NBA Finals 2019: Kawhi Leonard, motivated by slights and doubts, shows he might just be the best player on earth
Kawhi put aside his quiet style and bared his soul after becoming the third ever to win Finals MVP with two different teams
OAKLAND, Calif. -- From where Kawhi Leonard was sitting -- on the postgame podium, his second NBA Finals MVP award off to his side, the champagne-soaked ski goggles resting on top of his cornrows -- it could have been easy to forget the winding and painful journey of the past 18 months that brought him there.
But that would not be a very Kawhi thing to do, to forget the slights and the scars that paved his path toward greatness. He was once a 16-year-old boy whose father was murdered in the Compton car wash that he owned. Then he was once the overlooked Southern California recruit who went not to UCLA or USC but to San Diego State. Then he was once the talented but still-raw prospect who 14 NBA teams passed over before he was selected in the 2011 NBA Draft.
And then, during the 2017-18 season, during a time when he'd already established himself as one of a handful of players who were considered among the very best basketball players on earth, he became something else entirely. It would be his final season with the only NBA team he'd ever played for, the San Antonio Spurs, and it was a season marred by injuries and drama, by backstabbing and disloyalty. The quiet young man who just wanted to play basketball was suddenly considered a malcontent, a guy who was perhaps faking an injury, and eventually a selfish player who forced his way out of the NBA's most lauded basketball culture over the past quarter-century.
As he sat at the podium Thursday night in Oracle Arena as just the third NBA player to win a Finals MVP for two different teams -- the others being Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James -- Kawhi took a breath and reflected on the rollercoaster that was the past 18 months. This was a man whose name was dragged through the mud last season. Now he was a man who could be considered -- should be considered? -- the very best basketball player on earth.
He wasn't sitting up here in spite of all those slights. He was sitting up here because of them.
"Last year a lot of people were doubting me," a reflective Leonard replied when I asked him how these past couple seasons have changed him as a man. "They thought I was either faking an injury or didn't want to play for a team. That was disappointing to me that that was out in the media, because I love the game of basketball. Like I always say, if we're not playing this game, if we're hurt -- I mean, you're down. So me just going through that, and I just knew that I would have to make myself happy, and no one else.
"And I have to trust myself," the suddenly loquacious Leonard continued. "Whatever -- it doesn't matter what anybody has to say about me. I know who I am as a person. I know how I feel. And always just trust yourself. And that was my goal and my focus. And that's why one of the things that I take on the floor -- I don't care about what the media has to say about me or if they want me to score 30 points because I did the game before. I'm going to come out and play the right way. I'm not trying to make headlines. And that's just things that I pretty much learned throughout this journey of being in the NBA. So that's how I just keep growing up as a man and that's why I say, I just think about my past life and try to learn from situations, and be wise, and learn from others."
Whew. That's the allegedly quiet Kawhi Leonard, baring his damn soul.
It was unfair what he went through last season. Did Kawhi handle that situation perfectly? Of course not. Something broke between Kawhi and the Spurs, and neither side would swallow their pride to make things right. So instead, Kawhi found himself in a place he never wanted to go to -- "We all know where my destinations were," he reiterated from that podium -- and with a chance to do something that was as unlikely as it would be special.
"I texted Kyle [Lowry] probably a day later," Kawhi said about the offseason trade to the Raptors, which sent franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio. "I told him, I said, 'Let's go out and do something special. I know your best friend left, I know you're mad, but let's make this thing work out.' And we are here today."
Kawhi Leonard's greatness is uniquely his. He's not the most naturally gifted athlete on Earth, like LeBron. He's not a mold-breaking unicorn like Kevin Durant. He's not the type of player who has changed our definition of basketball like Steph Curry. Kawhi is old school, with a blunt-force style that's borne out of hard work, in the practice gym and in games. His game is effort over beauty. He's the type of player who needs the motivation of those types of slights, both real and imagined, that were slandered against him last season.
For now, Kawhi Leonard and the city of Toronto are on top of the basketball world. We don't know how long that will last. The marriage of Kawhi and Toronto could be long-term, or it could have only a few weeks left. If there's one thing he's learned over the past 18 months, it's that greatness isn't guaranteed. And if there's one thing that was drilled into his brain during the last two games of these NBA Finals, where both Durant and Klay Thompson suffered devastating injuries, it's the same lesson he learned himself last season: Health isn't guaranteed either.
For now, though, there are a few guarantees: That everything Masai Ujiri put on the line to bring Kawhi to Toronto was worth it. That Kawhi Leonard isn't just a superstar but an all-time great who is playing in our midst. And that maybe, just maybe -- as the career of LeBron wanes, as the Warriors go through their post-injury struggles, as Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to figure out the best version of himself -- it's Kawhi Leonard, the man we spent all of last season doubting and slandering, who is currently the best basketball player on earth.
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