Kawhi Leonard’s junior high teachers have a Clippers reunion
One day in 2004, Jahi Garner left his classroom at Palm Middle School in Moreno Valley and approached a tall boy he taught in eighth-grade algebra.
The student turned his work in on time, was respectful toward teachers and coaches and unfailingly kept to himself. “A teacher’s dream,” as one of Garner’s colleagues said. Though Garner taught him, he didn’t really know him — certainly not what future aspirations drove him.
“‘What are you thinking about doing?’” Garner asked.
“‘Not sure yet,’” Kawhi Leonard said. “‘But I’m working on something.’”
A clue to what that something might be could be heard every day. Wherever Leonard went, his arrival was preceded by the bounce-bounce-bounce of the basketball he dribbled throughout the hallways.
“You were not going to see Kawhi,” said Shamish Irving, an eighth-grade language arts teacher at Palm, “without that ball.”
Fifteen years after he left middle school, Leonard’s control of the basketball has transformed him into one of the NBA’s most controlling figures, a two-time champion and Finals MVP by the age of 28 whose actions — from leading, then spurning, San Antonio, to crowning Toronto, all while toppling dynastic runs by Miami and Golden State and choosing the Clippers last summer as a free agent over the Lakers and Raptors — have altered the trajectories of multiple franchises.
By choosing the Clippers, Leonard set off a Southern California homecoming whose ripple effect is still felt inside his former school on Slawson Avenue, 66 miles east of Staples Center.
“The kids now want to live up to that legend,” Irving said. “They feel like because he’s graced his presence at our middle school they now have something to aspire to.”
Leonard, in turn, has not shied from the attention his homecoming has created in his hometown, saying he hopes the gifts are used “to become who you want to become when you grow up.”
“Education is very important,” Leonard said. “We weren’t told too much of that when we were growing up. You had some households that were focused on it, but just me being a public figure, I just wanted to be able to shed light on that.”
Invited as guests of Leonard, his former teachers were among a group of eight from Palm who attended Friday’s Clippers victory over Denver at Staples Center, where they received backpacks, laptops and school supplies as part of a larger, team-led campaign dubbed “Kawhi It.” Before tipoff, they stood in line to high-five him as he ran onto the court.
For much of the arena, the night was about a window into the Clippers’ championship potential after their 29-point dismantling of Denver, a team they could meet in the postseason.
But for the Moreno Valley contingent watching from Section 207, it was impossible to watch Leonard and not consider the past and its similarities to Leonard’s present.
The cornrows are not the only thing that have endured.
“It’s like time stood still,” Irving said. “Even though he was 13 at the time he was here, he was before his time. He was just an old man, just an old soul, really. He was very mature for his age, a leader.”
Gayle DiCarlantonio, who taught home room, math and science, remembers the impression made when a sixth-grade Leonard intently approached her after receiving an unexpectedly low grade.
“He asked me, ‘What can I do so I don’t have that C?’” DiCarlantonio said. “He was super focused on doing the best he could. You could kind of tell. … You knew whatever he chose he would be successful at it.”
Just as Clippers coach Doc Rivers found Leonard’s “maniacal” practice habits rubbing off on teammates within weeks of the season’s start, Leonard’s former teachers recall his head-down, business-first work ethic influencing his peers, keeping them on task. When class ended, Leonard often ran to the basketball court to work on what he couldn’t practice in the hallways.
Fans attending the Clippers game Friday will each receive a backpack with a note from Leonard to use the bag as an agent of change for a good cause.
“Some days I did have a ball and some days I didn’t,” Leonard said, but what was constant was “the focus of it, wanting to get better, wanting to work on my handle.”
Interactions with his parents revealed the source of that drive, Irving said.
“His dad was definitely very intent so you could tell, he was his dad’s twin,” Irving said. “I do remember the very close-knit relationship he and his dad had. Very, very close-knit and definitely someone you could tell he wanted to live up to, his dad’s expectations.”
Mark Leonard was shot and killed outside his Compton car wash on Jan. 18, 2008, in a murder that remains unsolved. One day later, a 16-year-old Leonard scored 17 points for Riverside King against Dominguez, then broke down in the arms of his mother, Kim Robertson, following the game.
Many from Palm have traced his career at every step since: high school state champion, a first-round draft pick, NBA titles in 2014 and 2019.
Early in his career, DiCarlantonio thought she recognized a player wearing cornrows. When she heard the distinctive first name, she knew it was the same student who liked video games.
“We’re blessed to have known him,” DiCarlantonio said. “We can say, ‘That was our student once.’”
When: 12:30 p.m., Sunday
On the air: TV: ABC; Radio: 570
Update: Philadelphia won the teams’ first meeting Feb. 11 but center Joel Embiid and guard Ben Simmons, who combined for 52 points in that game, will not play because of injuries. Without Embiid (shoulder) and Simmons (back), the 76ers will lean heavily on former Clipper Tobias Harris (19.2 points per game) for scoring. The 76ers are an NBA-best 28-2 at home but 9-21 on the road.
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