Kawhi Leonard has a reputation as a quiet, private man. He rarely gives interviews and is the master of the poker face. The three-time NBA All-Star has a strong work ethic and a determined demeanor with a 6-foot-7 frame and an impressive 7-foot-3 wingspan.
Leonard’s friends call him “Klaw” due to his skill at ball-hawking. His uniqueness seems to translate easily to some out-of-the-ordinary moves on the hardwood. In addition to all of these gifts, Leonard has experienced devastating tragedy. Here’s his story.
Kawhi Leonard’s SoCal story
On June 29, 1991, Leonard was born in Los Angeles. The youngest child and only boy in a family with four big sisters, he grew up in a sports-loving environment. Despite his childhood love of the Lakers, Leonard’s favorite basketball player was always Allen Iverson.
Leonard’s youth was occupied with two sports, basketball and football. His father, Mark Leonard, was a football player though he encouraged his son to excel at both games. Kawhi and Mark spent hours shooting hoops or tossing a football even after his parents separated.
In his sophomore year in high school, reports the LA Times, Kawhi decided to concentrate exclusively on basketball, much to his father’s chagrin. Mark hoped his son would keep his options open by pursuing both.
When tragedy struck Kawhi Leonard
Their father-son bond thrived off the basketball court, too. Some of Kawhi’s best memories were formed at the family car-wash business in Compton, California, where they worked hard and laughed hard.
Mark made plans to close down the car wash early one January day in 2008 to attend his son’s basketball game. Before he did, reports Basketball Forever, a last-minute customer showed up for a wash. Mark agreed to complete the job — a decision that changed everything for Kawhi.
The driver of that car pulled a gun and, for no apparent reason, shot Mark, killing him instantly. Police never found the shooter; the murder remains unsolved. Kawhi’s sister called him about the tragic news. He later recalled, “I felt like the world stopped. I didn’t want to believe it. It didn’t feel real to me.” Kawhi knew things would never be the same.
His high school basketball team had a game against a tough competitor scheduled for the next day. Kawhi played for a packed house, managing to score 17 points though his team lost.
Everyone deals with grief in their own way. For Kawhi, it manifested in the commitment and drive to make his father proud. There is no doubt he has already achieved this goal.
A star is born
Kawhi turned to basketball as a distraction, putting long hours in at the gym and perfecting his game. In 2011, the Indiana Pacers selected the San Diego State alum in the NBA draft. Later the same day, the team traded him to the San Antonio Spurs where he signed a multi-year deal.
Kawhi was quickly recognized as one of the most promising up-and-comers in the NBA. In 2012, he joined the USA men’s basketball Select Team and trained with Olympic teammates Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James.
After an injury-plagued 2017-18 season, Kawhi found himself missing games. Forced to take part in a rehabilitation regimen, he played very little. In July 2018, Indiana traded Kawhi to the Toronto Raptors where he eventually led the team into the 2019 Finals.
The small forward/shooting guard scored a stunning 732 points during the 2019 playoffs, only trailing Michael Jordan and James in best-scoring totals for a single NBA postseason. Kawhi returned home and signed a three-year contract with the Los Angeles Clippers in July 2019.
He soon proved his mettle on Christmas day when he outscored James by 12 points; the Clippers beat the Lakers in what was touted as the big battle of LA. On December 27, 2019, Kawhi was named the Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year for 2019.
In the end, the NBA superstar turned tragedy into talent, and the sports world is all the better for it.
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