OAKLAND, Calif.—It’s been hard to get to the essence of Kawhi Leonard since he arrived in our midst because he is a private man not given to comfortable interaction or idle conversations with those that he does not spend time with, and that’s fine.
It is the way Leonard is. It became apparent from the first introduction, and all he owes anyone is to play his hardest for the Toronto Raptors and conduct himself as a professional, and he has more than done that since his September arrival.
But in the last 48 hours, punctuated by the gruesome injury suffered by Golden State’s Kevin Durant in Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Leonard has shown more of himself than at any time over the last nine months, opening up some deeply held feelings.
He has this genuine love and joy for the game he plays, a gratitude that he is able to once again perform to a level that few will ever attain. Once robbed of that for almost a year, he never wants to let it go.
The money? It’s unquestionably nice because it allows him to take care of his family for this generation and many to come without much concern. The fame? It matters not a lick to him, that’s obvious by way he conducts himself around the team and the league and the fans. The game? The game is the thing.
And one only had to hear him talk about Durant and what the Warriors star is going through — and what Leonard went through missing all but nine games of the 2107-18 season — to understand that. He showed the depth of concern he has for a fellow star athlete who faces months of not being able to just play the game.
“I’ve been in that situation before,” Leonard said in the hours after Durant blew out his right Achilles tendon on a nondescript play in Golden State’s 106-105 Game 5 victory. “I hope he has a speedy recovery, and just gets healthy, and I hope that he’s going to be OK mentally, just throughout the whole rehab process because, like I said before, we work so hard to either play in the Finals or just play in the NBA, and when you’re not playing it’s hard to wrap your mind around it.
“But I’m pretty sure he’s going to attack each day and get better and come back strong.”
The misconception too many have when players speak of their simple love of the game is to think they are spewing clichés and giving the omnipresent media grist for the mill. But there is and always has been a truth to those statements. To have the game taken away from them for an extended period of time, as it was for Leonard and as it is for Durant, cuts them to the core.
It’s why they care so much for each other, teammates and opponents alike. They are not wired like normal humans, the greats have a deep and abiding love for their craft that makes them special.
“It goes so much further than basketball,” Golden State’s Andre Iguodala said in the wee hours of Tuesday in Toronto. “I always say that. It might sound cliché or sound so simple, but it’s so much deeper than playing basketball for money and all that goes into the machine.
“We’re really in a fantasy world and it takes away from you having feelings or expressing yourself as far as being a human being. It’s simple to me.”
That Durant will be lost from the game is one thing; the fact the game will be lost from him might be more to the point.
Leonard, robbed a season ago of simply playing, said the day before Durant went down that the simple act of getting through an NBA regular-season gave him a sense of satisfaction and fulfilment.
The championship and a chance to play for it matters greatly because no one wants to come this far and lose. But playing — running around and playing freely and loosely and with joy and fulfilment — is the best.
“The year I had last year and then just being able to play in the Finals this year has been great, but I’ve been happy just being able to return to basketball at the beginning of the regular season,” Leonard said Sunday. “It’s pretty much something that I look back on, of not being able to play, and now I’m able to play. So just enjoy it. It’s why you’re here. You never know when those times will come when you’re not going to be able to play or you get injured.
“That’s what my mindset really comes from and what made me grow as a player, because those are the worst times in basketball. It’s not losing games or missing shots; it’s about you being able to play or not on the floor. I grew up my whole life wanting to play in the NBA. And when that’s taken away, it’s terrible.”
That’s as open as Leonard has been this season, a rare glimpse into his thoughts. Given his comments Sunday, it’s no surprise he felt so bad for Durant on Monday.
“It’s devastating,” Leonard said. “You work so hard to get to this point, these are the last games, you see him try to come out and push himself … and I feel bad for him.”
Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps