One free throw would've iced the game, iced the NBA championship, iced the champagne. One freaking free throw. But Kawhi Leonard missed, and moments later the ball found Ray Allen behind the three-point line. He didn't miss.
A long hot summer followed, giving a young player plenty of time to curl up in a ball and paint the walls black and close the curtains and simply shut out the world. This didn't happen to Leonard. Frustration? Sure, he had plenty of that. Some sleepless nights, too. He's human. He's a competitor. He wanted that ring, that moment of glory, that free throw in the final seconds of regulation in Game 6 to clinch another title for the Spurs. But the way they lost the NBA Finals in seven games wasn't torture to someone who knows what real pain feels like.
"When I lost my dad," Leonard said the other day, "it prepared me for anything I'd ever face the rest of my life."
"Missing a free throw didn't hurt as much as that."
So excuse him for not breaking down after the Spurs lost a heartbreaker to Miami and collapsing into the arms of his mother and a pool of his tears. He has been there and done that already.
In January 2008, Mark Leonard was shot and murdered just outside a South-Central L.A. car wash where he worked. This wasn't someone trying to settle a beef; according to Kawhi, his father had no known enemies. It was a random act, a senseless act, probably a robbery attempt, although nobody knows because almost six years later it remains unsolved, just another inner-city fatality that didn't become a "tragedy" on the national talk shows. The family doesn't even bother to ask the authorities for leads or updates. They've given up and moved on.
Mark Leonard gave his son a basketball as a kid and taught him the game. He never missed any of Kawhi's games until the shooting. Kawhi was 16 at the time. He has been a man ever since.
"What sticks with me most," said Leonard, "is my father always knew I'd be right where I am today. He knew I'd make it. He told me that whenever I got my sneaker contract, to save him a pair in his size. Which I thought was funny because we both wore the same size."
Kawhi doesn't honor his father in a public way; there's no pointing toward the sky after a big shot or a silent prayer before tipoff or anything like that. And yet, he doesn't have to. His father is visible in everything Kawhi does and how Kawhi conducts himself. Quiet and self-assured, hard working and disciplined, Leonard doesn't fit the so-called modern-day athlete stereotype. He can't be defined, not even by his cornrows, the hair style he stubbornly refuses to change, which was trendy at first, but is now so 2005.
Leonard is hopelessly old school, which of course makes him ideal for the Spurs, a very business-like and no-nonsense group of players who embrace fundamentals and wear their "boring" label like a badge of honor.
"He's made of the same cloth as Tim Duncan," said coach Gregg Popovich. "He can make an amazing dunk and then he just turns around and runs back down the floor. There's no looking in the stands, or looking at another player, or beating his chest. We didn't make him like that. It's just who he is."
This is the season Leonard is expected to change, however. Well, at least evolve. Everything is set for him to take a generous step toward stardom, a leap similar to the one by Paul George of the Pacers, who parlayed a breakout 2012-13 season into a max-contract jackpot this summer. The two players are almost carbon copies: Small forwards with spring and length who make plays at both ends of the floor and bring all-around skills.
Leonard averaged a whisker under 12 points a game with six rebounds and 1.7 steals last season. Those are decent numbers that look even better when you consider he got most of his points on opportunity plays, since the Spurs rarely called his number. In the post-season, with Manu Ginobili struggling, Leonard rose into a major role, with 13 points, nine rebounds (amazing for a small forward) and 1.8 steals, not to mention tremendous defense in the Finals on LeBron James, who struggled with his shot for half the series.
There's one difference between Leonard and George that Leonard is quick to point out, though.
"I've still got three Hall of Famers on my team," he said. "He's pretty much their franchise player. We'll see what happens. I'm just going to work hard, do my best, get more rebounds and play better defense. Just be better all around. I'm going to have the 'kill' mentality when I step on the floor, focus on attacking and keep that mindset."
Leonard is welcomed by the Spurs' Big Three. In fact, during the playoff run, Ginobili, Duncan and Tony Parker began to defer to him at times, a sure sign of respect and a hint of what should come this season. Leonard is where Rajon Rondo was within a year or two after the Celtics brought Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen together. Rondo played his way into that group and even elevated above them on certain nights. Popovich can see that happening with Leonard.
