Kawhi Leonard made a joke once.
The San Antonio Spurs’ do-everything virtuoso forward reluctantly held court before a media throng at February’s All-Star Weekend. A reporter asked what he looked forward to most while in New Orleans. “Mardi Gras, of course,” he responded with a hearty guffaw. He quickly corrected himself, following with dry platitudes.
Those close to Leonard promise he is easygoing and fun to be around, a pledge few can back up with concrete anecdotes. “I’m a visual memory guy, so I can’t think of anything specific, but he’ll come up with some good laughs, good one-liners,” swears Matt Bonner, a former Spurs teammate. “He is underhandedly really funny. He has one of the best smiles you've ever seen. It’s contagious.”
But if those around Leonard are short on stories of revelry (in fact, he jetted out of New Orleans to make a 6:15 a.m. workout the next day in San Diego), they can’t stop talking about the dedication and mindset that have allowed him to steadily grow and blossom through each of his six NBA seasons—from trade fodder to rotation player to starter, All-Star and MVP candidate.
Leonard, of course, is the personification of action over words. His quick attempt at humor is the only quote you will see from him in this story. Instead, B/R Mag has allowed those who know him best—his teammates, coaches and others—to tell of Leonard’s steady and impressive progression.
Leonard’s mom, Kim Robertson, had to work during his freshman basketball tryouts at California’s Canyon Springs High School. So he missed the session, and the school’s coach refused to let him on the team.
Leonard found an AAU coach and mentor in Marvin Lea and transferred to Riverside’s Martin Luther King High School. He committed himself to basketball and earned a scholarship to San Diego State—bypassing the blue-chip programs that came after him later in the process.
Tim Sweeney Jr. (former coach, Riverside King): “He always stayed after. I’m wanting to go home. I’ve got four kids, and I have to count on my assistant coaches to stay for Kawhi.
“I called my father, who was a Hall of Fame high school coach and college coach. 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. Well, nobody’s laughing now.
“There was something in his game. He doesn’t have to score to dominate a basketball game. He can do it through rebounding, do it through assists, he can do it through stealing the ball, defense.”
Justin Hutson (assistant coach, San Diego State): “He was a guy you had to go find [in recruiting] because he wasn’t always going to pick up his phone. He was not easy to get in touch with, not easy to read, but he was genuine with me. So if you continue to work and call and go see him and text, he appreciated that.”
Steve Fisher (head coach, San Diego State): “He talked about [going pro] after his freshman year. 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.’
“After his sophomore year, he was for sure a first-round draft pick and we told him that and he decided to go 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. And then when he slipped, he was a very sullen, somber guy until his name was called.”
The Making of Kawhi
What other franchise could have a straight line through once-in-a-generation talents like the Spurs with David Robinson, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard?
“It doesn’t happen so seamlessly with a lot of teams around the league,” says Sean Elliott, a forward who played with Robinson and Duncan and is now a Spurs television analyst. “You see a lot of resistance by veterans to pass the torch, because they still want to stay relevant and still want to be the guy. But I think we were so fortunate in San Antonio, because David was so willing to pass the torch to Timmy, and Timmy learned from that.
“Timmy remembers those lessons, and he is able to willingly pass the torch to Kawhi, so I don’t think there was any kind of animosity toward Kawhi. The guys could see the writing on the wall. They knew how talented he was, and they know how great he wants to be.”
One of the organization’s greatest challenges occurred long before Leonard materialized into an MVP candidate. The Spurs had to decide whether to trade George Hill, an established guard who the franchise had groomed, for the chance to get Leonard in 2011. The Indiana Pacers drafted Leonard 15th overall and traded him to the Spurs on draft night for Hill.
Gregg Popovich (head coach, Spurs): “The toughest in whatever, 20, whatever years I’ve been coaching here as a head coach. It’s not even close. We were scared to death sitting in the room. I think it was the 15th pick, if I remember, and when we got to 11, 12, 13. Danny Ferry, our CEO, and I were looking at each other saying, ‘Are we really going to do this?’
