The last time Riverside King and Compton Dominguez played in a high school basketball game was Jan. 19 at Pauley Pavilion, and Kawhi Leonard was grieving.
The 6-foot-7 junior forward managed to score 17 points for King in a 68-60 loss, then broke down and cried in his mother’s arms, releasing all his emotions from learning 24 hours earlier that his father had been shot to death.
It was a scene with so much sorrow and distress that I turned my head and walked away, not wanting to violate a private moment played out in public near the west tunnel at Pauley.
The next time I saw Leonard was Thursday night at Woodland Hills Taft, where he scored 22 points in King’s 83-82 overtime victory over the top-seeded Toreadors in a Southern California Regional Division I semifinal playoff game.
His smile had returned, along with his three-point shooting form, and his resiliency was visible for all to see.
“Basketball helps me take my mind off things, picking me up every day when I’m feeling down,” Leonard said.
His father, Mark Leonard, 43, was shot and killed on a Friday night in Compton at his car wash. Det. Frank Salerno of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department said there has been no arrest and no motive has been found for the shooting.
The night after the shooting, Kawhi decided to play against Dominguez.
“Basketball is my life, and I wanted to go out there and take my mind off it,” he said. “It was real sad. My father was supposed to be at the game.”
In the ensuing weeks, coaches, teammates, friends and family members rallied around Leonard.
“We all tried to be there for him,” Coach Tim Sweeney said.
But Leonard’s performances were not the same. He was a 16-year-old dealing with one of the most traumatic experiences one can imagine, the death of a parent.
“He’s a great shooter,” Sweeney said. “He was shooting 45% from three-point range until his father was killed. He’s been trying to get his game back. That’s what has come back during the playoffs. He’s elevated his game back to where it was.”
With King’s semifinal victory, the Wolves (32-2) earned a rematch against Dominguez (31-2) tonight at 8 at the Sports Arena, with the winner going to next Saturday’s state Division I title game at Arco Arena in Sacramento. Leonard is averaging 17.2 points and has made 54 three-pointers for the Southern Section Division I-A champions.
“I just practice it,” he said. “It’s my bread and butter.”
King has a team filled with quality athletes. Eric Wise, a 6-5 senior, keeps turning loose balls under the basket into points. J.J. Campbell, a junior guard, keeps flying through the air as if he has wings. George Fields, a senior guard, keeps throwing up threes.
The fact King won three games this week against City Section powers Taft, Westchester and Los Angeles Fremont means the Wolves are ready for anybody and anything.
“We wanted to come out and get some respect and represent” the Inland Empire, Leonard said.
Leonard will be remembering and honoring his father tonight.
“He’d be very proud,” he said. “I try to play as hard as I can each night. That’s what my father wanted me to do.”
There’s another message he hasn’t forgotten from his father.
“Keep your grades up, and the colleges will come,” he said.
Leonard is on his way to becoming a Pacific 10 Conference recruit, with UCLA among the schools starting to evaluate his performance.
But most of all, right now it’s about team, and Leonard is grateful for the support he has received.
“We’ve been trusting each other,” he said.