Commentary

Kawhi Leonard's quiet drive

Originally Published: June 4, 2013
By Rick Reilly | ESPN.com

Kawhi LeonardRocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesWhen Kawhi Leonard was 16, his father was murdered. Leonard found escape in basketball.

You pronounce San Antonio Spurs star Kawhi Leonard's first name "Kuh-why." And yet Leonard refuses to make "why" a part of his life anymore.

Why was his dad murdered that Friday night five years ago at the Compton, Calif., car wash he owned?

Why has no one been arrested?

Why has not even one witness cooperated with the police?

"Man, I just try not to think about it," says the 6-foot-7 Leonard, who was 16 when his dad was shot and killed. "It was in L.A. Murders happen out there and nobody ever finds out. It is what it is, I guess."

It's a shame, because Mark Leonard would love to see what a wondrous baller his son turned out to be. Kawhi plays nastier defense than a pawn-shop dog. His motor is limitless. He's become a bankable 3-point corner shooter, in the classic Spurs style. And he's one of the big reasons the Spurs are in the NBA Finals, beginning Thursday in Miami, where he'll guard LeBron James himself.

"Oh, my, Mark would be so proud right now," says Leonard's mom and Mark's ex-wife, Kim Robertson. "He'd be like, 'Wow! My son is in the NBA Finals? I just can't believe it!'"

And why wouldn't he? Much of Kawhi is Mark himself. It was Mark who gave Kawhi that unique name. ("He said he wanted something that sounded Hawaiian," Kawhi says.) He taught him his shot. He'd run him up hills in the summer to get in shape. He stayed on him about his grades. He fueled Kawhi's unquenchable work ethic. If the car Kawhi was hand-washing didn't turn out clean enough to eat spaghetti off of, his dad would make him do it again.

"I remember he'd come home exhausted sometimes and say he was never going to wash a car again," his mom remembers.

"He taught me how to work hard," Kawhi says.

[+] EnlargeKawhi Leonard
Ethan Miller/Getty ImagesLeonard has changed little since his college playing days, on and off the court.

Yet hard work helped kill Mark Leonard. He was trying to close up the car wash that night to get to his son's Riverside King High School game when one last car apparently drove up, asking him to take one final wash. He agreed. "I think they wanted to rob him," Kim says. "Some kind of gang thing. Mark was shot."

"My auntie lives five minutes from there," says Kawhi's best friend, Jeremy Castleberry. "When stuff happens in that type of neighborhood, people won't phone in. People don't talk. They're just like, 'Dang, gun shots again.' I lost my cousin the same way. … Nobody ever found out who did it."

The next night, Leonard scored 17 points and then collapsed into his mother's arms in tears. Since then, though, he has kept his eyes forward, churning up that hill.

"That night, at that game, is about the last time we really talked about it," says Castleberry.

"For a long time, Kawhi really wanted to know who did it," Kim says, "but after awhile he just had to let it go."

Maybe that's what keeps Leonard focused like a microscope: the fear of where else his mind could go. In high school, you could find him shooting jumpers at 11 at night in the school gym. At San Diego State, he was relentless about improving, leaving home at 5 every morning to work out before class. Says his agent, Brian Elfus: "In 14 years in the business, he's the most dedicated guy I've ever been around."

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich once said, "What makes me be so confident about [Leonard] is that he wants it so badly."

At only 21, Leonard has become the Spurs' third star in these playoffs behind Tim Duncan and Tony Parker and ahead of Manu Ginobili. He's their second-best rebounder, their steals leader, and their second-best shooter (56.5 percent). And with arms like a squid and hands the size of waffle irons, their best perimeter defender.

"You know those giant new Galaxy Note II phones?" says Castleberry. "They look like tablets? They're the only kind that look normal in Kawhi's hand. A normal iPhone looks like a Playskool toy in his hand."

Leonard fits into the sensible-shoe Spurs the way slices fit into toasters. He issues a decent quote once a year, lives only to win, and is allergic to bling. He owns one watch and one chain. "I'm not gonna buy some fancy watch just to show people something fancy on my wrist," he says.

His entire rookie year, he drove a Chevy Malibu. This year he finally bought a Porsche. But he still drives the Malibu more. "It gets good gas mileage," he tells incredulous friends.

And it's always clean. Like a good car wash, Leonard is all about the details. He's driven, practical as an Amish accountant and emotionless. On the surface.

"I guess my dad would be proud of me," he admits. "But I gotta move forward."

Castleberry knows better: "I know he thinks about his pops. I know he misses him. They were so tight. I think he'll wish his pops were there to see this; to see how good he turned out to be."

Instead, the world will.

Rick Reilly | email

Columnist, ESPN.com