Quiet to the point of strange, humble to the point of un-assuming,
and modest to the point of cheap
For the on-and-off basketball fan, it’s difficult to be drawn into whatever fleeting excitement that today’s NBA offers, especially with everyone’s favorite, Lebron James, out of the playoffs.
(Now here’s a guy…. that Lebron: born of a 16-year-old mother and a hardscrabble dad and growing up in the school of hard knocks in Akron, Ohio to become the face of basketball to many by winning three NBA championships, four NBA Most Valuable Player Awards, three NBA Finals’ MVP Awards, and two Olympic gold medals, while earning a shyte-load of money, including a S90-million endorsement deal with Nike. And as icing on the cake, becoming an outspoken advocate for the vulnerable and against an increasingly racist America.)
So when Lebron is out of the playoffs, some people are too inclined to be excited.
Then came Kawhi Leonard.
A bona-fide superstar certainly, but not a Lebron in the estimates on many, so not too many were drawn to his story.
He came to the Raptors in a block-buster-type trade from the San Antonio Spurs for fan favorite DeMar DeRozan at the end of last season and again for the on-off not too knowledgeable basketball fan expectations were low-keyed at best.
All that changed on the evening of Sunday, May 12, at the Scotia Bank Arena in Toronto where the Raptors were in a nail-biter, Game 7 in the second round series against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Leonard, in the final seconds of game 7, who at the time had 39 of the Raptors 90 points (tied with the Sixers) took an in-bound pass from Pau Gasol and dribbled to the right corner of the court, all eyes on him, especially those of the 7-foot giant opposing centre Joel Embid.
Leonard dribbled four times before elevating in a fade-away jumper above the giant defender and let the ball float… towards the basket.
Then came what is now being labeled on the internet as “A Canadian Heritage Moment,” which depicts a significant person, event or story in the history of this country, not unlike Viola Desmond taking a stand against racism and discrimination in the theatre in Nova scotia in 1940, or when in 1980 Terry Fox inspired the nation with his Marathon of Hope, a cross-country run to raise money for cancer research.
There were 20,250 people in the arena that evening and every eyeball was on that ball as it bounced once, twice, thrice and four times before sinking elegantly into the net. Many weeped.
After releasing what some say was his destiny shot (pertaining to his stay with the Raptors) there wasn’t much for Leonard to do but remain crouched in an almost sitting position on the right corner of the court, and he too waited….
It’s now all in the annals of the history of the NBA:
• The first game-winning buzzer-beater in a Game 7 in the league’s history, and
• counted as two of his 243 points scored against Philadelphia, the third most in a playoff series post-ABA-NBA merger (1977), trailing only Michael Jordan (246) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (260).
Still for many, Leonard is not yet Lebron or Michael Jordan, but that shot demanded that even the most skeptical of on-and-off basketball fan to want to know more about the young brother who hardly ever smiles and appears to be much too quiet and reserved for one his age and his line of work.
Drawing from an article in a Los Angeles newspaper we meet 16-year-old Kwahi Leonard on January 19, 2008 as he was playing high school basketball. He was described as solemn and withdrawn and not himself in a game in which his team was beaten.
You see, a week earlier, on a Friday night, his dad Mark Leonard, 43, was shot and killed at his car-wash in the tough neighborhood of Compton.
In overcoming the trauma of losing his dad, young Kwahi, the lone boy among three older sisters, held on tightly to his family and basketball as he searched for a path out of his grief.
And he found his way on the court, clutching to a place on the Martin Luther King High School team and elevating to the top of his game to be named, California Mr. Basketball in his senior year.
He took his starring ways to San Diego State University where in his freshman year, led them to the top of ‘Mountain West Conference’ tournament and earning the title of ‘2010 MWC Tournament Most Valuable Player.’
The next year, he made it to the ‘All-America Second Team and secured a placed in the 2011 NBA draft where he was chosen 15th by the Indiana pacers who traded him to the then star-studded San Antonio Spurs.
In his first year in the league, he made it to the NBA All Rookie Team and almost secured the Rookie Of The Year title.
The next year in the 2012-13 season, the 21-year-old Leonard was pivotal in getting the ‘Spurs’ to the NBA finals against the Miami Heat.
And he continued to shine, earning a place on the NBA All-Defensive Second Team and became the third youngest player to be named the Most Valuable Player in the NBA Finals in 2014.
The next year, 2015, he was named ‘NBA Defensive Player of the Year’ and in 2016 and 2017, his continuing spectacular performances secured him a place on the Western Conference All Star team.
In 2018, after an injury-plagued season, he was traded to The North, as the parlance goes.
But for all his heroic on-the-court performances, Kwahi is as much an enigma as there can be in professional sports: quiet to the point of strange, humble to the point of un-assuming and modest to the point of cheap.
On the surface he is a regular guy: married to his childhood sweetheart Kishele Shipley. They have two children.
He is wealthy because of a $94 million initial contract from the Spurs and an endorsement deal with Jordan Brand running shoes. He recently signed a new endorsement deal with New Balance.
But apparently he just couldn’t be bothered by the money and the fame.
The Internet overflows with stories of his reclusive tendencies, his longtime coach Greg Popovitch, himself an NBA legend, is quoted as saying: “He doesn’t give a damn about the stardom… You won’t find him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You probably won’t catch him in a photo shoot, on a red carpet or at an awards ceremony, even if he is the guest of honor. Check that — especially if he is the guest of honor…. He loves the game. He ignores the rest of it.”
Another quote from one of his lasting “homies” and childhood friend, Jeremy Castleberry, “So many people care so much about being popular. He never did.”
And the final word to another former NBA star, Sean Elliot, speaking on Leonard’s skills and modesty.
“To be a true scorer, like Kobe (Bryant) or Michael (Jordan) or LeBron (James), I think you have to be a little selfish…you have to be a little cocky.”
“I don’t know if there’s ever really been a superstar like this.”
Toronto is now in its second-ever Eastern Conference final playing against the Milwaukee Bucks.
Kawhi Leonard has a lot of new fans mouthing: “We The North.”