SoCal Welcomes Kawhi Leonard Back Home
By Dennis J. Freeman
Two-times NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard has arrived back home where he started his basketball roots.
After leading the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA title, Leonard, who starred at Canyon Springs High School (Moreno Valley) and Martin Luther King High School in Riverside during his prep days, is now an official member of the Los Angeles Clippers thanks to the three-year, $103 million contract he reportedly signed with the team.
Leonard, along with small forward Paul George, was introduced to southern California during a press conference at Green Meadows Recreation Center in South Los Angeles.
The reception for Leonard, also a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and George, a six-time NBA All-Star, was highly enthusiastic as local officials and other dignitaries celebrated the players’ arrival back to the Southland.
George, before playing his collegiate career at Fresno State, played high school basketball at Knight High School in Palmdale.
“I’m on my next journey and these guys…I think we’ve got a great future, “Leonard said. “Paul has always been a player I’ve wanted to play with.”
The most interesting dynamic of the two southern California natives being paired together is that it almost came to fruition back in Indiana when the Pacers drafted Leonard with the 15th pick in the 2011 NBA draft. But they traded him away to the San Antonio Spurs, where he would win the first of his two NBA championships.
A year earlier, George was the No. 10 selection by the Pacers in the NBA Draft.
As their respective careers have blossomed, so did their desire to play alongside one another. Leonard is excited at the prospect of finally being able to play with George, he stated during the press conference.
“When I got drafted to the Pacers, I’m like, ‘they already have a two-way player pretty much,’ but as our career moves forward, I’ll see how it develops here, how it develops. I wonder if we would have stayed in Indiana…but we’re here together in L.A., both southern Cal guys, playing right down the street with each other in the Anaheim Honda Center-not with each other-but in games one another in the championship game. I’ve been watching him since then. Now we’re on the Clippers, it’s just I think we’ve got something special. We can make history here.”
On what it means to have young people watching how he and Leonard come back to their roots, George sees it as a chance to do what was passed down to him from an NBA icon.
“For me, I grew up a Clippers fan,” George said. “As much as a Clippers fan I was, I was a Kobe (Bryant) fan. Kobe was like my idol growing up. So, I think now with what me and Kawhi can do, we need to inspire that next generation to want to go out there on the court. I think how we play as All-Stars in the NBA, where guys want to get after it on both ends, and that’s how Kobe was for me. He was a guy who didn’t care who he was matched up against, who he was playing against. He was going to beat them on both ends, and that was what I used to watching growing up. So, I think for us, we get the same opportunity to give back to the next generation.”
As far being able to work alongside the great player that Leonard has become, George doesn’t believe that will be a problem. He stated that his goal is to be part of a ballclub aiming for higher achievements.
“For me, it was a chance to come back home and be a part of something that was already special,” George said. “I’m not a guy to in here with an ego, with…I’m the man. I want to be part of something special. I want to help build something special. This is surreal to be home and do it for a team that I grew up and wanted to be a part of ever since they missed on me in the (NBA) draft…that wasn’t on Steve’s (Clippers owner Steve Ballmer) time.”