Rarely does a 22-year-old superstar keep such a low profile. San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard wouldn’t have it any other way.
We’re told to remove bias from our vocabularies. We’re told that when we type, when we watch, when we analyze, we’re to remove ourselves from partiality.
I’m not the only one who took a fancy to Kawhi Leonard this NBA postseason. In fact, a majority of the country did.
Last night, Leonard became the youngest NBA Finals MVP since 1999 when teammate Tim Duncan won the accolade. There are players who never make the grandest stage in professional basketball; Leonard has made it twice in his two-year tenure in the league, and he can reasonably expect this one won’t be his last.
Leonard led the Spurs in scoring for the third consecutive game, leading to San Antonio’s fifth NBA championship.
The AT&T Center shook violently with the deafening roar of “Kawhi M-V-P” chants throughout the fourth quarter of Game 5. Rightfully so, Leonard has led the Spurs in scoring for the third consecutive game, leading to San Antonio’s fifth NBA championship.
As he timidly shuffled across the stage, 11-time champion Bill Russell—an NBA deity—handed the 22-year-old his award. When ESPN’s Stewart Scott probed him in its wake with a series of questions meant to loosen the oft-placid guy up, Leonard was as candid as we’ve grown to expect.
“Everybody is just living in the moment right now,” Leonard said. “Really don’t know what’s going on. Right now, it’s just surreal to me. I have a great group of guys behind me.”
Maybe it’s because he doesn’t talk much.
Leonard has managed to stay beneath the surface. He’s happier there.
In a league fixated on driving revenue and bright lights and interviews prompting steroidal egos, Leonard has managed to stay beneath the surface. He’s happier there. And in his atypically introverted demeanor—one few understand in any industry, let alone basketball— professional sports and those who watch them can find something wholesome and inspiring in Leonard.
The poetic justice is he didn’t make the All-Star Game this season. Yet, he may have made the largest transformation of anyone in the league, despite his minimal coverage prior to the playoffs. You wouldn’t know that, though, because Leonard would rather contribute than compliment. He’d rather play basketball than deal with the politics and interpersonal baggage his platform inherently provides. Leonard is a different breed of athlete, the one who never shed his love-for-the-game skin. The one we all were at one point or another.
“I just have to keep working into wanting to be that guy,” Leonard said in an interview with the Los Angeles Daily News in May. “It’s all mental. I just have to worry about my game.”
He has continually shattered his ceiling this year; he’s no longer latent, Kawhi has arrived.
Leonard has managed to stay beneath the surface. He’s happier there. Lest we forget the Spurs’ most prominent prospect is 22, just now able to buy a legal drink. Leonard has shed the training wheels that bogged down his defensive acumen in last year’s NBA Finals matchup with the Miami Heat. He has continually shattered his ceiling this year; he’s no longer latent, Kawhi has arrived.
He entered Game 5 preordained to win the accolade if the Spurs were to win the series. When he was questioned about the prospect, Leonard echoed his temperament.
“It doesn’t mean nothing to me,” Leonard said at Saturday’s media availability at the Spurs practice facility. “Just try to go out and win the next game, and that’s all I’m doing. I mean, because those are not my expectations. I’m trying to win a championship, and until we win, that’s when I’ll be satisfied.”
Here’s to hoping Leonard—the heir to San Antonio’s Big 3—never becomes satisfied. When he does, we’ll have lost something truly very special: Authentic love for sport by someone who has every reason to leave his or her abode beneath the current.
“They all pushed me, coach Pop pushed me, the fans pushed me and I just want to thank God and my parents and everybody.”