“[Hill] was one of my favorite players. He was important to us, but we needed to get bigger. … 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 that Kawhi was going to be what he is today. That would be an exaggeration.”
Mike Budenholzer (former Spurs assistant coach): “I would say it’s a little bit of a funny story. … I just think he wasn’t real impressive during his lockout workouts. The guys would get organized and they would work out together on their own and then when the lockout ends, you kind of get a little bit of feedback like, ‘How is this guy doing? How’s that guy doing?’
“It’s a great story now, because Kawhi is obviously f--king kicking ass and a hell of a player. But I will say there were not a lot of people that were real impressed with him in those workouts.”
Chip Engelland (assistant coach, Spurs): “Whether a billion hours, a million hours or a thousand hours, everyone has worked on their shot, and every shot’s personal, and not everybody’s willing to change. I didn't have time to spend and get to know him and get personal with his shot.
“I used Richard [Jefferson] as a model and also used Kobe Bryant, because Kobe Bryant has really good shooting form. I didn’t know if Kawhi was a Laker fan or not or a Kobe fan, but you had to respect his work and his shooting. So, we used pictures and video of them. I showed him his pictures of where his was, similar to where Richard was. Kawhi’s smart, and he goes, ‘Let's go to work, let's do it.’”
Popovich: “He’d stay after practice, and he’d work on ball-handling, step-back jumper, a floater. Chip Engelland would start to work with him on his three-point shot because that’s not what he did when he came. Chad Forcier, who’s now in Orlando, was great at working his individual moves.
“So those two guys really are the guys that developed him from a coaching standpoint, and fortunately as a player he’s got a huge capacity for work and a huge desire to be really good, and so you put that together and that’s what we have now.
“We saw the work ethic first and then we saw when we put him out on the court, his shot was not broken at all. It was just the fact he never did it much. So it was like a secret that was hidden, and all of a sudden he’s a pretty good shooter."
Manu Ginobili (Spurs teammate, 2011-present): “Towards the end of the  finals we lost, you could see him starting to change his game. We were not calling plays for him at all.
“Even the second year, the finals we won, we were not calling a lot of plays for him. But he started to figure it out, and then we did start to go at him, first only at the post, now bigger roles, now everything.
“His game has flourished, and he’s starting to see teammates also. So, he needs to work on a few things, of course, but what he’s doing is just incredible. ... I was a rookie at 25.”
Quiet to (Sort of) Vocal
Leonard is notoriously quiet and to himself. “He knows everything that’s going on,” Lea, his AAU coach, says. “Once you get him in that front seat of your car and you get him alone, he'll ask you the questions he needs to ask you. He's quiet, just watching. Just looking at everything, but his teammates and people like to be around him.”
Teammates and coaches vow that Leonard has come out of his shell somewhat to be vocal enough on the court to issue commands and be noticed. Surprisingly, Leonard’s personality is most often on display in the Spurs’ annual H-E-B grocery store commercials, where he has become the breakout star.
Popovich: “I think the most important thing is I let him be who he is. I think it’s wasted effort to try to change somebody. If you said try and make Manu Ginobili non-competitive, well, you’re not going to do it. If somebody’s quiet, that’s what they’re going to be. You’re not going to make Avery Johnson quiet.
“So we let people be who they are and then at some point intellectually try to get across to them that at least they have to communicate with their teammates during competition and that sort of thing, because it helps us become a better team, and he’s done that steadily better and better, every year, every year, every year.”
Cory Basso (group vice president marketing and advertising at H-E-B): “We try to pick roles for each personality. So Tony [Parker] and Manu in the commercials are usually the ones goofing around, Tim’s a little bit more of the serious person, always kind of wondering, What are you guys doing, kind of thing.
