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How a Southern California Kid Overcame Tragedy, Dethroned Dynasties, and Finally Came Home

Through tragedy, came triumph. How a shy Southern California kid overcame it all to become a champion.

Do you remember the instant your life changed forever?

Kawhi Leonard does. It was January 18, 2008 and Leonard was driving in a car with his mother when he got a call from his sister that would permanently alter the course of his life.

Leonard was born in Los Angeles on June 29, 1991. He is the youngest of five kids, and is the only boy in the bunch (he has four older sisters). Like many of us born and raised in the City of Angels, Leonard grew up a fan of Southern California sports. The first NBA game he ever attended was a Clippers game. His favorite team was the Lakers, but his favorite player was Allen Iverson.

Leonard's father, Mark Leonard, was a football player. So Kawhi grew up a two-sport athlete, excelling in both basketball and football. If he wasn't playing one of those two sports, he was working at his father's car wash in Compton. Each and every summer he would hand wash car after car, from sunrise until sunset, until his gigantic hands went numb. 

"It was hard work," Leonard told ESPN in 2013. "But I loved it." 

After his parents separated, he moved with his mother to Riverside where he attended Canyon Springs High School in Moreno Valley.

Mark would visit his only son, and they'd jump the fence in the backyard and run up and down a hill for over 30 minutes. Then they'd throw the football around or practice shooting on the nearby basketball court.


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Leonard remembers these memories with his father fondly. They are a treasure chest he can open at any time to pluck life's precious moments back into existence. He knew it would break his father's heart when he told him during his sophomore year of high school that he was quitting football to focus on basketball.

"He got kinda mad," Leonard told Fox Sports in 2011. "He wanted me to play both – and maximize my opportunity."

Before Leonard could focus on basketball, he first had to find a team he could play on. During tryouts his freshman year at Canyon Springs, his mother, Kim, was called in to work and therefore was unable to drive Kawhi to tryouts. Despite pleading with the head coach to allow him to try out after the fact, the coach of Canyon Springs refused, and Leonard spent his freshman year playing football instead.

But Leonard's first love was always basketball, and he'd soon demonstrate that he would stop at nothing to achieve his dreams of playing in the NBA and winning championships.

Thanks to the help of his AAU coach, Marvin Lea, Leonard was able to transfer to Martin Luther King High School his junior year where he was able to play basketball. The move paid off, as he was named California's Mr. Basketball—the best high school player in California—during his senior year.

"I called my father, who was a Hall of Fame high school coach and college coach," said MLK high school basketball coach Tim Sweeney Jr. to As It Happens host Carol Off last month."I said, 'You gotta get down to the gym right now. I think we've got ourselves not only an NBA player, he's an NBA All-Star.' He laughed at me."

Leonard's legendary drive, determination, and work ethic imparted upon him by his father were on full display, even at 16 years old. He would go for hours shooting basket after basket in the shadows of his high school gym. Steadfast on achieving greatness, Leonard did whatever it took to become the best basketball player he could be.

"He always stayed after practice," said Sweeney Jr. "I'm wanting to go home. I've got four kids, and I have to count on my assistant coaches to stay for Kawhi." 

That brings us to the phone call that changed Leonard's life forever.

During Leonard's junior year, his father, Mark Leonard, was trying to close down his car wash early in order to attend his son's basketball game when one last car pulled up asking for one final wash.

He agreed, and the car opened fire, shooting and killing Mark in the same car wash he owned and shared so many memories with young Kawhi in. The police never found the killer, or a motive for the shooting. Mark Leonard was just 43 years old.

"I'm not sure what happened," Leonard said about his father's death to Fox Sports in 2011."I really don't know anything other than someone random came to the car wash and shot him. I think it's better for me not knowing who it is."

Leonard was told of his father's death while driving with his mom and uncle. His sister was the one that called to break the bad news.

"She said that our dad died," recalled Leonard. "I felt like the world stopped. I didn't want to believe it. It didn't feel real to me."

