Hard work, humility and a '97 Chevy Tahoe make Kawhi Leonard great
The Spurs forward is a monster and one of the best players in the NBA, but his greatness is molded in his focused, undramatic, ridiculously simple approach to the game and life.
Kawhi Leonard is basically a sphinx. The San Antonio Spurs forward is a silent, statue-like figure built like a mythological creature who presents a riddle with his defense, and if you can't answer it, he destroys you. Trying to interview Leonard is like trying to interview a computer program. It's not just that he refuses to suffer fools, it's that there's just nothing there. You ask him a technical question about pick and roll coverage, and he distills it into basically "I just tried to make him work." You ask him about the emotional experience of wins and losses on the biggest stage of basketball and he'll reply with "I didn't really feel anything."
There's just nothing there, no water to pull from the earth, no matter how deep you drill.
Lee Jenkins is widely regarded as the best pro basketball writer on the planet, so his profile of Kawhi Leonard for Sports Illustrated is predictably great reading.
Among its revelations is the fact that Leonard still drives a beat-up 1997 Chevy Tahoe, and has a sponsorship with "Wingstop" for free wings coupons.
A lot has changed for Leonard since that conversation with Pop—he was named Finals MVP in 2014, captured Defensive Player of the Year in '15 and this season seized the unofficial title of best two-way player in the NBA—but a lot hasn't. Leonard spends his summers in a two-bedroom apartment in San Diego, where he hangs a mini hoop over one door so he can play 21 against Castleberry. He carries a basketball in his backpack even when he isn't going to the gym. He often drives a rehabbed '97 Chevy Tahoe, nicknamed Gas Guzzler, which he drove across Southern California's Inland Empire as a teenager. "It runs," Leonard explains, "and it's paid off."
He is the only star still rocking cornrows, an outdated tribute to Carmelo Anthony, and he shrugs when friends claim he'd expand his endorsement portfolio if he shaved the braids. He is happy to sponsor Wingstop, which sends him coupons for free wings, so he can feed his Mango Habanero addiction. This winter, after his $94 million contract kicked in, he panicked when he lost his coupons. Wingstop generously replenished his supply.
Now, Leonard no doubt owns other vehicles as well. And he's just starting to make serious "bonkers" money. That money changes you. It changes everyone. However, with Leonard, there's just nothing there. He has such humble material aspirations and such grand basketball ones. He wants to be one of the best.
His work ethic is also just absurd, and that's what wound up getting him drafted. This story on how the Spurs' Chip Engelland found him and convinced the Spurs to draft him is the kind of story that shows just how brilliant, and lucky, the Spurs were in trading point guard George Hill for him.
Kawhi Leonard spent all day in the bleachers at Attack Athletics Gym in Chicago. It was the 2011 NBA draft combine, and Leonard was there to be measured and prodded, but like most top prospects, he was advised to skip the drills and competitions. At some point he grew weary of watching. He strode onto the court, grabbed a ball and started shooting. He couldn't help himself. After 10 minutes he was shooed away.
Chip Engelland saw those 10 minutes. Good base, thought Engelland, a Spurs development coach and one of the most respected shot doctors in the world. Good form. It was a surprising rave to give a brick mason who shot 25% from three-point range in two college seasons. Many in the San Antonio front office were hesitant when they sent point guard George Hill to Indiana for Leonard on draft night. "We were all looking at each other like, Are we really going to do this?" Popovich remembers.
They did, in fact, do that, and it was one of the best moves in franchise history, probably right behind drafting Tim Duncan and David Robinson.
Leonard couldn't help himself, and started shooting when he wasn't supposed to, and Engelland just happened to be there and just happened to watch him and just happened to be convinced that there was enough there for the Spurs to draft him.
That's what the Spurs' continued dynasty rested on. That set of circumstances. Never forget how big a role fortune plays in this sport, nor how important it is for teams to be smart enough to take advantage of that luck. For Leonard, there are still major questions. When he was presented as the primarily offensive threat vs. the Clippers last season in the playoffs, L.A. found ways to effectively disengage him. The Warriors did the same to him in their first meeting in January.
There is still growth that needs to happen, but Leonard, still only 24 years old, has proven so far that there is no ceiling with him. He'll always be focused on getting better, because there is simply nothing else in his life to distract him. He's taken that work ethic, that insane physical form, and that Chevy Tahoe, and ridden it to being one of the best players in the NBA.
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