Norman Powell is in a Toronto studio, about to get a portrait taken, but the Raptors guard isn’t quite ready for his close-up. “Wait,” he says. “I wanna get my chain.” A stylist hands him a glistening gold necklace, which he proudly dons, the diamond-studded letters “UTG” dangling over his sweater. You’ll catch that acronym — short for “Understand the Grind” — printed on many of the 26-year-old’s pre-game fits; it’s his signature clothing line, but a personal ethos too. The mantra represents the unflagging hard work it took to get him here — as a key piece on Canada’s first-ever NBA championship team. Man can wear all the chains he wants.
The perennially overlooked Raptors shook the league — and an entire nation — when they took home the Larry O’Brien Trophy last June. And yet, a few months later, they find themselves ignored once again. With superstar Kawhi Leonard skipping town for the Los Angeles Clippers over the summer, the American sports–industrial complex has all but written Toronto off this season. Consider: the only time a Raptor appears in the gameplay trailer for NBA 2K20 is when Leonard, in a Clippers jersey, dunks on Powell.
But it’s a position Powell relishes. A second-round draft pick in 2015, the San Diego native has made a living defying expectations. His eclectic, explosive style coming off the bench routinely caught teams unawares during the playoffs. Now, following a career-best season, he’s got a chance to stake out a leadership role on a squad looking for leaders — and shake the league again. He’s more than ready; he’s been grinding for this his whole life. It’s close-up time.
JACKET, HOODIE, AND PANTS (ALL PRICE UPON REQUEST) BY UNDERSTAND THE GRIND.
So, how does it feel to be an NBA champion?
Honestly, it feels really weird to be one. It’s still surreal. I feel like once you get the ring and actually see it in your hand, it’ll start to sink in. But still, hearing people calling me an NBA champion and seeing it everywhere, it’s a crazy feeling. Not very many players get to experience it.
Just how hard did you party at the parade?
See, Marc [Gasol] was on another level. He finished a whole bottle of wine in one gulp, pretty much. I wasn’t on that level. I was pretty good up until we hit the three-and-a-half-hour mark. But I was definitely on a cloud — popping bottles, pouring beer and champagne on police officers who were trying to catch it with their mouths. It was an amazing experience.
JACKET ($1,895), TURTLENECK ($450), AND PANTS ($495) BY PAUL SMITH, AT SIMONS; BOOTS ($130) BY BP, AT NORDSTROM.
The Raptors hit Vegas with Drake right after winning the championship. Any funny stories from that trip?
To be honest, I don’t really remember Vegas. [Laughs.] I have a great memory and the fact I can’t remember Vegas just tells you how much fun we had. It felt like The Hangover but just not waking up with a trashed room or anything. We were at XS with Drake, then an after-party, and then…everywhere, getting tables. OG [Anunoby] was super drunk — I remember that. It was hilarious.
Your tunnel looks during the Finals were on point. Describe your personal style.
I’d say it’s a little trendy but hood at the same time. So, I’ll get the skinny jeans, but also wear more things from back home, like a graphic tee. I’m very into Nipsey Hussle and J. Cole’s music, so different things that align with their philosophies and outlooks is what I go for. A game day outfit for me is usually some retro Jordans, distressed jeans, and A$AP Rocky recently came out with a line, so I’d probably wear one of his sweaters. There’s always something in my outfit that resonates with who I am.
“Continue to hate, continue to doubt us, man. I’ve always been an underdog. I’m very comfortable being one.”
I’ve got to ask about that “UTG” chain you’re wearing.
It stands for “Understand the Grind” and I had several made by a guy named the Bling King. I just wanted to cement what the motto means with a group of guys who I grew up with. It started in high school; we were talking about our dreams, and one of us said, “Man, a lot of people don’t understand the grind of what it takes to be successful.” We were all on the basketball team and started looking at people older than us who had the talent but didn’t make it. Like, “Damn, how’d he fall off?” That’s where “Understand the Grind” was created. It’s a lifestyle we embodied in order to achieve our goals and go beyond what everybody said we were capable of. It doesn’t only apply to sports. Everybody in life is grinding for something. Everybody’s trying to get to the next level.
BOMBER JACKET ($1,650) BY BURBERRY, SHIRT ($1,105) BY GIVENCHY, PANTS (PRICE UPON REQUEST) BY SAINT LAURENT, ALL AT SAKS; EAST MEETS WEST BOOTS ($230) BY TIMBERLAND.
