On Jan. 19, 2008, Kawhi Leonard, then a junior basketball phenom at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, California, broke down in tears. He ran over to his mother and sobbed in her arms.
His basketball team, the Riverside King, had just lost 68-60 to Compton Dominguez, and the 6-foot-7 forward dropped in 17 points. But that’s not why he was crying. Just 24 hours before the game, the 16-year-old Leonard learned that his father Mark Leonard, 43, had been shot to death outside of his Compton carwash. To this day, there’s been no arrest or motive linked to the murder.
“Basketball is my life, and I wanted to go out there and take my mind off it,” he said of playing against Dominguez. “It was real sad. My father was supposed to be at the game.”
Six years later, Leonard was named the NBA Finals’ Most Valuable Player after his tough-as-nails Spurs defeated LeBron James and his athletically superior Miami Heat squad 4-1. At just 22 years, 350 days, he was the third youngest NBA Finals MVP in history behind Magic Johnson and his teammate, Tim Duncan. And he was given the honor on Father’s Day.
“Coach Pop pushed me, the fans pushed me, and I just want to thank God, my parents, and everybody… it’s all surreal to me right now,” Leonard told ESPN’s Stuart Scott after the game. Then he began tearing up, and walked over to his mother and embraced her.
"He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge."
The aggressive Leonard had been a standout all series, and outplayed the greatest player in the land, King James, in Games 3 and 4. In the critical Game 3, Leonard scored a career-high 29 pounds and also grabbed 12 rebounds, while limiting James to 22 points and forcing him into a Finals career-high 7 turnovers. Then in the Spurs’ Game 4 victory, Leonard notched 20 points and 14 rebounds, while limiting James to 28 points on 10-17 shooting and just 2 assists.
“He’s the future of the Spurs… partially because everyone else is older than dirt,” said Spurs’ Head Coach Gregg Popovich after his team knocked off the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.
Indeed, Duncan, 38, and swingman Manu Ginobili, 36, aren’t getting any younger, and while Leonard’s overall numbers don’t blow you away on the page—12.8 PPG and 6.2 RPG during the regular season—he’s awfully efficient, shooting 52 percent from the field, and is one of the premier on-ball defenders in the NBA. His presence on the floor is the difference between the Spurs having an elite-level defense (97.4 defensive rating when he’s in, which would be second in the league) compared to a so-so D (102.1 when he’s on the bench, ranking ninth).
Under the tutelage of Popovich, who’s perhaps the best NBA coach since Red Auerbach, Leonard has become a consummate team player—someone who buys into their “team first” concept and leaves it all on the floor. He’s also the lone American-born standout on the Spurs, alongside Duncan (Virgin Islands), Ginobili (Argentina), Tony Parker (France), Patty Mills (Australia), Boris Diaw (France), Tiago Splitter (Brazil), and Marco Belinelli (Italy). The international team has adopted a soccer-style approach to winning versus the Heat’s very American three-star, iso system.
After being named California Mr. Basketball his senior year of high school at King, Leonard went to San Diego State, where he led the Mountain West Conference in rebounding his freshman year. In his sophomore campaign, he averaged 15.7 points and 10.4 rebounds per game and brought the Aztecs to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament. He jumped to the NBA, and was drafted 15th overall by the Indiana Pacers before being traded to the Spurs—along with the rights to two other draft picks—for George Hill. Leonard was named to the NBA’s All-Rookie First Team.
“I think he’s going to be a star,” said Popovich in 2012, following his rookie year. “And as time goes on, he’ll be the face of the Spurs, I think. At both ends of the court, he is really a special player. And what makes me be so confident about him is that he wants it so badly. He wants to be a good player, I mean a great player. He comes early, he stays late, and he’s coachable, he’s just like a sponge.”
Last year, Leonard averaged a stellar 14.6 points and 11.1 rebounds during the NBA Finals, but the Spurs lost to the Heat in seven games. In this year’s NBA Finals’ Game 5, Leonard led the Spurs with a team-high 22 points and 10 rebounds in their 104-87 pummeling of the Heat, with Popovich’s team taking home their fifth NBA championship in 15 years.
In 2008, just two months after his father’s death, Leonard was asked about what he’d think of his play prior to a rematch with Dominguez High.
“He'd be very proud,” he said. “I try to play as hard as I can each night. That's what my father wanted me to do.”