The door to the Spurs’ locker room at the AT&T Center swung closed late on the night of March 17. It did not open again for quite some time.
The Spurs had just finished a resounding 117-101 victory over Minnesota that would breathe much-needed life into the team’s playoff hopes. Everyone was in high spirits after a big win.
Then the coaches and support staff were asked to step outside. At last, it was time to address the cornrowed elephant in the room.
Superstar forward Kawhi Leonard had not played in nearly two months as he rehabbed a right leg injury that had reduced his season to a series of false starts and dashed hope. His teammates wanted to know if or when they could count on him to join their playoff push.
Veteran point guard Tony Parker, leader of the players-only meeting, would later characterize what happened next as “private stuff, locker room stuff.”
What is clear enough, looking back, is this: The moment the door to the Spurs’ dressing room opened again, nothing would be the same in San Antonio.
Maybe the Spurs didn’t know it yet, but Leonard was as good as gone.
On Wednesday, Leonard — the 27-year-old two-way wunderkind who spent the bulk of the 2017-18 season on the injured list and while his representatives squabbled with Spurs management — was traded to Toronto as part of a four-player deal. The trade was at Leonard’s request, though he did not get to choose his landing spot.
The deal marked an inglorious end to one of the most bizarre chapters in Spurs history.
In the aftermath of the blockbuster — which returned All-Star guard DeMar DeRozan, blossoming big man Jakob Poeltl and a first-round draft pick — the Spurs publicly put on a brave face, saluting Leonard on his way out of town after seven decorated seasons.
“We wish him all the best as he moves on to Toronto,” coach Gregg Popovich said, adding it was best for his team to look forward as well. “In no way, shape or form does it do any good to go back in time and talk A, B and C. It’s time to move on.”
That will happen soon enough. For now, there is time to consider how things went so far south with Leonard, a player seemingly tailor-made for the Spurs’ no-nonsense program, that he is now headed north.
How could it be that a player Popovich once called the future face of one of the NBA’s most stable and storied franchises is now set to play his home games in another country altogether?
“I still don’t know what went into it,” said Danny Green, the longtime Spurs guard who was shipped to the Raptors along with Leonard. “I don’t know exactly what happened.”
A change of heart
The March 17 players meeting was not the beginning of the troubles with Leonard. However, it served as the tinderbox for the slow-burning conflagration that followed.
Leonard had been out since Jan. 13, having been sidelined indefinitely at the suggestion of his private New York-based medical staff, hired in August on the Spurs’ dime.
Depending on whom you ask, the tone of the meeting was either caring or confrontational.
The gist of it, directed at Leonard, was this: Are you going to play with us again, or not?
However the meeting was intended, Leonard reportedly considered it an ambush. Nine days later, he returned to New York to continue rehab.
Leonard finished the season having appeared in nine games. He was in New York, and not on the sidelines, as Golden State dispatched the Spurs from the first round of the playoffs in five games.
What is most mystifying about the year-long ordeal was how out of character it seemed — both for a Spurs franchise about as prone to drama as a C-SPAN marathon, and for a player who seemed built in a laboratory to thrive in precisely such a low-key environment.
When Leonard arrived in June of 2011, via a draft-day trade with Indiana, his new coaches were struck by how little the new rookie cared about anything other than basketball.
Chip Engelland, the Spurs’ shooting coach, was the first assistant to get his hands on Leonard that first summer.
“On a lot of drafts, you hear somebody is a gym rat, loves the gym,” Engelland recalled a few years later. “One of my great compliments to Kawhi is … he still loves the gym. You’ve got to pull him out of the gym.”
Leonard began his Spurs career as a role player for a team still constructed around the championship-gilded Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
By 2013, Popovich understood he had, in Leonard, a player perhaps capable of carrying the baton into the post-Big Three era.
When Leonard entered his first NBA Finals in 2013, at the age of 21, Popovich marveled at how his young small forward seemed unfazed sharing the court and spotlight with four-time MVP LeBron James of Miami.
“He went through the Finals and the playoffs as if he was going to H-E-B to pick up dinner,” Popovich said later.
The Spurs lost the 2013 series against the Heat in seven games.
When they returned to the Finals the next year to exact revenge on Miami and claim the team’s fifth NBA championship, Leonard was named the series MVP. He the youngest player to earn that honor since a 20-year-old Magic Johnson did it in 1980.
