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Column: Kawhi Leonard at forefront of new generation of stars mentored by Kobe Bryant

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Kobe Bryant smiled when he thought back to one of his first meetings with Kawhi Leonard.

“I remember sitting with Kawhi at an All-Star game, I think it was in L.A. during his rookie year,” Bryant said in one of his final sit-down interviews before the Lakers faced the Clippers to start the regular season in October. “We had a Nike suite at the All-Star game and he was in the suite and I was there and he came and sat next to me and started peppering me with questions about the game and my summer regimen and this other stuff, so he had a curiosity right from the very beginning.”

One of the first things Bryant looked for in players, before he chose to work out with them, was their curiosity. He wanted to mentor players who desired to think and attack the game the same way he did. It didn’t take him long to discover Leonard was that kind of player.

Before Bryant retired in 2016, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich asked him to keep tabs on Leonard and talk to him from time to time. While Leonard would get traded from the Spurs to the Toronto Raptors two years later, Bryant’s relationship with Leonard grew. He worked out with Leonard in Southern California before his first season in Toronto, and before his first season with the Clippers.

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Leonard would work out with Bryant along with Lakers assistant coach Phil Handy, who was with Leonard in Toronto last season. After Leonard led the Raptors to the NBA championship last June, one of the first people he talked to in the locker room after the game was Bryant.

Lakers forward Kobe Bryant goes to work against Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard during a game on Jan. 22, 2016.
(Paul Buck / EPA)

In many ways, it was perfect that Leonard, who was born in Los Angeles and returned home last summer, would became the first winner of the Kobe Bryant MVP Award. The NBA renamed their All-Star Game MVP trophy in honor of Bryant, who was killed last month along with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others in a helicopter crash. The league unveiled the award Saturday, and the next night Leonard raised it over his head after posting 30 points, eight three-pointers, seven rebounds and four assists.

“It’s very special,” Leonard said as he looked at the trophy. “I had a relationship with him. Words can’t explain how happy I am for it and to be able to put that trophy in my trophy room, and just be able to see Kobe’s name on there, it just means a lot to me. He’s a big inspiration in my life. He did a lot for me.”

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Leonard represents a generation of all-star players who were mentored by Bryant. Since he retired, Bryant took time to work out with Leonard, Paul George, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Trae Young, Jayson Tatum, Kyrie Irving and Luka Doncic. Bryant worked out with Leonard and Paul George last summer at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks and felt a unique connection to the duo who grew up in Southern California and looked up to him.

“They’re tough,” Bryant said. “I’ve known them both for a very long time. They’re just very inquisitive. … They’re so competitive on both ends of the floor. It’s not like a tit for tat. I score and then you score. They don’t believe that. It’s ‘You can’t stop me and I will shut you down.’ That’s a very different mentality and not a lot of players have that. Everybody wants specialists that come in and defend and they don’t believe in that. They want to do both.”

Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka — who was Bryant’s friend, former agent and godfather to Gianna — tried to sign George in 2018 after signing LeBron James and tried to sign Leonard after trading for Anthony Davis last summer. Both players turned down the opportunity to join the Lakers for the other team in town. As much as Bryant wanted to see the Lakers win a championship and Pelinka assemble the league’s next super team, he understood why Leonard and George did what they did.

LeBron James, Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard were all wearing the same uniform, Frank Vogel coaching on the sidelines and thought of what might have been.

“I’m sure Kawhi wants to take the challenge of winning independent of playing with LeBron,” Bryant said. “I think they enjoy or relish the challenge of taking on something new. I don’t think it was anything that was a slight towards the Lakers, it was more the circumstances of what was already here in L.A. and them wanted to take the challenge of building something new. I think it was more along those lines but the Lakers did OK. I saw a lot of Lakers fans being very disappointed about it and rightfully so. If you can get Kawhi here with LeBron that’s great but you did get Anthony Davis. You did alright.”

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Leonard got the chance to play alongside James and Davis on Sunday, but better yet was winning the Kobe trophy.

“I want to thank Kobe for every he’s done for me,” Leonard said after receiving the award. “All the long talks and workouts. Thank you. This one’s for him.”


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