Originally published in SLAM 173

by Yaron Weitzman / @YaronWeitzman

Kawhi Leonard strolled up to the front door of his Chevy Tahoe, which was all packed up and ready to go. His uncle, Dennis Robertson, was walking with him. The two had always been close. But in the 20 months since the murder of Kawhi’s father, Mark, who was fatally shot while working one evening at his Compton car wash, Robertson had begun to serve a different role in the life of his sister’s son. And so as an 18-year-old Kawhi prepared himself for the 90-mile drive south from Marino Valley to San Diego State University, he and his uncle had one final chat before the soon-to-be college basketball player tucked his 6-7 frame into his car.

Months earlier, Leonard’s 20-rebound effort had helped his high school, Riverside (CA) King, capture the Southern Section Division I-AA championship. In that game he also had 11 points, 6 blocks and 3 steals. It was a performance that was emblematic of Leonard’s senior season, one in which he averaged 22.6 points, 13.1 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game.

Leonard seemed like the perfect high school prospect. And yet, for some reason, San Diego State had been the only school to come banging, and not just knocking, on his door. Sure, others had come around, especially as Leonard’s senior year progressed. But Justin Hutson, an assistant for Aztecs’ head coach Steve Fisher, had been on Leonard’s trail longer than everyone else. The Aztecs were the only school to make Leonard feel like he was the player they wanted, and not just a fallback in case some other top recruit decided to play for someone else. To Kawhi, that—loyalty, respect, candor—mattered more than any publicity or adulation that would come with attending a more prestigious school.

And so here he was, standing underneath the California sun, sharing one last thought with his uncle before heading off to college. Like most of the thoughts that come out of the mouth of the laconic Leonard, it was short and to the point. And full of confidence—in himself, and the journey he was about to take.

“Uncle,” he said, “I’m only doing two years there.”

A few minutes later, Leonard was in the car and driving away. As always, he knew exactly where he was going.

***

Kawhi Leonard was born to be a San Antonio Spur. It’s a bit frightening actually how, at the still-embryonic age of 22, Leonard seems to so perfectly represent all the traits that have come to symbolize the Spurs’ current 16-year run of success. If NBA teams had futuristic sci-fi movie-like factories where they could grow their ideal players—from their physical attributes, to their skill sets, down to their personalities—it’s not too hard to imagine the Spurs owning one containing dozens of Kawhi Leonard clones running around.

For one, Leonard doesn’t like to talk much. This is one of those things that is a fact even though it technically can’t be one, like the fact that Krispy Kreme’s doughnuts are much better than Dunkin’s. Leonard disagrees with the notion that he is reserved—he says that he just prefers to avoid conversations with people he doesn’t know, such as a reporter asking him if he would consider himself a quiet person. But numerous acquaintances of his have opinions to the contrary.

“He’s a real quiet guy,” says Chicago Bulls rookie Tony Snell, who played with Leonard in high school. “You probably know as much about him as I know.”

“He’s just not a person that talks a lot,” adds Leonard’s mother, Kim Robertson.

“He’s a real quiet kid—we give him a ton of flack for that,” says Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, before pointing out that silence is almost as much a part of the Spurs’ recent legacy as winning is. “But Timmy’s only spoken to me like once every two weeks for the past 16 years, so I’m used to that by now.”

The comparisons to the reticent Duncan can go further. Take, for example, the following story, which one could imagine being told about the Spurs’ Hall of Fame forward/center as well:

After Leonard was drafted in 2011 by the Pacers with the 15th pick—they then traded him to the Spurs for George Hill—he was concerned about how to ship his precious Chevy Malibu, which replaced the Tahoe while in San Diego, to San Antonio. “Because this one’s already paid for,” is the answer he would give to his family when asked how come he wouldn’t just buy a new car. So for his entire rookie season, Kawhi Leonard, an NBA first-round pick making nearly $2 million a year, drove around San Antonio in the same Chevy Malibu that he had used as a college student at San Diego State. Eventually, Leonard caved; he now owns a Porsche, too. But the only time that gets taken out of the garage is when he’s driving to the AT&T Center for a game.

And then there are his talents on the court, where Leonard, like the Spurs franchise as a whole, is as effective as he is understated. He’s accurate when shooting the corner three (43 percent, per NBA.com), a long-time Spurs staple, and a must in modern NBA offenses. On defense, he’s able to use his 7-4 wingspan and the Hulk-sized hands that he’s had since his birth—“The first time I saw him in the delivery room I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, look at those hands!’” says Leonard’s mother—to constantly wreck havoc from multiple spots. And he does all the things that get labeled as “little” even though they are anything but.

“Everything, his length, his foot speed, his intuition, indicated that he could be a great defender [in the NBA],” Popovich says. “And that happened right away. What’s surprised me is how quickly he’s picked things up on the offensive end, things like the runner and the three-point shot. He’s learned more quickly than almost anybody I’ve ever had and become a better offensive player much quicker than I expected.

“Going forward, it’s my responsibility to get him more and more involved. As our veterans get older, he’s going to be a guy that we go to more and more.”

Popovich says he would like to get the ball to Leonard in the post more frequently. He believes the strong, yet nimble forward will be able to force double teams from the block. More isolations and off-screen actions are in the cards, too. Some of these changes began during last year’s Playoffs. Leonard, upon being given more minutes (37 per game up from 31 during the regular season), responded by upping his scoring (11. 9 to 13.5) and rebounding (6 to 9) averages, and shooting more efficiently (55 percent compared to 49 percent). He also played a major role—both on and off the ball—in limiting LeBron James’ output in the Finals.

It was a vintage Spurs performance from a player who should be too young to be considered a vintage Spur. But part of what makes Leonard so distinctive is that he can be a vintage Spur, while saying the most un-Spur things, and still come off like a Duncan and Pop disciple. It’s a neat magic trick, one that almost no one else would be able to pull off.

“I want to be one of the best players in the NBA,” Leonard says. “All the things you have to do to be great—regular-season MVPs, Finals MVPs—those are the things I want to accomplish. Those are the goals that I have. I’m not looking up to nobody, I don’t want to be like nobody. I’m just trying to get better.”

One of those trophies was nearly his, had Leonard just been able to connect on one more shot.

***

The night after Game 6 of the NBA Finals, Leonard had trouble sleeping. Earlier in the evening, he had missed a last-minute free throw, one that could have sealed the game and brought the Larry O’Brien Trophy back to San Antonio. “He wasn’t wallowing in it,” says his mother, “but he was very upset.” After that, though, it was time to prepare for the series finale, time to move on to better things. Two nights later, in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, Leonard scored 19 points and pulled down 16 boards. The Spurs lost, but the kid from Riverside had done what he always has.

The past—its hardships and failures—has never been something that Leonard has focused on. Why look into the darkness of the rearview mirror when the road ahead looks so bright?

“I don’t really think about that [foul shot] anymore,” Leonard says. “It was just one game. There were other games we could have won. I just try to move on from it and learn from it.”

Recently, Kim Robertson’s mother paid her daughter and grandson a visit. A deeply spiritual and religious woman, Kawhi’s grandmother began talking to him about the Bible and reminding him how important it was to keep religion in his life. There, Leonard revealed to his mother and grandmother that he had a Bible Verse of the Day app on his phone. He told them his favorite verse came from his favorite book, the Book of Job. It’s the story of a man who has everything—his health, his wealth, his family—taken away from him by God, yet never loses his faith. Eventually, Job is given his health back and starts a new family. His wealth doubles, too.

This is the book that Kawhi Leonard takes solace in. This is who Kawhi Leonard is.