OAKLAND — Kawhi Leonard is back where he wanted to be.
Where he belongs.
On the basketball court, yes — and there were people inside and outside the league who questioned if he ever would really get back out there in a meaningful way after missing most of last season with a quadriceps tendon injury.
More than just being on the court, Leonard was all the way back, looking like the best player in the world. He was back on the court in the NBA’s biggest stage, the NBA Finals, and when it was all over he was holding the Finals MVP trophy. Again. He was drinking champagne again.
It was redemption.
“Last year, a lot of people were doubting me,” Leonard said in a night where he let his guard down (relatively). “They thought I was either faking an injury or didn’t want to play for a team. That was disappointing to me that that was out in the media, because I love the game of basketball. Like I always say, if we’re not playing this game, if we’re hurt, I mean you’re down.
“So me just going through that, and I just knew that I would have to make myself happy and no one else. And I have to trust myself. And whatever, it doesn’t matter what anybody has to say about me. I know who I am as a person, I know how I feel, and always just trust yourself.”
Leonard and his team clashed with the Spurs a year ago about treatment for the injury, leading to a breakdown of trust and, eventually, Leonard forcing his way out of the San Antonio. He gave the Spurs a list of destinations, and the Toronto Raptors were not on it. Raptors GM Masai Ujiri rolled the dice anyway, traded Toronto’s best and most beloved player to land Leonard, and bet this roster could get over the playoff hump previous Raptors teams could not.
That bet hinged on Leonard buying in, which he did from Day 1.
“We all know where my destinations were. But obviously like I said, when I was there on my opening day meeting that I was focused on the now, and I wanted to make history here and that’s all I did, “Leonard said, still drenched in champagne. “I just, I’m still playing basketball no matter what jersey I have on. And the guys here have been making runs in the playoffs before I came, so I know they were a talented team. And I just came in with the right mindset, let’s go out and win ball games.
“I texted Kyle [Lowry] probably a day later — or the day that I got traded and told him I said let’s go out and do something special. I know your best friend left, I know you’re mad, but let’s make this thing work out. And we are here today.”
For Leonard, his return was about the process, but that process became about patience — not rushing back before he was ready, before he could be the player who could hoist up a Finals MVP trophy again.
“Last summer was tough. I was still rehabbing and just trusted the process, really, with myself. I told myself I would be back,” Leonard said. “I wasn’t going to come back until I could be the player I am today. I wanted to come back in the same shape and form without coming out playing five games and then re-injuring something. I wanted to be able to play the season — or what did I this year. I wasn’t able to play 82, but I’m happy that I got to the 60 games.
“Just being able to win this championship this year is just something special for me because you know how the last year everybody was looking at me, and I stayed true to myself, and I had a great support system. And once I got here to Toronto they understood everything and kept moving from there.”
Moving all the way to the stage where Adam Silver hands out the hardware for the NBA’s best.
Exactly where he belongs.