2014 NBA Finals: Kawhi Leonard stays quiet, but his play speaks volumes


Kawhi Leonard, center, is emerging as a bonafide star for San Antonio despite his quiet demeanor. “On the 1-10 Mr. Quotable scale, I’d say he was a 1 last year,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. “This year, I think he’s a 1.75.” (Steve Mitchell/USA Today Sports)
Mike Wise
Columnist June 11

It was the greatest night of his professional life, the rare moment when the complementary player became the Man and the Man couldn’t miss. Way-out threes, medium-range pull-up jump shots, it didn’t matter for Kawhi Leonard in that 71-point San Antonio first half of Game 3.

In the middle of the coveted shooter’s zone, in the middle of the NBA Finals, the sinewy Spurs forward finally took his own temperature Tuesday night. He fired a 20-foot turnaround, deep on the perimeter with Chris Bosh’s elongated frame in his face.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. View Archive

All net. All night.

Who was this bold and flammable 22-year-old, acting as if Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker were already retired and he was suddenly the face of a team?

What gems would be unearthed after Kawhi (pronounced Kuh-Why, like the Hawaiian island) Leonard became the youngest player in Finals history to score more than 25 points on at least 75 percent shooting, eclipsing James Worthy’s mark?

What could be learned about how he defensively got into LeBron James’s grill on the way to leading the Spurs to a Game 3 rout in Miami?

We never found out.

There were no Kawhi quotes disseminated by the league or the team afterward. Instead, he stood with his back against a white dry-erase board in the visitors’ locker room at American Airlines Arena, his voice barely audible unless you were inches from his face.

He was supposed to go the podium to talk to the media throng, but a last-minute change was made to put Spurs’ Big Three up there when Leonard didn’t want to go. “I think I talked to four TV stations or radios already when I was leaving the court. I didn’t want to answer the same questions again,” he said, explaining earnestly Wednesday afternoon.

The silent man with the pulled-back corn rows and the monstrous mitts shuffled slowly, trying to make eye contact, answering every question as literally and curtly as he could. Finally, a league public-relations official pulled him away, making his day.

And Quiet Leonard went back to what he gets paid for: becoming the best basketball player he can be. That’s apparently enough for now.

“On the 1 to 10 Mr. Quotable scale, I’d say he was a 1 last year. This year, I think he’s a 1.75,” said Gregg Popovich, his coach. “Hey, it’s just not who he is. He’s not a real worldly kid yet. It’s great we have all these foreign players because they literally have conversations with him about what’s going on in the world. Right now, he wants to be a great basketball player. That’s where he is at 22.”

Asked what happens when Leonard soon becomes the face of the franchise, Popovich says, “He’s already getting there. That’s a different animal, something he’ll have to deal with at some point. I don’t know if it’s social anxiety, shyness or just not being a real vocal guy, but that’s not who he is right now.”

The NBA experienced its greatest renaissance when the players became marketable personalities, when Bird and Magic dueled in Converse commercials and David Falk brilliantly negotiated Michael Jordan into a brand so much bigger than merely the world’s most gravity-defying ballplayer.

But what if you can just flat-out play, stick to your man like calking paste, dunk on the guy who’s guarding you in transition and hone your craft on one of the most beautiful basketball teams to ever share the ball? Is that enough in this you-gotta-have-an-angle-to-your-life-or-we-don’t-care world?

Should Leonard be made to talk about his murdered father just because he scored 29 points on the game’s biggest stage?

“It’s been six years,” he told a Los Angeles Times reporter in the media scrum Wednesday, referring to the night his father, Mark Leonard, 43, was gunned down outside of his Compton, Calif., car wash in a still-unsolved homicide. “I’ve dealt with it before. Of him not being at my college or high school games. I don’t think about it really.”

When I asked whether I could speak to a family member about his life a while later, he demurred. “I don’t really want to talk about my father right now. If you talk to anyone, could you not bring it up with them?”

I obliged. R.C. Buford, the Spurs general manager, said he would reach out to Leonard’s uncle, who became his father figure after his father’s passing. But Buford called back later to say the family didn’t really want to talk right now.

Drafted 15th three years ago, Leonard didn’t come to the Spurs with a high enough pick for them to ever think about bringing Leonard out for a workout and pre-draft interview. Buford now thinks that might have been a good thing. “Because sometimes Pop will bring a kid in and have no interaction with him — or getting nothing back from the kid — and it makes you weary of taking him. Maybe it’s good because you never know, maybe we would have passed on him.”

Buford added, “The thing is, he’s never going to be Magic Johnson. But in a market like San Antonio, did you really need someone to be Magic?”

No. Duncan proved that. Leonard’s main role model in how to deal with the media is essentially Spock, an unfeeling automaton in front of the cameras who just happens to be the greatest power forward to ever play the game.

Duncan has a great wry sense of humor and is a bit of an aloof intellectual who understandably doesn’t suffer fools who ask things like, “How did you get to be so fundamental?” If you shot a staple gun into his right big toe, he might wince and ask why you shot him with a staple gun.

But next to the low-key Leonard, Duncan is Good-Time, Big-Talking Timmy.

“There is quiet, and there is Kawhi,” teammate Tiago Splitter said. “He don’t say much. But he plays.”

I asked Leonard whether he is really up for becoming an NBA star, all that it entails after the Big Three move on and it’s Kwahi’s world.

“I don’t dread it at all,” Leonard said. “Not like I hate it. That’s what it comes with.”

Three years ago, leading up to the draft, he gave The Post’s Michael Lee a much more revealing quote about his father. “My dad leaving my life. That’s the biggest thing that happened to me,” he said. “I just remember what he tells me, the memories and try to move on forward each day, knowing that he’s still here, looking down on me.”

I have no idea the pain of your sister calling before a high school game in January 2008 to say your father had been murdered — “I felt like the world stopped,” he said of the moment in an interview three years ago.

I have no idea how much he channeled his grief into becoming one of the nation’s greatest high school players and now a burgeoning star in the making for the NBA’s most respected franchise.

I could guess that from that moment on, a 16-year-old became a trauma survivor, and it might be one of the main reasons Leonard remains so quiet and introverted today. But that’s just a guess.

The truth is, if Leonard doesn’t want to talk about it, if he doesn’t want to talk about anything until he’s ready to, we should let him be and just ask him about guarding LeBron and other assorted basketball questions until then.

It’s certainly not preferred in this sell-your-story media universe. But it is possible to still greatly appreciate the player without really knowing the person. If we’re being really honest, we probably don’t know the people who talk and talk and talk as much as we really think we know them.

At least San Antonio’s silent star in the making is up front about it.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

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