The next day, Leonard's MLK high school basketball team had to play against vaunted Dominguez Hills at Pauley Pavilion. Leonard scored 17 points in front of a packed house, but his team lost 68-60.

After the game, a bystander witnessed Leonard breaking down in his Mother's arms in the hallway. The emotions of the last 24 hours had become too much for him.

"After the game, he just broke down," his mother, Kim Robertson told Ramona Shelburne in 2014. "They were close. Very close."

One of the bystanders watching the game was Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington. His son, Malcolm Washington, was on one of the team's playing that day.

"My son had a game and there was a second game, and it was a school called King Riverside…and I remember because that night they said, 'There's a young man who's playing tonight whose father had been killed,'" Washington told Bill Simmons on his podcast. "We had a moment of silence for him, and the kid's name was Kawhi Leonard, and he had about 29 points and 27 rebounds and I figured, 'Wow this kid is inspired by losing his dad.' And what a game. And no one knew, 'Oh no, he'll be able to do that for the next 20 years."

Other young men have allowed the murder of a loved one and the unanswered questions of who committed the crime to torment them, but after the breakdown in the hallway, Leonard never spoke about it again. Rather than allow his father's murder to hold him back, he used it as fuel to honor his legacy with his own life. Leonard turned tragedy into triumph, and perhaps that explains a lot about Leonard's infamously quiet and unpretentious demeanor that allows him to remain an enigma to the world.

"I really didn't see Kawhi suffer from it," Kim Robertson told Shelburne. "I wanted him to. I would say, 'Kawhi, you okay? Are you okay?' But I think he kept it all in. I was kind of scared. You know how young men…they lose their father, who is a big figure in their life. It might turn them to do things bad. But Kawhi's always been strong. I think he thinks about it. But he never mentions it. Never."

Kawhi Leonard's life changed forever that faithful day. The quiet reserved kid who spent his summer washing cars, lost his father. The hole in his heart from the loss of his dad is likely still empty to this day, but from tragedy and loss, often something new is born in its place. On that day, as Leonard's father was laid to rest, an unrelenting warrior with a fighting spirit was born. That's the Leonard we see on the basketball court even to this day.

Leonard's secrecy and aloofness were evident even in his younger days. The six-foot, seven-inch, 225-pound guard was recruited by both UCLA and USC. Recruiters and scouts would famously say that Leonard could not be reached by cellphone for a week.

Similar to his recent free agency decision, the scouts and recruiters at the collegiate level had no idea where Leonard would enroll. Finally, after weeks, Leonard opted for San Diego State University over all the Power Five conferences. SDSU head coach Steve Fisher played a big roll on why Leonard opted for the smaller school, saying that Fisher promised him the opportunity to start as a freshman.

"I knew I was their second option and that was a big issue for me," Leonard said of his decision to go to San Diego State over other schools at the time. "San Diego State told me they would give me the opportunity to come in and start. They weren't going to hand it to me and I'd have to work for it."

Leonard's intensity, focus, and determination in college is the stuff of legends. His prevailing status as a folk hero was cemented in those early days at Viejas Arena.

"He talked about going pro after his freshman year," San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher told Bleacher Report in 2017 after Kawhi's college days. "We did our due diligence, and he probably was not going to be a first-round draft pick. And I told him that. I said, 'You should not go.'"

Leonard admitted during the 2019 NBA Finals with the Toronto Raptors that he and his Aztec teammates had a mantra during college: "Board man gets paid." The theory was that the more rebounds Leonard and his teammates grabbed, the higher the probability they would get drafted into the NBA and turn pro.

San Diego State guards, Tyrone Shelley and LaBradford Franklin, Leonard's teammates at the time, shared some stimulating stories about Kawhi's trash talk in College.

"Most people say it like 'Oh, I'm about to get buckets on you.' He was just like, 'Buckets. Layup.' Just one word," said Shelly.

