It was the first day of June basketball camp at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, about 90 kilometres east of Los Angeles. Of course there was talent on the court, but the next Kawhi Leonard? A long shot.
Coaching a star of that calibre was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, said Jeff Dietz, who was part of the coaching staff when Leonard landed at the California school in 2007.
“You know, it’s hard to sit here and say that I thought he was going to be arguably [among] the best five players in the world,” said Dietz, who is now the head coach of the high school team. “But we knew he was special.”
Dietz said one of the first things that struck him when Leonard arrived was the size of the young player’s hands.
“Everybody knows about his hands, right?” Dietz said of the Raptors star, who has been instrumental in driving the Toronto team to the NBA Finals. “The span of his hands are the span of a seven foot guy and his wingspan is that of a seven-three guy.”
After practice, tasked with picking up loose basketballs, Leonard was able to palm them up with one hand as though they were tennis balls. But despite his physical gifts, Dietz said some college scouts were put off by his low-key demeanour.
“Kawhi was not the a guy who’s out there pumping his chest and and getting all crazy,” Dietz said.
Instead, Dietz said, Leonard let his game do the talking for him.
“When you put a kid on a high school basketball court that can score from all five positions, who can defend all five positions, as a coach you can kind of just need to get out of the way,” Dietz said.
Work ethic — and lots of drive
But what made Leonard special wasn’t just his versatility or his big hands, it was his drive, Dietz said.
A decade after Leonard graduated, stories of his legendary work ethic — how he would get up at 5 a.m. to practice before school, then drill after the team’s daily practice — are inspiring the school’s current players.
Fifteen-year-old Kenneth Clayton’s brother played with Leonard. Clayton said his brother was full of stories about how hard his teammate worked at his game, a lesson the teen said transcends basketball.
“For me that’s saying that from anywhere, and anyplace, anyone can get better,” Clayton said.
As Leonard and the Raptors take on Oakland’s Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, Clayton and many of the students at the school find themselves cheering for a team based in another country, against a team from their own state.
“I’m going for the Raptors,” Clayton said. “I don’t know if they’ll win, but I’m still going for them.”
The staff and students at the high school were admittedly conflicted in April during the Raptors first-round series with Milwaukee, because Tony Snell, who also starred with Leonard at King in 2009, played for the Bucks. Snell scored a playoff career high 19 points against the Raptors in Game 4, but the Bucks lost the series in six games.
Now, Dietz said, the high school is firmly behind Leonard.
“We want him to know that the second biggest fan base of the Toronto Raptors are in Riverside,” Dietz said.
But for how much longer?
Rumours are swirling that Leonard might not opt to extend his contract with the Raptors for another year, and choose instead to enter free agency.
Two Los Angeles-based NBA teams are vying for his signature, and seem willing to go to great lengths to convince the California native to come home. The L.A. Clippers were recently fined $50,000 US for violating the league’s anti-tampering rule when coach Doc Rivers compared Leonard to Michael Jordan in a TV appearance.
Jim Alexander, a Riverside-based columnist for the Southern California News Group who has covered Leonard since his high school days, said he thinks it’s unlikely Leonard will be swayed by the glitz and glamour of playing in Tinseltown.
“He doesn’t seem to be in it for the fame or the glory or the money, although you know he’s going to get handsomely paid this summer,” Alexander said.
Even though many Southern Californians are hoping Leonard will eventually join the pantheon of statues outside the Staples Center that immortalize L.A. basketball heroes like Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal, Alexander isn’t so sure.
“I think he will stay in Toronto,” Alexander said, though he’s quick to add it’s just a hunch.
“I just think given his nature, given his priorities, he seems to have enjoyed it in Toronto,” the columnist said. “Coming back home to Southern California, that’s a powerful lure. But you get back home and then all of a sudden you have all of your friends bugging you for tickets and whatnot, so I don’t know.”
Surprisingly, former King basketball player Maurice Jones said he would be fine with seeing Leonard stay in Toronto.
Jones was in Grade 8 when he saw Leonard lead the King High Wolves to one of two southern California basketball titles.
“He dunked it on somebody,” Jones said with a laugh. “I already knew he was going to be amazing. The moment I’d seen him play, I was like, this guy’s gonna be a superstar no matter what.”
After Jones’s contract with a basketball team in Argentina ended earlier this year, he returned to Riverside and is now helping out his old coach at the basketball camp. Of course he would love to see Leonard play in person in Los Angeles, Jones said. But he thinks Leonard should stay put.
“It’s always nice to come home, but if you’re winning titles at a place and building a new legacy over there I might as well just stay over there,” Jones said.
Whether the Raptors will actually take that title is an open question. After a big win in Oakland on Wednesday night, Toronto is leading the series 2-1 going into Game 4.
Back at the basketball camp, as the first day came to an end, the kids gathered in a circle, where Dietz led them in a cheer.
“1-2-3 Kawhi!” they shouted in unison.
As the series continues this week, many of these children from Riverside will be watching — and cheering for — the Raptors and the team’s quiet leader.
“We’re jumping on that bandwagon and supporting him,” Dietz said. “So I hope somewhere down deep inside he feels it.”