Kawhi Leonard made it clear from his first news conference as a member of the Toronto Raptors that he would let his on-court play do the talking.
Given Toronto’s run to the NBA Finals, what more does he need to say?
Leonard has shown fans and the media exactly what he’s comfortable showing — a dynamic force on the court and a subdued presence off it — all while putting together a playoff performance that rivals the efforts of basketball icons like Michael Jordan and LeBron James at similar points in their careers. He and the Raptors can close out the Golden State Warriors with just one more win; their first chance comes Monday night at 9 p.m. ET.
Still, diehards and bandwagoners alike seem to crave more information about Leonard’s personal life. ESPN even posited that question on the front page of its website this past weekend.
Some details of Leonard’s personal life have peeked through the aura of mystery surrounding him. The 27-year-old has two young children with Kishele Shipley, while his uncle Dennis Robertson acts as an ersatz spokesperson for the star. And the speculation that Leonard bought a house in Toronto was silenced by the man himself on Sunday.
“People like to call him a robot, or say that he doesn’t really show a lot of personality,” freelance sports writer Alex Wong told CBC’s Front Burner. “To me, from watching him play throughout his career, I think it exudes a type of confidence that other players don’t have.”
It’s that steely-eyed determination that Leonard showed leading up to a physics-defying, series-winning shot against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the playoffs that ignited the swell of national Raptors fever.
The four rim bounces on that last shot may have endeared a wider Canadian audience to the team and Leonard, but what’s at risk of being overlooked is the lifetime of effort that preceded it.
A ‘safe haven’ in the public eye
Leonard played just nine games last season as a member of the San Antonio Spurs due to a prolonged recovery from a right leg injury. Before that, he was well on his way to elite status in the NBA. Leonard was named NBA Finals MVP in 2014 for shutting down LeBron James and the Miami Heat, and he earned a pair of Defensive Player of the Year awards and a selection to the all-NBA first team.
Stoic façades and finely honed basketball fundamentals are hallmarks of the Spurs organization — even to the point of parody — and Leonard appeared to be the heir to Tim Duncan’s monotone throne.
“He walks the walk. I mean, he’s there early, he’s there late. He wants more. He wants me and the coaches to push him. So I just talked to him about not being in that defer sort of stage,” San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich said about Leonard after capturing the franchise’s fifth title in 2014. “The hell with Tony [Parker], the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu [Ginobili], you play the game. You are the man.”
But that relationship deteriorated during Leonard’s rehabilitation to the point he requested a trade. Enter Masai Ujiri, the Raptors president who dealt away beloved Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan to bring Leonard to Toronto last July. The Raptors also received Danny Green in the deal that sent Jakob Poeltl and a 2019 protected first-round draft pick to the Spurs.
But Leonard’s public demeanour, while suited for the Spurs, predated his time in San Antonio according to Wong, who suggests its roots may be in tragedy. Leonard’s father, Mark, was killed outside the car wash he owned in Compton, Calif., in 2008 when Kawhi was still in high school.
“I don’t want to speak for him, just because that was such a personal experience for him, but I think by all accounts, whatever happened in high school and the things that he had to deal with made him gravitate toward basketball more,” Wong said.
“Basketball is the place for him to get away from everything else that is on his mind. It’s a safe haven for him.”
Wong described Leonard as a homebody in his youth with close relationships with his mother and four sisters. His high school alma mater just outside of Los Angeles is vocal in its support for Leonard despite its location in the Golden State.
One and done?
“We want him to know that the second biggest fan base of the Toronto Raptors are in Riverside [Calif.],” Jeff Dietz, a member of the coaching staff during Leonard’s tenure, told CBC’s Kim Brunhuber.
The notion of going home is one aspect of Leonard’s personal life that Raptors fans old and new are familiar with. Rumours of a move to either of Los Angeles’ two NBA teams — the Lakers or the Clippers — swirled before he was dealt to the Raptors last summer and speculation of a “one-and-done” season in Toronto isn’t new.
At this moment, it might be prudent for concerned Canadian fans to take a page from Leonard’s approach: just focus on the game, savour the moment and eschew everything else.
While that may be almost impossible in a world inundated with social media, there’s at least one other person who’s taking that approach.
He’ll be the one on the hardwood in a pair of New Balance shoes and a No. 2 Raptors jersey.