“He’s a little bit of the more serious person, and then Kawhi’s a little bit of the young kid of the team, kind of doesn’t follow the norm of everyone else, kind of goes off on his own. And what’s been fun is he ad-libs a lot during our shoots. So some of his stuff is directed, but some of it’s just Kawhi being Kawhi.”
David Lee (Spurs teammate, 2016-present): “He talks but is definitely on the quiet side, similar to Klay Thompson where he’s not going to voluntarily speak unless spoken to. …With so many guys now in the league that are all about their brand and all about flair and being so arrogant, which everybody has the right to do their own thing, I think it really is amazing.”
Ginobili: “Before he was more introverted and waiting for things to happen. And then he started to realize the type of talents he has and how important he’s for the team. And he knows he’s going to have the ball. So he’s been trusting more teammates.
“He’s waiting a couple plays and then knowing that we’re going to play for him. And that’s something that that type of confidence gives you. First, confidence in your talent and then confidence that the team is going to look for you, because they need you. And when you reach that point, it changes a lot, because your mindset is completely different.
“So he’s at that point where he knows he owns the team, that we need him to do what he’s doing to win and to have a chance. And that puts you in a great mental spot.”
Randy Shelton (longtime trainer): “We talk about everything. We talk about shoes, clothes, food, the training, to like cars, the stock market. He’s a big kid. And the crazy thing is he’s really intelligent about a lot of stuff.
“He’s coming out with his own clothing line. He’s the one that designed the cloth. He doesn’t have people fabricating stuff for him. Everything that he has going for himself, he’s the one that has put in the time and effort.”
Leonard permanently put his stamp on this MVP race in a game against fellow likely finalist James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Leonard performed brilliantly, pouring in 17 of his 39 points in the final quarter. He sealed the game with a dazzling 6.5-second sequence toward the end by nailing a dagger three-pointer to put San Antonio ahead and blocking Harden’s layup attempt on the ensuing possession.
Popovich said the block is what separates Leonard from nearly every other NBA player.
“The three, you know Harden makes threes, Kawhi makes threes...Steph [Curry] makes threes, everyone does that,” Popovich said. “But I don’t know who goes to the other end and does what [Leonard did]. Kawhi wanted it badly, and he went and took it.”
Chad Forcier (former assistant coach, Spurs): “To the outer world, it appears that he has suddenly emerged as an All-Star or an MVP candidate. It seems like he has suddenly showed up and all of a sudden, ‘Wow. This guy’s really good.’
“I don’t see it that way, and what the outer world can’t see is truly like how much time and actually how slow the process was in terms of the work and the sweat and the commitment and the desire and the day-in-and-day-out process or multiple seasons before we really got to see him grow in terms of the opportunity that Pop began to start to give him.”
Engelland: “He hasn’t been tricked by any of the NBA glamour or bright lights, big city. A lot of smart, great players have been. You get lost and forget the process, forget why you began to play. With him, it’s like, ‘What’d you do last night?’ ‘Watched a little TV. I was with friends. My mom cooked dinner.’ Those are very common nights for him.”
Shelton: “A big thing with Kawhi is growing up, like every other kid, he really respected the greats—[Michael] Jordan, Kobe, Carmelo [Anthony]. And that’s his style of playing if you look at it. You can’t really put a finger on how he plays…Kawhi worked with breaking down tape on all the greats.
“He watches everyone—Hakeem [Olajuwon], Jordan. Ultimately, when he’s done, I’m not saying he’s chasing Jordan, but he wants to be mentioned up there with LeBron, Kobe, MJ, Hakeem, [Charles] Barkley. He wants to not be a top 50 all-timer. He wants to be a top 10, so that’s his goal.
“He's definitely not driven by money, I'll tell you that. He lives very humble. He wants to be a great all-time basketball player.”
Jonathan Abrams is a senior writer for B/R Mag. A former staff writer at Grantland and sports reporter at the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, Abrams is also the best-selling author of Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution. Follow him on Twitter: @jpdabrams.