Distant and accessible to only a few, the game's most dominant defender and underrated superstar desperately cultivates greatness, if not an image.
This story appears in the March 14, 2016, issue of Sports Illustrated. To subscribe, click here.
His name evokes an island, warm and remote, enchanting and unspoiled. Though Kawhi Leonard was not named after Kauai, the garden isle on the northwest tip of the Hawaiian archipelago, he believes his father liked the sound of the place. Kauai is lush and bountiful, yet subdued compared with some of its overstated cousins to the south. Kawhi has never been. Someday he'd like to go.
He was the baby of the family, minded by four older sisters, who stood in long lines to buy his Air Jordans and prophesied in home videos his athletic feats. At seven, Kawhi interrupted an annual physical to inform his pediatrician that he planned to play in the NBA. "Do you know how many kids come in this office and say that?" the doctor smirked. It is possible that Kawhi has not uttered an audacious word since.
He quietly observed his older sisters, immersed in their adolescent dramas, and avoided any of his own. He called coaches and parents sir and ma'am. He handed footballs to officials after touchdowns. He passed basketballs to friends instead of shooting them himself. "Why do you do that?" his mother, Kim Robertson, once asked him.
Leonard watched Come Fly with Me, a glossy 1980s documentary about Michael Jordan, until his eyes ached. But the promise of movies, commercials, stratospheric stats and double-pump highlights—trappings of success in the post-Jordan age—were not what enticed him. "I don't like to bring attention to myself," he says now. "I don't like to make a scene." Basketball was an outlet, not a showcase, a vehicle for escape rather than glory.
"I could be on the court for two hours and it felt like 10 minutes," Leonard says. "It made time go by." Math, his favorite subject, produced a similar effect. He could lose himself in geometry homework, calculating angles and solving problems, not having to deal with big crowds or nosy questions.
"So many people care so much about being popular," says Jeremy Castleberry, who grew up with Leonard. "He never did."
As an unassuming sophomore at Canyon Springs High in Moreno Valley, Calif., Kawhi declined to correct a reporter who kept awarding his points to a teammate. "Doesn't matter," Leonard told his mom. As a senior at Martin Luther King High in Riverside, he blew off the Nike camp when his peers would have cut up their Kobes for an invitation. "I don't need the exposure," he told his AAU coach, Marvin Lea. He ruled out UCLA and USC because San Diego State recruited him first. Still, he was difficult for Aztecs coaches to reach over the phone, leaving them perpetually panicked that he'd renege.
When the Spurs acquired Leonard out of SDSU in 2011, through a draft-day trade with the Pacers, they flew him to San Antonio for a meeting with coach Gregg Popovich. "He was as serious as a heart attack," Popovich recalls. Needless to say, they hit it off, and Leonard slid comfortably into the Spurs' hardwood monastery.
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.
"You'd think we were talking about a starving journeyman in the D-League," says Randy Shelton, San Diego State's strength and conditioning coach, who trains Leonard every off-season. But the player's hunger is real. He is the rare professional athlete who distinguishes between greatness and stardom. "He wants the greatness badly," Popovich says. "He doesn't give a damn about the stardom." You won't find him on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram. You probably won't catch him in a photo shoot, on a red carpet or at an awards ceremony, even if he is the guest of honor. Check that—especially if he is the guest of honor. "He loves the game," Popovich continues. "He ignores the rest of it."
Leonard ambles into arenas apart from the group, absent the standard-issue headphones, the custom suit, the shiny jewelry. "If [the arena] were empty," Popovich says, "he'd probably like it a lot more." He wears a black hoodie, True Religion jeans and a thousand-yard stare. He is 24 but looks significantly older, like a man with a mortgage heading to the graveyard shift. "I'd rather play than be in an office doing paperwork," Leonard says.
The hard labor occurs in the quiet strip between the paint and the perimeter. Leonard drops into his stance, bent at the waist and the knees, arms outstretched and palms parallel to the floor. He looks like he is surfing. His head swivels from the guy with the ball to the guy in the corner and back again. He gauges angles and cuts them off. Some opponents test him. Others trash-talk him. Many tap out on him. He doesn't seem to notice. He says nothing. He shows nothing. He allows nothing.
Welcome to the Island of Kawhi.Kawhi.
Two hours before tip-off at AmericanAirlines Arena, and the Heat have overhauled their game plan. Normally small forward Luol Deng is a vital member of the Miami offense, and coaches deploy a package of plays to free him for shots. But with the Spurs in town and Leonard expected to open on Deng, the Heat decide to shelve most of those plays. To avoid Leonard, they plan on featuring Dwyane Wade in the first quarter, knowing full well that Popovich will eventually switch Leonard onto Wade and force another adjustment. No defender in the league, Miami coaches acknowledge, prompts anywhere near as many machinations as Leonard. "You go AmericanAirlines Arena, and the Heat have overhauled their game plan. Normally small forward Luol Deng is a vital member of the Miami offense, and coaches deploy a package of plays to free him for shots. But with the Spurs in town and Leonard expected to open on Deng, the Heat decide to shelve most of those plays. To avoid Leonard, they plan on featuring Dwyane Wade in the first quarter, knowing full well that Popovich will eventually switch Leonard onto Wade and force another adjustment. No defender in the league, Miami coaches acknowledge, prompts anywhere near as many machinations as Leonard. "You go at him," one coach says, "you're asking for trouble."
When Leonard arrived in San Antonio almost five years ago, the Spurs did not know much about him personally. Even scouts, who conduct famously comprehensive background checks, found him difficult to pin down. They were aware he was a physical marvel, 6'7" with a 7'3" wingspan and 11-inch hands, too strong to screen and too long to elude. He was a worker who took his own lamps to 6:30 a.m. sessions at San Diego State's Viejas Arena, when the lights were off. He lost his dad at 16—Mark Leonard was shot and killed at the car wash he owned in Compton—but Kawhi's self-effacing manner goes back much further. He never even liked celebrating his birthday. In San Antonio he opted to live with his mom, his bedroom upstairs and hers down. They played Jenga at night over enchiladas.
"You have to be the best defender in the league," Popovich told Leonard. "You have to be Bruce Bowen times 10." Some first-round divas might have bristled, getting compared to an undrafted grinder like Bowen, but not Leonard. "That's how I grew up," he says. "Just play defense—and make a basket." As a kid he played defense in pickup games. He played defense in AAU games. In other words, he played defense when nobody played defense. He could lock up the point guard, the center and all positions in between, then sneak out of the gym before anyone noticed, an ideal day.
A favorite place around the neck.