"He would just say, 'No, no, no.' or 'nope, nope.' And when he would score on you, 'Bucket. Bucket,'" said Franklin. "If he was grabbing a rebound, he'd say, "Give me that," or "Board man gets paid."

Regardless of what others thought of Leonard's one-word trash talking, his off-the-cuff ways worked wonders on the hardwood. Leonard led the conference in rebounding, offensive rebounding, defensive rebounding, and was fourth in scoring and steals during his sophomore year with San Diego State.

"After his sophomore year, he was for sure a first-round draft pick," said Fisher. "We told him that and he decided to go [to the NBA] with our blessing, and I went to the draft with him. I was there, and he had workouts where he moved up the food chain, where the whispers were he might be a top-10 pick, based on his workouts."

Leonard led the Aztecs to the NCAA tournament as a freshman, but they lost in the first round to Tennessee, 62-59. In his sophomore season, Leonard once again led the Aztecs to the tournament, this time winning two games, as San Diego State advanced to the Sweet Sixteen where they lost to the eventual champion in UConn.

Leonard was selected No. 15 overall in the 2011NBA Draft by the Indiana Pacers, but a draft day trade by San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich sent the 19-year-old to Texas with George Hill going back to Indiana in the deal.

"Hill was one of my favorite players. He was important to us, but we needed to get bigger," said Popovich of the trade at the time. "It was the toughest [decision] in whatever, 20, whatever years I've been coaching here as a head coach. It's not even close. So in the end, we said we're going to roll the bones and we're going to do it, but I can't tell that at that point we knew Kawhi was going to be what he is today. That would be an exaggeration."

Eight years later, and Leonard has gradually ascended into one of the best players in the NBA. He won the NBA Finals and the NBA Finals MVP with the Spurs in 2014, dethroning the Miami Heat dynasty in the process.

Five years later, he would dethrone another dynasty as he almost singlehandedly destroyed the Golden State Warriors, arguably considered the best team in NBA history.

After the Raptors split the first two games of the series in Toronto, head coach Nick Nurse told his team in the locker room that they needed to go back to Oakland and steal one game.

"F--- that!" Leonard reportedly responded. "We're getting both."

The Raptors did indeed win both games on the road and went on to win the first NBA Championship in Toronto's history.

Leonard was again named NBA Finals MVP, becoming the only player in NBA history to win the NBA Finals MVP with two different teams in two different conferences.

Leonard reached another level in the postseason than he did in the regular season. After averaging 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds during the 82-game regular season, Leonard morphed into a force of nature in the playoffs, averaging 30.9 points, 9.2 rebounds, four assists and two steals during the postseason.

His run with the Raptors was one of the greatest postseason performances in NBA history, right up there with his idols: Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

Leonard finished with 14 different 30-point games in the 2019 NBA Playoffs, tied for the third most all-time behind only Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and Hakeem Olajuwon.

Over a decade after the death of his father Leonard is now coming home. The two-time NBA Champion agreed to a three-year, $103 million contract with the Los Angeles Clippers last week, and even convinced another LA native, Paul George, to join him.

"We're both Southern California guys. Played right down the street with each other," said Leonard of the homecoming. "Now we're on the Clippers and we have something special. We can make history here."

Each and every night, Leonard will be able to suit up inside the same arena his father used to take him to games to as a child. Now his family and friends will be able to watch him play in person.

"Just to be able to have my friends and family drive to the game and watch me play and see them after is going to be great," added Leonard. 

Like his father before him, Leonard has always let his actions speak louder than his words, and his father's memory has always kept him on the correct path.

"I think he'd be proud of me," Leonard said after winning the NBA Finals in 2014 on Father's Day.

"I know he would," said Kim Robertson.

Nothing in life is guaranteed. You can't guarantee a long life for your loved ones. You can't guarantee you'll reach your dream of playing in the NBA, and you can't guarantee you'll turn that dream into championship glory. But one thing is for certain: Leonard's father would be very proud of the man and the player he has become.

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