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Kawhi to the Clippers is just the next step in a plan hatched in a high school gym

Toronto Star logo Toronto Star 2019-07-07 Mark Zeigler - The San Diego Union-Tribune

(Video provided by CityNews)

SAN DIEGO—Several times, when reminiscing about their long, lonely days in the gym at Martin Luther King High in Riverside, Calif., when explaining why they broke into Peterson Gym at San Diego State to get up extra shots and brought a portable lamp when the box with light switches was locked, Jeremy Castleberry told me this about his best friend and former Aztecs teammate, Kawhi Leonard:

“All we talked about was becoming the greatest basketball player who ever lived.”

The first time he confided that was in 2011. I never wrote it.

a basketball player in front of a crowd: Kawhi Leonard was dreaming big even before he landed at San Diego State, the college he ended up at after none of the power conferences offered a scholarship. © Ethan Miller Kawhi Leonard was dreaming big even before he landed at San Diego State, the college he ended up at after none of the power conferences offered a scholarship.

I didn’t, because it seemed presumptuous, out of character, incongruous for a humble guy who received no scholarship offers from power conferences, who averaged 12.7 points as a freshman at SDSU, who made only 25% of his three-point attempts in his two-year college career. It seemed like something every kid thinks or dreams, something you just say to say it, more lip service than defining mantra.

It makes sense now.

Clippers sign Kawhi Leonard and Paul George; Russell Westbrook could be traded next (video by USA Today Sports)


Now that Leonard is a member of ... the Los Angeles Clippers?

LeBron James and new Lakers cohort Anthony Davis were sitting courtside together Friday night at the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas when a powerful earthquake shook the Thomas & Mack Center and scrapped the remainder of the night’s games. The league shook again a few hours later, when word leaked that the Clippers had traded basically every first-round draft pick between now and 2098 to Oklahoma City for Paul George, fulfilling the major condition for the 28-year-old prize of free agency to leave Toronto and sign a four-year, $142-million (U.S.) contract with them.

It’s basketball Armageddon. Everyone is shocked, though we shouldn’t be.

If we learned anything about Leonard over the past week of free agency, it’s that anyone outside his circle who thinks they know what’s going on inside it, doesn’t. It’s a small, tight group, consisting of Castleberry, Kawhi, his mother, his uncle and an attorney. That’s pretty much it. And it’s about Leonard’s private, burning desire to become the greatest basketball player who ever lived.

At SDSU, that meant when staffer Dave Velasquez had the job of waking up incoming freshmen players for mandatory, morning English and math classes, he didn’t go bang on the door of Leonard’s apartment. He went to Peterson Gym and dragged him, sweat-drenched, out of a pre-dawn workout.

At San Antonio, that meant the Spurs sending a staffer to San Diego each summer not to oversee his off-season training regimen but to make sure he didn’t overdo it. To make sure three-a-day workouts didn’t turn into four-a-days.

Raptors fans bid farewell to Kawhi (video by CityNews)


And now it means flexing his two-time NBA Finals MVP muscle to chart his own destiny.

His idol growing up in the Inland Empire was not Kobe or Shaq with the hometown Lakers. It was Allen Iverson of the Philadelphia 76ers. But if he learned anything from The Answer’s career arc, it was that all that talent and swagger never translated into Larry O’Bs, as Leonard affectionately refers to the NBA’s Larry O’Brien championship trophy. Iverson scored 24,368 career points and was a n all-star 11 times. He also won zero rings, reaching the Finals only once and prevailing in two playoff series over his final nine seasons.

Leonard’s next idol, from his years in San Antonio, was the understated, unassuming Tim Duncan, unconcerned about individual antics or accolades, the anti-Iverson in many ways.

“I’m just trying to pass Tim Duncan in championships if I can one day,” Leonard told me in 2015, after winning his first. “That’s my motivation, that’s what I strive for. Tim is one of the greatest players who has ever played, so if I could get close or reach that plateau and have my name on that list ...”

It’s more than that, though. It’s about winning Larry O’Bs, and winning them on his own terms.

Ring No. 1 came with the Spurs, where he played with three future Hall of Famers in Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Ring No. 2 came last month with Toronto, where he had a larger role, certainly, but where the other pieces were already in place. The Raptors had won 59 games the previous year and went 17-5 this season when Leonard was rested.

For ring No. 3, free agency presented three choices: He could stay in Toronto, which offered immediate stability and probably the best chance at reaching the Finals next season. He could go to the Lakers, a tantalizing prospect of dominance with a power trio of the Leonard, LeBron and Davis —but, given James’ immense ego and shadow, there was the risk of becoming another Scottie Pippen. Or he could go to the Clippers, the cursed franchise on its third city that has won five playoff series in its 49-year history.

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He’s already been NBA Finals MVP for two franchises, something only James and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar can say. He owns the highest regular-season winning percentage in NBA history. Now imagine if he wins a title or two with … the Clippers?

But Leonard knew he needed a star sidekick of his own. So he flexed. And the Clippers’ fear of perpetual irrelevance in L.A. and their yearlong obsession with landing Leonard drove them to offer Oklahoma City a huge package for George: five first-round draft picks between 2021 and 2026, the right to swap first-round picks in 2023 and 2025, plus starters Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

It’s bold and brash and brave, and calculated. Just another step in a meticulous plan hatched more than a decade ago between two guys on lonely nights in an empty gym, the silence broken by a bouncing ball and dancing net.

Before, it was a portable lamp with an extension cord snaking across the floor to the wall. Now, it’s the biggest spotlight of all.


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