Without a doubt Kawhi Leonard is the most introverted superstar of the NBA. This year he’ll lead a major contender into the Orlando bubble, the Los Angeles Clippers. His move to LA was a result of the whirlwind free agency in 2019, which saw Leonard leave the newly crowned champions, the Toronto Raptors. While observing his private and reserved manner in today’s world, I wanted to know who Kawhi Leonard really is.
We saw him light up a cigar with teammates after an undeniable MVP performance, sending the Golden State Warriors dynasty into decline just a year ago. Leonard hit the game winning shot to propel the Toronto Raptors past Philadelphia in a nail-biting game seven with his final second heroics. The ball bounced around the rim four times before falling through the net, Leonard crouching on the sideline waiting for the long two pointer to drop, sending Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals with a buzzer-beater finish.
We saw the videos of his unorthodox laugh and wondered about his journey to NBA royalty. In an interview with Leonard on NBA media day 2019, his unusual laugh made quite a stir on twitter between sports fans.
It also prompted fans to take to their phones for memes such as this one….
He was born Kawhi Anthony Leonard to Mark and Kim Leonard, the youngest brother to four older sisters in the Golden State of California. At 16, his father was murdered aged 43 in Compton, California, in January, 2008. Mark, known by his employees as Mick, was closing up his carwash for the night, where Kawhi worked at weekends and summers. Before locking the doors, he was shot 10 times. The very next night, Kawhi played for his high school basketball team in UCLA, with his family watching and supporting amid tragic circumstances. The murder case remains unsolved to this day.
Leonard rarely mentions the tragedy, except that it has motivated him to get better every day. At the time, he said “basketball helps me take my mind off things”.
Dennis Robertson, brother of Kawhi’s mother, has played a crucial role in mentoring the star and also representing his nephew as his chief advisor. Known as ‘Uncle Dennis’, he has played a controversial role in contract negotiations in the past, but after an NBA investigation was cleared of all allegations against him. He has taken up the father role in his nephew’s life. Leonard said: “With my dad passing away, there aren’t too many men in the family and he’s a great guy to just talk to.”
San Diego State University was where Leonard found himself after high school, after accepting a NCAA Division 1 roster spot. He declared for the NBA Draft after notching 23 double-doubles in his sophomore season, garnering national recognition along the way and being named a second-team All-American.
Leonard led the San Diego State Aztecs to two NCAA conference tournament championships, eventually advancing to the Sweet 16 but ended up being beaten by national champions, Connecticut.
He was drafted as the 15th pick in the 2011 draft by the Indiana Pacers and traded to the San Antonio Spurs for point guard George Hill. The Indiana Pacers trophy cabinet may look differently today if they had kept their 15th pick back in 2011.
In Texas, he became known as ‘The Klaw’ for his enormous hands, measuring 29cm in width, perfect for grabbing 6.4 rebounds throughout his NBA career. He played alongside NBA veterans such as Tim Duncan and under the coaching and leadership of Gregg Popovich. Leonard has also credited Chip Engelland, who worked as Spurs assistant coach, for helping him alter and perfect his shooting form. Leonard’s three-point shooting improved from 25% in college to 39.5% under Chip’s watchful eye. By adding a three-point jumper to his game, he immediately became a shooting threat on the perimeter, leaving no weaknesses in his game.
In the 2014 Finals, he ended the LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade big-three dynasty of the Miami Heat with his first Finals MVP performance, announcing himself as the league’s next star at the tender age of 20. Leonard won back-to-back Defensive Player Of The Year awards in 2015 and 2016 for his stripping and stealing abilities, and his 7’3 wingspan that perfectly accompanies his low guarding stance. These attributes make him an all-time defensive powerhouse. In 2018, Leonard and more steals (753) than personal fouls (735), an amazing statistic considering his aggressiveness on the court.
At the age of 27, in 2015, Leonard signed a $97 million deal with the Spurs, but drove a 20-year-old Chevrolet Tahoe SUV from high school, a show of modesty and just how down-to-earth Leonard is. “It runs… and it’s paid off”, Leonard told Sports Illustrated.
He requested a trade after a quadricep injury forced a divide among the player and franchise in 2018. After seven seasons as a Spur, Leonard was traded for Toronto’s Demar DeRozan, a first round pick drafted to the Raptors in 2009.
In Toronto, Leonard was the missing ingredient, filling the gap between the NBA’s only Canadian franchise and the elusive Larry O’Brien trophy. The 29-year-old fitted perfectly into the starting five, alongside Raptors veteran guard Kyle Lowry and emerging big man Pascal Siakam to secure the city’s first championship in basketball history.
His reserved, low-key demeanor showed little emotion all year until the final moments of Game 6 at Oracle Arena, in the Bay Area of Oakland. His chiseled arms raised in the air, as the final buzzer sounded. It was a rare moment of expression on display for basketball fans around the world. On that historic night Kawhi captured his second Finals MVP, averaging 28.5 points per game.
After a brief, but prolific year in Toronto, Leonard didn’t re-sign, and opted for a return to his home state of California, joining the LA Clippers and teaming up with fellow All-Star, Paul George.
A factor in the move to LA was having the Leonard’s family nearby for games. During his welcome press conference, Leonard said: “Just to be able to have them drive to games and see them afterwards is going to be great”. The Clippers, led by Doc Rivers, are 44-20 this season, the second best record in the Western Conference, after their Staples Center counterparts, the Lakers.
In a day and age where athletes share details of their personal lives and families on social media, the “fun guy” is notoriously private and reluctant to share personal information. He simply wants to play basketball, minus the fame and perhaps he’s misunderstood within the media. He’s rather refreshing from the usual athlete in the modern NBA. Neither he nor his partner, Kishele use social media or court the media spotlight. The couple are alumni of San Diego State University. When Kawhi missed a game against Chicago in March 2019, it was later revealed that he was with Kishele, as their second child Mark was being born.
Leonard is known to be involved in the community, after becoming the face of the Clippers franchise he has used his platform and earnings to benefit people in need. Ahead of a Clippers-Nuggets game in February before the lockdown, Leonard distributed 18,000 bag packs for people to fill and donate to someone who needs one. The message inside read: “Fill it with food and give it to someone who is hungry, a blanket for someone who is cold.” Leonard teamed with the Clippers to give away one million bag packs earlier in the season. When it comes to social justice Leonard’s message is simple: “It doesn’t matter if we have a statement on the back of our jersey. It’s about doing the work”.
With the return of the NBA season approaching quickly, the Clippers are legitimate contenders, with their star duo in Leonard and George and defensive tone-setter Patrick Beverly. In typical NBA fashion the money maker game between the Lakers and Clippers, “the battle for LA” will kick off the Clippers restart on July 31.