Kawhi Leonard has been fairly — or unfairly, depending on your perspective — characterized as an unfeeling basketball robot over the course of his NBA career. Nobody really knows the real Leonard for sure, but it’s fun to think of him as only interested in basketball and nothing else. In a league full of players trying to create their own brand, Leonard’s brand is simply “play basketball”. It’s not necessarily better than anyone else’s style, but it’s definitely different.
Leonard has been the star of these NBA Finals thus far, and we’re learning a little more about him as the series goes on. That includes some tidbits from an excellent oral history released on The Athletic by Jayson Jenks exploring Leonard’s college days.
The best section included folks close to Leonard saying he did in fact speak in short bursts and phrases, and was so locked in on one phrase that it burned into his friends’ brains.
Via The Athletic:
Gay: The most he talked was on the hard court, and Kawhi was not afraid to let you know that you weren’t going to score on him, that you couldn’t get past him or that he would score on you. Every time the ball went through the net, he just said, “Bucket. Bucket.” That was it.
Tyrone Shelley, guard: Most people say it like, “Oh, I’m about to get buckets on you.” He was just like, “Buckets. Layup.” Just one word.
LaBradford Franklin, guard: If he was grabbing a rebound, he’d say, “Give me that” or “Board man” or “Board man gets paid.”
Coach Hutson: If I heard it once, I heard it 50 times. “Board man. I’m a board man.” That’s what he said. Absolutely. “I’m a board man. Yeah, I’m a board man. Board man gets paid.” He spoke in phrases like that.
Shelley: Instead of saying, “We need to walk to the store” or “Let’s go to the store,” he’d just say, “I’m up.” When he leaves, he just says, “I’m up.”
Shelton: If he joked, it would be like one or two comments, and he’d go like, “Yeeee.” He’d make more sounds than he actually talked.
I love every characterization of Leonard that is like this. Who doesn’t love basketball? If you could play basketball as well as Leonard does, wouldn’t you be as focused as he seemingly is in this profile?
Leonard would also reportedly make his friends watch hours of Michael Jordan highlights, and challenge them to free-throw shooting contests on those Nerf mini-hoops you hang on the back of bedroom doors.
At one point, the Raptors star had to be taught to work on his help side defense. Leonard, wondering why his teammates needed help at all, responded, “They should just be able to stay in front of their man like I do.”
Board man gets paid.