This might be a heavy question, but what obstacles did you have to overcome to get here?
I mean, growing up, our situation wasn’t always the best. My mom raised me and my two older sisters by herself, so financially, we struggled. I think seeing how committed she was to making sure we had a good life — pushing through adversity and always figuring a way out — really resonated with me. It helped me survive setbacks in school — you know, reading at a lower level, even being behind skill-wise when it came to sports. Just figuring out how I’m going to overcome that obstacle, and not saying, “Ah, that’s too hard.” When I was eight, I said, “Imma be in the NBA.” I didn’t know how, but I always told myself I’d find a way no matter what. I’m going to be successful.
This Raptors squad has overcome lots of adversity, too. Besides nobody on the roster being drafted higher than number 15 overall, it seems you’re constantly disrespected by the league and U.S. media. Even now that you’re champs, it still feels like you’re being brushed off.
For sure! And honestly, I love it. So many people are mad about it, but if you look at our team, we’re a core group of players who have been overlooked. Every one of us. And we’ve all had to work hard to prove people wrong. I love being a part of it. Continue to hate, continue to doubt us, man. That’s just fuel to us. When you exceed their expectations, I love seeing them jump. “Man, the Raptors are going to do it!” No, stay on that side of the fence. We’ll keep proving you wrong. I’ve always been an underdog. I’m very comfortable being one.
JACKET ($750), PANTS ($350), T-SHIRT (PRICE UPON REQUEST), AND SWEATER ($500) BY BOSS.
This is how far back it goes with the hate: it was my rookie year, and video games are my thing, so I was playing 2K as the Raptors. And one of the announcers said, “I don’t even think winning the NBA championship would change the look on Toronto.” In a video game they said that! I don’t know if it was a glitch or what; they were talking about Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady, and all our former players, and they literally said a championship wouldn’t change the perception of the organization. I was just like, wow!
I’m sure you’ve seen the 2K20 trailer with Kawhi dunking on you.
It doesn’t matter to me. Whatever. It’s actually funny because I think they did that intentionally, knowing the relationship between me and Kawhi; the history we have. And then there was the whole, “Oh, Kawhi left you hanging” thing. [A viral video during the NBA Finals showed Leonard seemingly denying a fist- bump from Powell.] They knew it would get more buzz and attention. I like how no Raptor gets a clip in the trailer; Pascal [Siakam] wins Most Improved Player but gets no love. It’s just another note to take down: okay, disrespect right there. Now when we hit the court, y’all gonna get it. We’ll show you y’all messed up.
SWEATER ($175) BY BOSS, BOMBER JACKET ($2,200) BY DRIES VAN NOTEN, AT SIMONS.
You mentioned the viral clip of Kawhi leaving you hanging. Is it weird being a player in the social media age, where any little thing you do can go viral?
Definitely. And especially that moment, because I wasn’t thinking, Aww man, Kawhi left me hanging. That’s about to blow up! Literally, I didn’t know anything of it until later and I was like, Why do I have all these damn notifications on my Instagram? Bro, what’s going on? And the funny thing is, if you watch the full clip, you see me going around dapping everybody else, and then I’m just standing there in front of him with my fist out. And when he notices, he points down the hall. It was weird. I thought, like, Why are you pointing? We’re not going down there yet. Later on, he went, “Oh, I thought you were trying to bring the huddle in. My bad.” But everybody already blew it up. I knew I’d made it when 50 Cent posted it!
This season the odds are stacked against you yet again. What’s your mindset going into it?
I think it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s definitely a huge opportunity for me, and a bunch of guys on the team, to take that step forward. As a young player in the league, you’ve got to sit behind veteran players — I’ve sat behind DeMarre Carroll, Terrence Ross, DeMar DeRozan — and try to inch your way into the lineup. Now the opportunity is open. So, I’m going at it with a clear mindset, a lot of focus, a lot of hunger. I have a real chance to be able to cement a spot as a starter and achieve the bigger goals I’ve had set out for myself. It’s going to take a full team effort to get back to where we were last year: being champions. I talked to Masai [Ujiri] about it recently. I said, “They’re doubting us again.” He said, “Alright, so let’s go run it back.”