Leonard's high school coach says Raptors star has always had killer instinct

By The Canadian Press
May 6, 2019 - 3:00pm

TORONTO — When Kawhi Leonard watched his clutch three-point shot drop through the hoop on Sunday with all the emotion of a hired gun, Tim Sweeney wasn't surprised.

The California high school coach had seen that death stare before.

"Things don't faze him," Sweeney said during a break between classes on Monday. "He never gets overexcited, never loses control.

"What you see in Kawhi is what he's always had: first in the gym, last to leave, hardest worker, ice in his veins."

Leonard's shot over Joel Embiid with 1:01 to play on Sunday night all but sealed one of the biggest victories in Raptors history, tying their best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal series against Philadelphia at two wins apiece, and sending the team back to Toronto for Tuesday's Game 5 with a bit of breathing room.

Leonard is having one of the greatest post-seasons in NBA history. Through four games against Philly, he's averaging 38 points on 62 per cent shooting.

Sweeney likes to talk about the first time he set eyes on Leonard, who transferred to Martin Luther King high school in Riverside, Calif., before his junior year.

"Kawhi's first day here at King, we rolled the balls out and just let them play a little pickup. I already knew I had a loaded team, I knew we were going to be very, very good," Sweeney said.

Still, Sweeney was taken aback by the "long, gangly" Leonard, and immediately called his dad Tim Sr., a hall of fame high school coach.

"I said 'You've got to get down here because we have an NBA player in our midst,' and he came on down and he said 'Yup, I agree 100 per cent.' I told some fellow coaches, friends, they all thought I was crazy.

"And it wasn't just the athleticism, but what he was doing on the floor. The greatest of the great players see the game different from everybody else. It's such a reaction game, they see it and react quicker, and do things that others aren't capable of doing."

Leonard played football in his freshman year of high school, corralling the ball as a receiver and free safety with his size-XL hands. Leonard didn't play organized basketball until his sophomore year, and didn't choose to focus on the round-ball game until Marvin Lea, a Pepperdine guard and Riverside King grad, spotted him playing and told him he could be great.

Despite excelling at King, Leonard had few scholarship offers when he entered his senior season. San Diego State was the first school to show any real interest, and Leonard committed to them before the major-conference programs began to take notice.

"The former UCLA coach apologized to me personally saying 'Kawhi should've been a Bruin,'" Sweeney said. "Loyalty means a lot to Kawhi. That's why he went (to San Diego)."

Riverside King was scheduled to play the marquee matchup of the Pangos Tournament at UCLA's Pauley Pavilion the day after Leonard's dad Mark was shot and killed at the Compton car wash he owned.

"I spoke to Kawhi on the phone and I said 'You don't have to play, you can take as much time off as you need, we're there for you in whatever capacity you need,'" Sweeney said.

Leonard played, managing 17 points despite an emotional pre-game moment of silence that was unexpected.

"He was ready to play, and then before the tipoff the idiots at UCLA, who I'd told not to do it, gave a moment of silence for his father," Sweeney said, still bristling at the memory. "I thought 'You idiots.' He broke down a little bit. I ended up giving him a hug. I chewed them out after, I was pissed. It was a nice honour, but he didn't need that being a young man."

After the game, the six-foot-seven junior cried in his mom Kim's arms.

Leonard's lack of emotion on the court is talked about almost as much as his game.

Former NBA coach-turned-broadcaster Hubie Brown questioned Raptors coach Nick Nurse on that very subject before Sunday's win.

"Like this guy's out there doing it with like no expression on his face at all," Nurse said. "That's just who he is. I like it a lot. I think there's no time for any types of celebrations. There's work to do. You score a bucket and you've gotta start guarding. You win a game, and you've gotta play another one.

"This is, to borrow a phrase that everybody uses, a grind. These things are grinders and being even-keeled, professional, hard-working, tough mentality is what it needs on each game and each possession, really, on both ends."

Danny Green said he and Leonard learned about keeping calm in the moment, the pressure-cooker post-season moment, in their years playing in San Antonio.

And with his mechanical disposition, Leonard fit in well in San Antonio alongside man-statue Tim Duncan.

"That's just Kawhi's personality," Green said of Leonard, who he arrived with in last summer's blockbuster deal for DeMar DeRozan. "I don't think he gets too overexcited or too underexcited or worried about anything. I think he just sees it as basketball and plays the game.

"Obviously he sees time and situations, but, whatever else he's able to play his game, take his shots, do it at his pace and if he makes them, great. For him and for us. And if he misses 'em, I don't think he'll get too upset about it."

Sweeney marvels at the man and player Leonard, a two-time defensive player of the year and the MVP of the 2014 NBA Finals, has become.

All the credit goes to Leonard.

"He's a student of the game," said Sweeney, who still teaches but no longer coaches at Riverside King. "He studied Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and usually every summer he singled in on a couple moves from different players and worked on them so relentlessly as well as his other ones that they become reactionary in a game, which is very hard to do.

"I'm very proud of his continued success. And that's all on him."

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press

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