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Column: Kawhi Leonard’s biggest impact won’t be on the basketball court

Clippers Kawhi Leonard gives backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Clippers Kawhi Leonard gives backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in Los Angeles.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

The final preparations for the Cloverdale Elementary assembly were almost complete. The students were gathered outside in a courtyard near the cafeteria, the balloons were all filled, the banners up.

The sound tech had already tested the mic earlier but must’ve decided to double check the speaker quality by blasting some music. He chose the song of the summer, “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, and as the bridge began playing, the guest of honor, Kawhi Leonard, strolled in.

Can’t nobody tell me nothin’
You can’t tell me nothin’
Can’t nobody tell me nothin’
You can’t tell me nothin’

Had another superstar walked through the door, there might have been a small acknowledgment of the moment. Maybe a little dance or perhaps a subtle mouthing of the words. After all, if there were any NBA player no one could tell anything to it would be Leonard, who in capturing his second Finals MVP trophy in June also ended his second NBA dynasty.

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Then, in an unprecedented move for a player of his caliber, chose to sign with the Clippers. Not drafted by or traded to but went to, thus reshaping the league’s power structure while also rewriting the narrative about one of the most hapless franchises in all of sports.

Hell yeah Leonard had earned the right to walk in on the song that has spent the most weeks at No. 1 in history like he owned the joint. But instead, the prodigal son humbly walked in like he owed the joint.

Clippers Kawhi Leonard stands with representatives from Baby 2 Baby as he gives backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Clippers Kawhi Leonard stands with representatives from Baby 2 Baby as he gives backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

“You all know how hard it is,” he told the students. “So I wanted to start here today by giving away a million backpacks to Southern California. That’s one of my goals this year, to help on and off the court in the right way, and I feel like this is a great way to start. And I hope you guys know that the Clippers have your back.”

Last year, more than 80% of K-12 students in the LAUSD system were eligible for free or reduced lunch, meaning they are either from a low-income family, homeless or in the foster program.

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In many cases, backpacks are not only used for school supplies and books but for clothes and toiletries, as far too often students are forced to carry all of their possessions with them each day in the event where they sleep tonight is different from where they slept last night.

In addition, families are sometimes forced to decide between buying book bags and school supplies and utilities, food and even rent. The scenario is similar to that of Moreno Valley and Inglewood, which is why Leonard and the Clippers decided to supply bags for all of the students in those three districts — one to meet the need but two, so no student would be stigmatized.

“I want to help kids with their education, to hopefully inspire them to keep moving forward despite the obstacles,” he said. “And I wanted to start with my old school because this is where it all started at for me.

“Just being here, remembering the time I used to play five-on-five with the other kids, or just joking around at lunch. … I’ve been in this cafeteria many times in the past with so many memories. … I just wanted to help the next generation and I wanted to start here at home.”

A student looks at a card of Clippers Kawhi Leonard after he gave backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
A student looks at a card of Clippers Kawhi Leonard after he gave backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

So much has been said about Leonard over the years and much of it centers around this narrative that he doesn’t have a lot to say. And maybe in terms of number of words that is true.

I spent half the day with him, journeying between Moreno Valley and Watts, and he’s not a big talker. But that shouldn’t be confused with not having anything to say. Leonard’s words are precise and his thoughts clear.

In a world dominated by social media and clickbait it is easy to see how some could mischaracterize Leonard’s lack of idle chitchat with being boring. But what exactly is boring about meaningful impact?

He spent less than one minute at the lectern talking with the fourth-graders sitting on the floor in the Cloverdale cafeteria — many of them wearing his No. 2 Clippers jersey — and I didn’t see a pair of eyes that was not glued to him. However there was one pair of eyes filled with tears.

The Clippers and Tyronn Lue have agreed on terms to have the former Cavaliers coach join the staff as a top assistant.
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“To have someone like him come back and meet with the students means so much,” Moreno Valley superintendent Martinez Kedziora said, barely able to hold back his emotions. “Our kids don’t get many opportunities to meet people like this, let alone someone who actually came from this area and went on to do remarkable things. I know this is a day that will inspire so many and a day they will never forget.

“I am just so grateful he is proud of where he came from.”

Leonard’s fifth-grade teacher, Patricia Bitetto, echoed the sentiment.

“I can’t believe he came back to do this,” she said. “Our students go through so much and to start the school year off with not only the bags but him here to give them to [the kids] … it’s just incredible.”

Clippers mascot “Chuck” high fives students before Kawhi Leonard gives backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Clippers mascot “Chuck” high fives students before Kawhi Leonard gives backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Bitetto said that Leonard wasn’t very talkative in class but he was one of the kindest, nicest students she ever had.

“Every year the fifth-graders played the staff in basketball and he was so excited about that,” said Bitetto, who told me she didn’t know Leonard was in the NBA until he signed with the Clippers. “He literally had been looking forward to it for years.”

Leonard told me he didn’t remember his former teacher by name but did remember her once he saw her face. He also remembered the former classmates who were foster kids who helped shape his desire to give back.

“I knew kids that didn’t have money for lunch, didn’t have a back pack, didn’t have school supplies,” he said. “I was always one of those guys who would lend out a pencil or notebook paper or gave someone money for food or shared mine. This is what I’m doing now, just on a bigger level.

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“I want to get more involved in education outside of this.”

Leonard talked about helping high schoolers get into college, funding entrance exams, even opening a community center so kids had somewhere to go after school.

He spoke eloquently about his desire to not only give back but to be hands-on in the process and more importantly, do so where he came from.

In fact, when I asked him what he wanted people to remember about him beyond basketball he said: “I want people to remember me as someone who remembered where he came from and tried his best to give back.”

Students hold backpacks from Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard after he gave backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Students hold backpacks from Clippers’ Kawhi Leonard after he gave backpacks away to students at One Hundred Seventh Street Elementary School on Tuesday in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles.
(Patrick T. Fallon / For The Times)

Not a whole lot of words, but a whole lot of impact.

This community venture with Leonard is par for the course for Steve Ballmer’s Clippers. The franchise has donated millions in partnership with the mayor’s office to refurbish basketball courts, help poor students with vision exams and even strengthen programs that supplied classroom aid to some of the areas most neediest schools.

“This is not a money story,” said Gillian Zucker, the team’s president of business operations. “The cost is nothing compared to the impact. And impact is what mattered to him most. He wanted to do something with a large scope and he was adamant that we started where he started. That speaks to what he’s all about more than anything.”

As the day started there was a little boy with his long thin arms wrapped around his grandfather’s waist, his hazelnut-hued face buried in the large round belly in front of him.

There was chatter, car horns and all sorts of noises all around, but you got the sense that during the few seconds of the embrace that the little boy didn’t hear any of it. No, for him there was only peace. Then he let go, looked up into his grandfather’s eyes, smiled and ran inside.

“It’s the first day of school,” he yelled as he faded into the crowd, clearly more excited than hesitant. Just imagine his joy when the school’s most famous alumnus reached down to hand him a brand new backpack to start the year.

When Leonard announced he was joining the Clippers, many of us rightfully focused on what this meant for the league. Tuesday that little boy and about a million other students discovered what that meant to them.


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