Best Interview That Never Was

Kawhi Leonard of King (Riverside, Calif.) was the first player from Riverside County to earn California Mr. Basketball honors in 2009. He's now the first player ever from the county and only the fourth ever from California to earn NBA Finals MVP honors, following Bill Walton (1977), Dennis Johnson (1979) and Paul Pierce (2008). Photo: Scott Kurtz

Kawhi Leonard of King (Riverside, Calif.) was the first player from Riverside County to earn California Mr. Basketball honors. He’s now the first player ever from the county and only the fourth ever from California to earn NBA Finals MVP honors, following Bill Walton (1977), Dennis Johnson (1979) and Paul Pierce (2008). Photo: Scott Kurtz

Kawhi Leonard has overcome major obstacles in the six years between losing his father and becoming the second youngest NBA Finals MVP ever. We take a look at some of the defining moments on the journey with his high school coach at King (Riverside, Calif.).

It’s a bit ironic 22-year old Kawhi Leonard went to a high school named after iconic civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. King’s legacy for a better, non-violent American society hit home for the small forward from King High School in Riverside, Calif., a day before the 2008 edition of the Pangos Dream Classic, a high school event created to showcase top teams and honor King’s legacy.

At that year’s Pangos Dream Classic at UCLA’s Pauley Pavilion on January 19, there was a moment of silence before the Wolves took on Dominguez (Compton, Calif.), but it didn’t have to do anything with honoring King. Less than 24 hours earlier, Mark Leonard, Kawhi’s father, was shot and killed during a robbery at a car wash he owned in Compton.

“I remember the night before the Dream Classic we had a tough league outing and went to a restaurant after the game,” said Tim Sweeney Jr., Leonard’s coach at King who stepped down as head coach at the conclusion of the -14 season. “I got the news and stopped everything. I made some phone calls and told Clint Parks and Marvin Lea (his trainers) to go look after Kawhi. I remember talking to his mom (Kim Robertson). I told her he gets as much time as he needs to come back.”

“I remember talking to Sweeney and he wasn’t sure Kawhi was going to play,” said Pangos Dream Classic founder and director Dinos Trigonis on Sunday night after watching Leonard’s San Antonio Spurs capture their fifth NBA title since 1999.

Leonard played against Dominguez.

The Pauley Pavilion crowd appreciated Leonard’s decision to suit up for King less than 24 hours after the tragic incident. The then 6-foot-7 junior forward gave a valiant effort, scoring 15 points and grabbing two rebounds in a 68-60 loss to Dominguez.

“Man, that’s tough…All I could do was acknowledge him and give him a hug. You could see it on his face,” said then Dominguez head coach Russell Otis.

“It” was that look — the look of determination created from hurt and pain. Nothing compares to a young man losing his father, but from a basketball standpoint, another tragedy led Leonard to carry that look throughout the NBA playoffs.

The Buzz 150The San Antonio Spurs all but had the NBA title wrapped up in Game 6 against the Miami Heat, the team they defeated 4-1 to win this year’s title. With 28 seconds remaining San Antonio led 94-89 but Miami cut its deficit to 94-92 after LeBron James made a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound. Leonard was immediately fouled and missed one of two free throws, as did teammate Manu Ginobili before James’ triple. After a mad scramble for a rebound after a Heat miss on their next possession following Leonard’s free throws, Miami’s Ray Allen hit a corner 3-pointer to send the game into overtime. The Miami Heat won the game and eventually the series.

It was a crushing blow to Leonard, his teammates and Spurs coach Gregg Popovich.

“We were much pretty celebrating and then Kawhi hits one of two and, bam, Ray Allen tied the game,” Sweeney said. “I texted him a lot afterwards, telling him to stay hungry and to let the hurt of what happened be motivation.”

That motivation and the Spurs players’ unselfishness drove Leonard to earn NBA Finals MVP, at 22 years old the second youngest player to earn that honor after former Lakers great Earvin “Magic” Johnson. Leonard averaged 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game in this year’s finals.

“For him to win MVP is icing on the cake after the crazy ass ending to last year’s finals,” Sweeney said. “The reason he’s where he’s at today and will stay there is his work ethic is second to none. Sometimes, the Spurs worry and have to kick him out and send him home. I know Kawhi, in a couple of weeks he’ll rent a beach house in La Jolla. He won’t be fooling around. He gets up at 6 a.m. and works out 6-7 hours a day. That’s why he’s going to be great.”

Sweeney said similar things about his former player in April of 2009 when he was named California Mr. Basketball by Cal-Hi Sports. Even then, the former part-time high school starter who began his career at Canyon Springs (Moreno Valley, Calif.) had plenty of motivation to fuel him even though he was the first ever boys’ basketball player from Riverside County to be awarded the state’s highest individual honor. He wasn’t a McDonald’s All-American and many high-majors backed off him despite displaying the ability of a major freshman contributor at the mid-major plus/high-major minus level throughout his senior season.

“The bigger schools went after more name players,” Leonard said when he won Mr. Basketball. “They were looking at me, but not as their main guy. They didn’t want me, so now I am going to go in looking to start (at San Diego State) and do my best.”

“He was being heavily recruited by the high majors, but overnight, they completely dropped off the map,” Sweeney said at the time. “They better hope they don’t play against him. If Kawhi continues to improve and shows this is what he wants to do, I have no doubt he can be a NBA player.”

Sweeney was dead on, but he’s more than just a NBA player. As this year’s NBA Finals showed the world, Leonard doesn’t have to do much talking in order to continue proving the doubters wrong just as Sweeney predicted would happen.

Even after this year’s NBA Finals, Leonard wasn’t much for words and, in reality, they weren’t necessary. His face did all the talking just as it did the night of the Pangos Dream Classic. If not for the moment of silence before the King-Dominguez game, it would have been hard to tell anything was seriously wrong. Afterwards, however, it was clearly evident as Leonard was visibly upset. He was being consoled by family and other players on the team under the bleachers at Pauley Pavilion.

As the game wore on, we had plans to speak to Leonard afterwards to perhaps get a comment about what his father meant to him or to see if he wanted to say some kind words about him through the press. After realizing the gravity of the situation and learning more about his reserved personality, it turned out to be our best media interview never to materialize.

“He played the rest of year, like nothing ever happened, but I think because he’s very quiet and reserved about his feelings, without basketball he would have been a wreck,” Sweeney said. “I’m really happy and very pleased for him.”

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