"On the break, if he gets the rebound, he'll just go with the ball, as he should," Pop said. "Manu and Tony will just have to fill a lane. Kawhi can run a play. He can finish a play. He makes good decisions. You can trust him. He's not a turnover guy. He's not selfish. They know that. They're starting to figure out his abilities. They know what he can do, and he's just touching the surface.
"The best thing about Kawhi is he's a sponge. He collects information, he wants to be coached, he wants to be great, all the traits that great players have."
Leonard's development has been something of a surprise. He wasn't a must-have recruit coming out of high school, and at San Diego State was a skinny 6' 7" player who did most of his work in the paint (that's why Leonard is already one of the best rebounding small forwards in the league). The Spurs traded valuable reserve George Hill for Leonard on draft day and it wasn't an easy call. For a win-now team, it was risky, actually, to bring a rookie into the mix.
"I was scared to death because I knew George better than I knew Kawhi," said Pop. "I liked George -- he was a hard worker and team oriented. Kawhi was untested. And he was a two-year guy in college so there wasn't much to go on. But for us, as long as Tony was here, George would be a backup. We needed a bigger body at small forward. We were on the clock on draft night and waited right until the last moment. With 30 seconds left before our pick, we said, let's do it."
Three years later, Leonard can expect to hear his number called more often and the Spurs can expect him to be in the conversation when it's time to select All-Stars in February. At least that's the plan, anyway. Leonard is a solid rebounder, brings good shooting range (38 percent on three-pointers) and tough man-to-man defense. If he does make the leap this season, it would put the Spurs back into the championship mix and, who knows, maybe even put Kawhi back where he found himself last June, at the free throw line with a championship on the line.
Next time, the outcome could be different.
"Missing that free throw should bother him," said Pop, "but it shouldn't defeat him. It should provide fuel for the future. These things happen. Don't forget, Manu missed a free throw in that game, too. It bothers good players who care, but they have the mental aptitude to move on rather than have it defeat them. So that's where he's at."
Actually, and rather unfortunately, well before he missed that free throw, Kawhi Leonard was already an expert on dealing with devastation, more than Pop will ever know.
Andre Drummond, Detroit. The Pistons weaned him as a rookie, perhaps too much, and now Drummond will have the green light to get more playing time and show more potential. He's the most intriguing big man in the game because he'll be on the floor for an entire game instead of the 20.7 minutes of a year ago. Drummond averaged 7.6 rebounds and 1.7 blocks anyway, and did this while fighting teammate Greg Monroe on the glass. At that rate, Drummond should lead the league in rebounding and maybe blocked shots with 30-plus minutes a night. He's still a work in progress offensively, though.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago. His confidence, minutes and touches all soared last season without Derrick Rose and the theory is Butler should be even better with Rose. We'll see. We do know his energy can only help with Rose around, and that he'll get more open shots as well. Butler averaged 13 points; his range was limited, but a 16-point average this season would not be a shock.
Steph Curry, Golden State. Well, sure, his breakout came last season to a degree and especially in the playoffs. But Curry is the best active player who's never been an All-Star. If he keeps splashing long distance shots and threatens to lead the league in scoring, he could enter the MVP conversation.
Enes Kanter, Utah. Until now, he has been an overgrown goofy kid who clowned too much (especially on Twitter) and occasionally made plays. With the Jazz in full tank mode, having cleared Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap off the roster, Kanter has the middle all to himself. Having recovered from shoulder surgery and coming off a strong preseason, he'll get his chance. Whether he flourishes or flops depends on his maturity (he's 21) and work ethic. This much, we know: The talent is there.
Nik Vucevic, Orlando. He finished second in the league in rebounding (11.9) and saved the Magic in the Dwight Howard trade. An athletic but strong seven-footer with an appetite for rebounds, Vucevic is just 22 and still learning the game. He also has decent hands, so his offense should improve. Can he average 15 and 12 this season? That would put him in rare company.