LOS ANGELES—There is nothing but appreciation and thanks from Kawhi Leonard for the magical season he spent in Toronto with a team — and in a country — that he took to unprecedented heights.
No animosity, no “I couldn’t wait to get out of Canada” blather. None of that stuff and a ton of “Wow, we did something special.”
“I was just telling someone the other day, it’s shocking to me how many Canadians do live here or are just visiting,” Leonard said Saturday at the Los Angeles Clippers’ training facility in Playa Vista. “Just walking around, people say I’m from Toronto or Winnipeg or these different cities in Canada. You never know unless you go play up there and they recognize your talent from playing with the Raptors.”
What Leonard does know is that what he did in one year with Toronto was historic and dramatic and franchise-altering. After missing all but nine games of the 2017-18 season, he was traded away from San Antonio — the only city he’d played in — and made the most of it. And Monday night’s game against the Raptors will have some extra meaning.
“It’s a former team I won a championship with, but it’s any other game,” Leonard said, with the sense that it’s a bit more than “any other game.”
“It’s going to be fun to see the guys again, and just congratulate them and be able to shake hands and compete.”
No matter what happens in the future, now that he’s back in his hometown and on another stacked championship-calibre team, the special memories will linger.
“The guys, the journey, you know what I mean?” he said when asked about the best memories he carries with him. “Also the country, the city, it was amazing. Just so much, you can keep going on and on.”
But those days are gone, wistful memories of Toronto, a stepping stone to the third act in Leonard’s career. He wanted to go home — not for the trappings of Los Angeles life, but because he wanted desperately to be where his family is — and landed in a perfect spot.
The Clippers are 6-3 on the season and Leonard’s averaging 29 points and a career-high 5.4 assists per game. He’s having the same impact on his Los Angeles teammates as he did on the Raptors. Toronto coach Nick Nurse and Leonard’s teammates lauding his basketball IQ and willingness to speak up wasn’t a one-off thing.
“He talks way more than you think,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “He talks winning a lot. He talks about doing stuff that you should do in a game. If a player doesn’t close out with his hands up, you’ll hear him say: ‘Don’t just go to a guy, go with your hands up.’ That’s coach talk, and he does that a lot.”
He doesn’t get caught up in L.A. life, but on Saturday it was about 30C under brilliant blue, cloudless skies and the ocean was not too far away. He’s on a team that’s as good at this point of the season as the Raptors were at this time a year ago and that’s not too bad, either.
“I’m able to see my family after the games. I’m in southern California, beautiful weather. I’m at my house,” he said. “Everything’s been good.”
And it’s home.
“It’s been a good thing so far,” Rivers said. “For Kawhi it’s been as good of a good thing as I’ve seen, because he’s not into all the stuff to come home (to). He just wants to come home and be home. There’s a big difference.
“He’s not out at every place celebrating ‘I’m back home.’ He’s with his family and he’s playing basketball. I guess that’s the trick.”
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It’s not right to suggest Leonard is more relaxed in Los Angeles than he was in Toronto because he never seemed uncomfortable in his one season in Canada. He was the consummate professional with his work ethic, his dealings with the media, and he left a major mark on his teammates.
He’ll see some of them Sunday — he said he keeps up with a few on a regular basis and it’ll be a nice catch-up time.
“It’s not like he left on bad terms,” Rivers said. “Really, it’s one of those ‘leave good’ situations, not one of those ‘leave awful’ situations. Let’s be honest, in our league it’s usually the other way. He’s had the rare benefit of leaving in a happy state. That’s rare. Has it happened? I don’t know. If it has, it’s rare.”
It doesn’t matter to Leonard what the “noise” is, or how loud it is. He has his family plus the friendship and respect of fellow professionals and teammates. Why would anyone care otherwise?
“What you see is what you get with Kawhi,” said Clippers forward Paul George, who could make his season debut against the Raptors on Monday night after recovering from surgery on both shoulders. “You understand how good he is on the court. He works on his game, takes care of his diet. He does all the things that you would want your guy to do.
“Everything is true about his makeup: works hard, great teammate, great locker-room guy. He actually does talk. He’s a fun guy. The legend’s true.”
And the legend about Leonard’s time in Toronto also grows. There were those who suggested he wouldn’t even report when he got traded for DeMar DeRozan in July 2018. There were those who were dead certain he would hate the city, the weather, the new country and the fact he had to spend a season with the Raptors.
None of those people are Leonard himself.
“I never went in with a negative mindset,” he said. “Playing with Cory Joseph in San Antonio, him being from that area in Toronto, I knew what the city brought — just going out there, playing games, hanging out with him and his friends, him taking me around, showing me the city.
“I always felt positive with the trade and the front office, I knew it was great already with (team president Masai Ujiri) being in there, so it was never a negative thing. I was always open-minded about it.”