I will admit it: after the Spurs won it all in 2007 my interest in basketball gradually waned. I watched Game 6 of the 2008 Finals on the bus on the way to class, and remember reveling as the Celtics blew the Lakers out. I didn't pay attention to the 2009 season at all, and only took back an interest when the Lakers played the Celtics in Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. After that was The Decision, and the next thing I remember the sports media were acting like vultures as the Spurs got upended by the Grizzlies; afterwards reveling as the Mavericks upset LeBron James in the Finals (celebrating the Mavs winning? ha!). Then the lockout happened and I shut out b-ball for a while.
I decided to follow basketball again when the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season began. While looking at Spurs box scores I noticed this cornrow-bearing kid named Kawhi Leonard. His stats were always somehow low-key but the Spurs were somehow always in the game when he was in. I then started watching Spurs games, and realized this kid was oozing with stuff - athleticism unseen since 2005 Manu Ginobili, corner shooting like Bruce Bowen, and a quiet demeanor a la Tim Duncan.
Then the Richard Jefferson trade to Golden State happened (and like many a Spurs fans, I was ecstatic) and Gregg Popovich put him into the starting lineup, alongside Danny Green. 20 straight wins followed, and although it ended in a heartbreaking manner, I felt that the Spurs were going into the 2012-13 season much improved.
Even then, Leonard remains a mystery. There are a lot of things we do know about him - as is the fashion for prospects hyped out of high school. We DO know that he's been through a personal tragedy. We DO know that his hands dwarf Holly Mackenzie's. We DO know he has a Twitter account that has gone practically unused since he signed with the Spurs. We DO know that he just came off a 14.6 pph, 11.1 rpg series in the Finals. And yet, is so much we don't know about him.
Such as "what is he under the stoic exterior"? He makes Tim Duncan look as ornery as Kevin Garnett. When a photo of him smiling hits the site, it's a common joke among Spurs fans that the image has obviously been manipulated. We also don't know what he's gonna be in the next few years.
We DO know that he's a player, and a guy who can influence the game by simply being himself, and it seems like every time the Spurs make a run, Kawhi is there; either chipping in a steal caused by his long arms or hitting a corner 3. We don't know how much of his skill is enhanced by the Spurs system or how much it is suppressed by playing as a 4th option in an unselfish offense that values open shots over "star" possessions.
We don't know how good he's gonna be because he just turned 22 and came off a great Finals, where only LeBron James and Tim Duncan could have been considered his betters. We don't know whether his career will be defined by a missed free throw in Game 6 or how many runs he's created by being an efficient, silent two-way player, because his demeanor is unflappable just like that.
Here's to you, Kawhi Leonard, He Of The Long Arms And Large Hands, Present And Future of the Spurs, The Cornrowed One.