACC, there's a divider. The Raptors go left, the visitors go right. Calderon went left, then turned around.
"They called me out really quick so it was just like three, four steps," he said. "That's all."
Calderon said it was completely different than the feeling of facing the Raptors in Detroit on Friday. He also made repeated reference to the fact it has only been two months since the deal. There was a moment at the Palace where Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan asked Lowry about a play they were running.
"I'm like, ‘You don't know the play? I know the play,'" Calderon said with a laugh.
DeRozan said he was happy about the crowd's reaction. Rewind two months and he was preparing for his first home game without Calderon on the roster.
Photo credit: USA TODAY Sports
"That's probably the best teammate I ever had," DeRozan said on Feb. 1. "Ever. Since I've been playing basketball. Since I've been here I've probably seen Jose get upset once. But the positive attitude that he had and the advice he gave me day in and day out, even if I was struggling he always helped to uplift you. That was the great thing about Jose. So I credit a lot of my success to Jose, honestly."
As his former teammates sang his praises, Calderon made good first impressions in Detroit. Maggette has been with Calderon just a couple of months but he said Calderon is one of the best teammates he's ever had.
"A lot of people gravitate to good people and he's one of those guys, man," Maggette said. "He was welcomed with open arms as soon as he came on our team plane. He was sitting with me, right next to me and Will [Bynum] and we welcomed him in like he's part of the family."
Maggette said that in his 14th year in the league he can read people right off the bat. He expected Calderon to be positive and be a veteran leader and that's exactly what he's been from the moment he introduced himself.
"Jose came in and talked to the guys and he just showed a lot of -- like he loved our team, like we was brothers," Maggette said. "And that's important."
Calderon's qualities as a teammate were as important as anything in creating a connection to this city. He put up some stats, sure, but he did it while respecting his teammates, his coaches and the game. What he lacked in flash and foot-speed he more than made up for with smarts and skill. He never complained to the media, never demanded a trade, never put himself before the team.
Turns out that can go a long way.
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