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Gary Washburn | On basketball

Kawhi Leonard remains the NBA’s mystery man, and the Raptors are fine with that

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard smiles during basketball practice at the NBA Finals in Toronto.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP/The Canadian Press via AP

TORONTO — He is one of the most mysterious and mercurial superstars in professional sports. Kawhi Leonard freely admits he doesn’t get too emotional — except when he hits game-winning shots in Game 7 — and plays on an even keel that adds to his intrigue.

Leonard is unquestionably one of the best basketball players in the world, an athletic marvel with immense offensive skills and the ability to defend all five positions. He has led the once-bumbling Toronto franchise to the NBA Finals and a 1-0 lead with a chance to get Game 2 Sunday against the Golden State Warriors.


Yet Leonard approaches each day with the same stoic determination as the previous day. He is an ’80s superstar dropped into this crazed social-media era where athletes are consumed with their brand. Leonard’s brand is simply winning, and one of the summer’s most sought-after free agents may be seriously considering returning to Toronto — or maybe not — the basketball world truly has no idea.

Leonard offers few hints as to what makes him tick, only to say that his demeanor comes from hundreds of previous moments of preparation: high school championship games, playing the day after the shooting death of his father, being assigned to guard LeBron James as a second-year player in the NBA Finals, being acquired by a franchise desperate to win, and being anointed the unquestioned leader.

“Probably just growing up playing basketball. That’s all could I say,” Leonard said when asked about his focused but emotionless style. “Just being in those experiences like you named. Coming right in as a rookie probably helped me just guarding the best player every night. Always wanting to win. Learning from the great teammates that I had then, from Tim [Duncan], Tony [Parker], and Manu [Ginobili]. Seeing how they approached the game — every game, win, lose, missing a shot, game-winning shot, making a bad mistake. I guess just growing up, being in these moments before. If you’re playing a championship game in high school, you kind of get the same feeling.”


Leonard isn’t as robotic as he seems. His teammates swear there’s an engaging personality there, but his literal approach to questions, his monotone voice, his reluctance to smile has made him the most enigmatic player in the NBA. You don’t see Leonard on Instagram or Twitter. He doesn’t do many commercials.

He left Jordan Brand to sign a shoe deal with lesser regarded New Balance. He’s a man that has one personality gear, so much so that it’s hard to determine whether this whole journey is really enjoyable. He says it is.

“I just try to take my experiences and just keep moving forward and just have fun,” he said. “Like I said, just basketball at this point. Win, lose or draw, I’m still going to be living, still got a family. This is all for fun.

“But for me, it’s just the way I play. Until we win the game or it’s all done, then I’ll show some emotion. But I want to stay even-keeled while I’m going through it.”

It’s rare to see an athlete refrain from pointing to himself or gyrating after every made 3-pointer, dunk, or even steal. It’s hard to comprehend an athlete who relishes his old-school ways, who doesn’t react to the “it’s all about me” environment around him.


“I don’t think everybody [expresses a lot of emotion],” he said. “I think it’s more paid attention to when I do something good. The camera will go to me or see what I’m doing at that exact moment. But when I watch games from the past, from Kobe [Bryant] or Shaq [O’Neal] or Mike [Jordan], they always didn’t just go nuts. They made big shots and sometimes they pump their fist and walk back to the bench. So I just think because I really don’t do it a lot, a whole lot, like everybody else does.”

What Leonard did reveal is that he enjoys being the primary option of the Raptors’ offense. He relishes being the focal point, despite his emotional reluctance. Perhaps he felt he was tabbed as a “system guy” in San Antonio, which is one of the reasons he wanted out.

“Pretty much other than my first year, I just pretty much started having fun. When you come in as a rookie, you’re trying to stay in the league and you don’t know what the league is about or if you’re going to stick,” he said. “After that, I pretty much have been trying to enjoy the game. Obviously, it’s a lot more fun when you’re getting plays called for you and you’re able to live your childhood dream in being able to shoot the ball 20 times a game. The offense is coming toward you rather than just being out there doing one job.”


What has perhaps been the biggest difference between this year’s Raptors and those previous teams is being prepared and focused for the moment. Behind Leonard, they have refused to succumb to the playoff pressure, even when they trailed, 2-0, to the Milwaukee Bucks.

“Yeah. I would be lying to you if I said it didn’t [rub off on us],” point guard Kyle Lowry said of Leonard’s steadiness. “And also Marc [Gasol] and Danny [Green] and [coach] Nick [Nurse]. I think Nick honestly yelled at us twice the whole year. That’s legit: twice the whole year. And that’s a long season to only yell at a team twice. I think that’s just Nick and Kawhi and Marc and Danny — everyone is just kind of going out there and staying even-keeled.”

We’ll find out in about a month whether Leonard enjoyed Toronto enough to stay long term, but the one thing he emphasized is he enjoys the spotlight and revels in the pressure because thriving in the moment is fun. You’ll just have to take his word for it.

“You have to figure out a way to have fun. Like I said, being a child, I didn’t envision myself just being in a box in the NBA,” he said. “But once that time comes, I feel like you’re just having more fun and you’re able to experience the game and grow as a player, making plays, seeing double teams, and finding other guys. It just gets more fun. You’re able to do a lot more.”


Gary Washburn can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GwashburnGlobe.