The San Antonio Spurs cruised to their fifth NBA title since 1999 Sunday night, demolishing the Miami Heat in Game 5 to avenge a hard-fought Finals loss a year ago. Many of the names on the Spurs roster are the same as they have been for much of San Antonio’s extended period of dominance over the league, but this Finals marked the full emergence of a name many casual NBA fans aren’t as familiar with: it was Kawhi Leonard, not Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobli, or Tony Parker, who captured Finals MVP honors after averaging 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds over the series and finishing it off with three consecutive 20-point games and two straight double-doubles.
That Leonard took MVP honors on Sunday — Father’s Day — made the moment even more special for the 22-year-old out of San Diego State University, because six years ago his father was senselessly murdered.
“It’s a very special meaning for me, knowing that he’s gone and I was able to win a championship on Father’s Day,” Leonard told ESPN after Sunday’s game. “But I mean, I’m just happy just winning the championship. Like I told you all, my dad died six years ago, and I really wasn’t thinking about him that much.”
Leonard’s father, Mark, was working in the family’s car wash when he was shot and killed. There are no suspects in the case, and police say it likely won’t ever be solved. The details of what happened have never been clear. Leonard, a high school junior at the time of the murder, returned to the court the night after he found out his father had been killed, scored 17 points in a loss, “then broke down (and) cried in his mother’s arms,” as the Los Angeles Times’ Eric Sondheimer wrote at the time.
“Basketball is my life, and I wanted to go out there and take my mind off it,” Leonard said then. “It was real sad. My father was supposed to be at the game.”
Later, Leonard recounted how close he and his father were to Fox Sports’ Jeff Goodman. Leonard worked alongside his dad at the family-owned car wash when he wasn’t playing ball. “I felt like the world stopped,” Leonard told Goodman. “I didn’t want to believe it. It didn’t feel real to me.”
Six years later, Leonard is on the brink of stardom, if he hasn’t achieved it already. The Spurs acquired him in a trade before his rookie year, and he’s now emerged as the heir apparent to the franchise Duncan, Ginobli, and Parker have created. He attracted high praise from James, the superstar Leonard was tasked with containing throughout the series, and from Miami star Dwyane Wade. “It’s like he just played free,” Wade said after the series ended Sunday. “He’s the future of this team.”
When Goodman asked him two years ago what his father would think of him as a basketball player, when he still a budding prospect at San Diego State, Leonard replied simply: “I think he’d be proud of me.”