June 15, 2014 — Kawhi Leonard sat at the podium donning an ill-fitted hat, his shirt soaked in champagne, and flanked by the flashiest of podium partners.
“I didn’t think at all that I was about to win MVP of the Finals,” he said, sitting beside the Bill Russell award.
Leonard, then a quiet 22-year-old who had not even made an all-star team, took the world by storm with his overwhelming defensive display on LeBron James. He was the hidden gem that emerged to help the San Antonio Spurs exact revenge and topple the Miami Heat dynasty, a team that was vying for their third consecutive NBA championship.
Fast forward five years, and it all just feels like déjà vu.
Leonard, now 27-years-old but equally as subdued, plopped himself in front of hundreds of cameras and gave a small wince. After 939 minutes of playoff basketball, Leonard had destroyed yet another modern dynasty. He had finished taking down the Golden State Warriors, a team also aiming for their third straight title.
“Obviously I didn’t come out in this series and try to win it [Finals MVP]. It was our whole group collectively,” Leonard said. “I wanted to make history here, and that’s all I did.”
Although he remains the most humble superstar in the NBA, Leonard finally managed to somewhat acknowledge his accomplishments. He just completed one of the single greatest individual postseason runs in league history. He led the Toronto Raptors to their first ever NBA championship. He became a two-time champion and a two-time Finals MVP. The only other guys to do that for different teams? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and LeBron James. Individual and franchise history was made on Thursday night.
Despite Leonard’s play in 2014, the narrative of the Spurs’ win revolved around their story of redemption, led by their core trio of Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, and Tony Parker. It was a beautiful endnote for a legendary group to reach the pinnacle of basketball once more after many thought that their time had passed following a heartbreaking loss to Miami the year prior. Sports, and the media that covers it, possess a peculiar shortness of memory.
Which again, brings us back to Leonard.
His championship on Thursday night capped a year that in hindsight reads more like a fairytale than reality. Leonard fell to the backburner of the twenty four-seven NBA news cycle during last season in which he played only nine games for the Spurs amidst a disconnect over the severity and treatment of a lingering quad issue. He was vilified after sitting out and then demanded a trade as he reached an impasse with the organization.
Anti-Leonard sentiments trickled out between Spurs’ coaches and players. Of course, Leonard said nothing. Radio silence. So often Leonard had allowed his play do the talking, yet now he didn’t even have that to speak on his behalf. Instead there was a void that was left to be happily filled by talking heads.
Was he even injured? Did he quit on his team? Is he still the same player?
The NBA world moved on and Leonard was left in the rearview mirror. Once he was traded to Toronto, a franchise best known for their purple jerseys and more recently as LeBron James’ whipping boys, he was thrust even deeper into obscurity. Leonard was now an afterthought.
It all set up for a beautiful ‘F-You’ year (as Fred VanVleet would later describe Leonard’s game this postseason).
“A lot of people doubted me, thought I was faking an injury or thought I didn’t want to play for a team,” said Leonard said on Thursday. “I know who I am as a person.”
Within a year, tweets like these:
Kawhi Leonard has no desire to play in Toronto, league source tells ESPN.
— Chris Haynes (@ChrisBHaynes) July 18, 2018
Were replaced with tweets like these:
Kawhi is Finals MVP
— (((Eric Koreen))) (@ekoreen) June 14, 2019
“Just being able to win this championship this year is just so special for me. You know how last year everybody was looking at me, and I stayed true to myself. I had a great support system and once I got to Toronto they understood everything and kept moving from there,” said Leonard.
Along the journey towards their ultimate destination, Leonard and the Raptors were continually disregarded in one form or another. They held the stink of the ‘same old Raptors’ mantra for an unreasonably long time. On paper, this team was stacked and certainly did not resemble an underdog. Yet, the outside perception, along with the fatalistic dread Toronto fans possess, thrust them into the underdog role. Every moment that non-Leonard teammates slipped up, pandemonium broke loose that they’d still manage to fail despite having Leonard on their team.
Even when the Raptors continued to surge towards the top of the Eastern Conference and establish themselves as legitimate contenders, chatter would trickle out that ‘none of this matters because Leonard is going to Los Angeles’. The load management facade was just a way to pander to Leonard, akin to grovelling at the man’s feet. Their efforts were all for naught, he was destined to leave within the year with nothing to show for it. Now, even if he does decide to bolt July 1, there is a big fat stinkin’ Larry O’Brien Trophy hanging out in Canada that will forever highlight Leonard’s impact on this franchise.
“I knew I had to make myself happy and no one else, and I had to trust myself,” he said.
Leonard played the entire postseason with a unique level of trust in his abilities. He asserted control over proceedings in a myriad of forms. One day he’d drop 40 points, the next day he’d sit back and facilitate more, or lock in defensively against the likes of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler. Leonard made the right plays, the winning plays, and knew what the outcome would be.
Well, almost every outcome. There was one that he did not foresee.
“I come out and play the right way. I’m not trying to make headlines,” said Leonard.
Trust me, there will be plenty of headlines moving forward. Every single one of them positive, and every single one of them deserved.