The stoic, stolid and silent Kawhi Leonard rarely speaks.
Even when he does, it’s only simple, short words that he uses to express his feelings and thoughts — or lack thereof, I should say.
And when the Los Angeles Clippers superstar suffered an ACL injury in the second round of the 2021 Playoffs and missed the entirety of the team’s 2021-22 campaign, we heard even less from him.
But finally, the wait is over. All is revealed — in an exclusive interview for Fox Sports, Melissa Rohlin had a chance to talk to Leonard about his mental anguish after his season-ending, hope-stomping injury.
Exclusive for @FOXSports: I talked to Kawhi Leonard about his mental anguish after suffering an ACL injury that sidelined him during the Clippers’ promising playoff run in 2021 and all of last season.https://t.co/ANaOQWWZOB— Melissa Rohlin (@melissarohlin) October 26, 2022
Leonard, fresh off his second NBA championship and Finals MVP award, signed a three-year $103M maximum contract with the Los Angeles Clippers in 2019. He dragged with him Paul George, who the Clippers traded away their promising future of draft picks and, most notably, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander for.
The two stars joined a team of “roaches,” as then-head coach Doc Rivers named them: the team consisted of gritty, scrappy, and, at times, dirty players that, by hook or crook, fought teams until the final buzzer. And, more often than not, beat them. They were unkillable. The 2019 Clippers took the star-stacked Golden State Warriors to six games, one of which was a historic 31-point comeback, in the first round of the playoffs.
Now add a reigning Finals MVP and a silky smooth, stealthy sorcerer of the basketball in George to the equation, success was inevitable.
So is what they thought, at least.
The highly-favored Clippers blew an embarrassing 3-1 lead against the Denver Nuggets in the second round of the Playoffs. The team failed.
Leonard shot a poor 6-for-22 from the field and logged just 14 points in the win-or-go-home game. Leonard failed.
His second season quickly followed.
And on the broad shoulders of the superstar sat the hulking weight of the team’s 50 years' worth of championship expectations and aspirations.
He didn’t disappoint.
First round — against a feisty, young Luka Dončić and the Dallas Mavericks, the Clippers tripped and stumbled, barely staying alive for the do-or-die game seven. But, someway somehow, they came out on top. Leonard was there. His 28 point-effort led the team to a blowout win, sending the Clippers to the second round.
Second round — after dropping the first two games to the Utah Jazz, the Clips soon followed back with a punch of their own: they took Game Three at home. Leonard was there. He put up 34 points, 12 rebounds and 5 assists in a 26-point blowout win.
Game Four — the California native continued to find traction: his 31 points gave the Clippers a comfortable lead heading into the final minutes of the game. Until an awkward knee-to-knee collision with Joe Ingles in transition found the superstar limping toward the bench.
He still stood firm on his own legs, barely showing emotion. We thought he was okay. But he wasn’t. Leonard was no longer there.
He left his team and its playoff aspirations behind. They were so close. But in a split second, all had changed. They were no longer close.
“I feel like that first part, for me, was harder than anything,” Leonard told Rohlin of being sidelined during the team’s promising playoff run.
The Clippers, even without Leonard, rode on adrenaline.
They extended their winning streak against the Jazz to four and advanced to the Western Conference Finals. There, however, without Leonard, they were sent home in six games, their championship hopes once again destroyed.
Leonard admits that the ‘what-if’ haunted him — as it did for all Clippers fans, players, and staff alike. But that’s in the past.
493 long days later, Leonard found himself back where he belongs.
Kawhi feelin' it! pic.twitter.com/ca7v8MCvAo— LA Clippers (@LAClippers) October 21, 2022
He didn’t waste any time to make an impact: the five-time All-Star dribbled right at the recovering Juan Toscano-Anderson and leaked out just outside the paint for a quick fade-away jumper. Then in the following sequence, Leonard backed down Anderson and went to his spot for another mid-range shot. He drained both. He finished the game with 14 points on 6-for-12 shooting.
“It feels great,” Leonard said. “I’ve put in a lot of work to be the player I’ve become today. And not playing and being young is kind of devastating. But I’m back now. So I’m very happy.”
Only a few games into the 2022-23 season, it’ll take some time for Leonard to return to the MVP-caliber player he was prior to his injury. But when he eventually does find his rhythm, he’ll erase all the what-could-have-been’s in his head and paint the what-will-be’s.
And we can only hope that what he draws will be the Clippers’ first championship.