Kawhi Leonard's series to remember
SAN ANTONIO -- We keep wanting Kawhi Leonard to talk. To say more about himself. To explain where that motor that propelled the San Antonio Spurs to their fifth NBA Championship over the Miami Heat on Sunday evening at the AT&T Center comes from.
But as he walked away from the championship podium, the only one in the building surprised he was named the Finals MVP in a landslide vote, he said everything you need to know about who he is and what's inside him with a hug. A deep, soulful hug with his mother, Kim Robertson.
"I've got tears in my eyes, I'm so proud," Robertson said. "I'm very, very emotional. It's not about Kawhi winning the MVP or not. I'm just so glad we won."
Robertson has been a constant presence in San Antonio since Leonard was acquired by the Spurs in a draft day trade in 2011. Close by, keeping watch in case her son needed anything. To talk, to cry, to vent. It's how she has been since Kawhi told her his father had been murdered as they rode home from one of his high school basketball games.
"Me and my brother were in the car," Robertson said. "Kawhi was in the back and he just says, 'My dad is dead.'
"I really didn't see Kawhi suffer from it. I wanted him to. I would say, 'Kawhi, you OK? You OK?' But I think he just kept it in.
"I was kind of scared. You know how young men, they lose their father, who is a big figure in their life. It might turn them to do things bad. But Kawhi's always been strong. He's a good kid. He wants to get better and better."
And he did. Each year better than the next. From high school to college at San Diego State and now to San Antonio where he became the second youngest Finals MVP since they started handing out the award in 1969.
That his finest hour, his crowning moment of glory came on Father's Day was emotional in ways neither of them have the words to explain yet.
"It's a very special meaning for me, knowing that he's gone and I was able to win a championship on Father's Day," Leonard said. "But I mean, I'm just happy just winning the championship. Like I told you all, my dad died six years ago, and I really wasn't thinking about him that much."
Do not misread that last part. Kawhi and his father, Mark Leonard, were very close. They played basketball together, trained together, hung out all the time. Mark Leonard owned a car wash and would take his son to work all the time. On the night he was murdered, he was at that car wash, trying to get off work in time to watch Kawhi's game that night.
Kawhi doesn't talk much about it, to anyone. Not even his mother. But sometimes you honor someone best with actions, rather than words. "From the moment it happened, he wanted to make his dad proud," Robertson said. "He wanted to keep on moving and moving and moving.
"Kawhi just wants to get better and better and better. He does not want to be a superstar. He does not want to be in the limelight. He just wants to be good at what he loves to do."
His play thrust him into the limelight during these Finals. His turnaround after scoring just nine points in each of the first two games mirrored the Spurs turnaround in the final three games, which they won by an average of 19 points. Leonard was awesome in the three wins, averaging 23.7 points and 9.3 rebounds. When the Spurs needed a lift, he gave it to them. Whether it was a dagger 3-pointer, a rim-rattling dunk, or a defensive stop on LeBron James, Leonard delivered. The Spurs have been loathe to disclose what was said to Leonard after Game 2. He was seen huddling with coach Gregg Popovich and team leaders Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
"Well, you know a lot of that is family business," Popovich said.
But now that it was over, now that the Spurs had won and there would be an entire summer to bask in that glow, Popovich decided to pull back the curtain just a bit.
"I just talked to him about not being in that deferment or that defer sort of stage. The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game. You are the man. You're a part of the engine that makes us go."
It's the kind of thing Popovich does not say lightly. Not every player would do the right thing afterward. Some would shoot 30 times. Others would feel the weight of it and shrivel up.
But Popovich has seen something special in Leonard for a while. He even called him the "face of the Spurs" one day during a summertime Q&A on the team website. It was a rare bit of candor from the normally gruff coach, but it was not an accident.
Popovich knew Leonard needed to hear it so he could start believing it. One day, the Spurs will need him to be that. One day when Duncan and Ginobili and maybe even Popovich are gone, it'll fall to Leonard to carry on what they've built here.
That that time arrived now, while they are all still here, is pretty wonderful.
That it happened on Father's Day, just feels right.
"That's what I said to myself," Robertson said.
Leonard paused for a moment to collect his thoughts before accepting his MVP award trophy from NBA commissioner Adam Silver, and looked up to the sky. He didn't need to say a word.
"At the moment," he said. "I was just happy."