Eventually, Leonard added other sterling bullet points to his résumé — a pair of All-NBA first-team mentions, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, a pair of top-3 finishes in the MVP voting.
“He plays with a confidence that is just amazing,” Duncan said in the aftermath of the 2014 title. “I’m honored to be on this team right now, because he’s going to be great for years to come.”
In July 2015, Leonard signed a five-year, $94 million contract to stay with the Spurs, painting the decision as a no-brainer.
“I didn’t think I was going anywhere,” Leonard said at the time. “I would rather spend my career with one team.”
Three years later, the Toronto Raptors are on the hook for what remains of that deal.
A family affair
All along, Leonard seemed like a player who fit San Antonio like a good breakfast taco.
He didn’t enjoy media attention. He didn’t appear to care for the limelight. Like the stone-faced Duncan before him, Leonard came off as a single-minded stoic with little interest in anything other than playing good basketball.
“You wouldn’t know it looking at Kawhi’s face, because it never changes,” Popovich said early in Leonard’s career. “You don’t know if he’s happy or sad.”
At the time, that was supposed to be a good thing.
The first cracks in the low-maintenance veneer came in 2016, when Leonard made his first All-Star game — in Toronto of all places.
Leonard and his traveling companions noticed other All-Stars — notably Oklahoma City point guard Russell Westbrook — were using private luxury cars to get around, instead of the standard transportation provided by the NBA. They wanted the star treatment, too.
Leonard’s trip to China in August of 2017 seemed to spark another change in him. Everywhere he went on the NBA ambassador junket, Leonard was mobbed by fans wearing his jersey and other Spurs gear.
“I was surprised at how many Spurs fans there were, for me not ever going out there,” Leonard said upon his return stateside. “It’s just shocking to see how big they support the NBA.”
The experience also stuck with Leonard’s personal management team, including his uncle, Dennis Robertson. His advisers began to see Leonard’s potential as a top-shelf star and global brand.
A former bank executive, Robertson took on a larger place in his nephew’s life after Leonard’s father, Mark, was murdered in a shooting at a Los Angeles car wash in January 2008.
Since Leonard entered the NBA, Robertson had played a significant role in plotting his nephew’s career. Leonard trusted Robertson.
He was family.
When Leonard parted ways with his original agent, Brian Elfus, in 2016, Robertson and Mitch Frankel, the player’s new agent, became the primary liaisons in communications with the Spurs.
Robertson’s influence grew steadily after Leonard returned from China. In March, Leonard turned down a $20 million shoe deal to re-up with Jordan Brand. Robertson reportedly believed Leonard — as a borderline MVP candidate — deserved more.
As months wore on, some around the league began to suspect Robertson — now known derisively among some Spurs fans as “Uncle Dennis” — harbored visions that went beyond handling his nephew’s affairs. Multiple agents say he has approached clients about becoming their manager as well.
Had Leonard remained healthy, perhaps none of that would have mattered.
Addressing reporters in Toronto upon announcing the trade to acquire Leonard, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri acknowledged the role Leonard’s injury played in greasing the skids toward Canada.
“Without all this medical drama that there is, we have no chance of talking to a player like that,” Ujiri said. “Zero.”
Leonard’s camp traces his quadriceps troubles to late in the 2016-17 regular season, when he suffered what Spurs doctors called a thigh contusion.
Despite playing in discomfort, Leonard finished that season on a tear, leading the Spurs into the Western Conference finals. He had scored 24 points in 24 minutes in Game 1 against Golden State when he landed on Warriors center Zaza Pachulia after taking a jump shot early in the third quarter.
The resulting left ankle sprain rendered Leonard out for the remainder of the series, which the Spurs lost in four games.
The ankle healed during the summer that followed. Leonard’s quadriceps, apparently, did not.
Spurs doctors soon had a new diagnosis for what ailed Leonard: tendinopathy, a chronic tenderness of the tendon often treated with a combination of rest and rehab.
In August, Leonard traveled to New York for a second opinion, an option permitted in the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement and one the Spurs supported.
“Lots of players go get second opinions,” Popovich said during the season. “Lots of players have trainers. Second opinions are good. It doesn’t indicate anything except for due diligence, making sure you’re doing everything you can to get a player back.”
From that point, rehab related to the Spurs’ best player was largely taken out of the team’s hands.
Leonard’s new medical team was led by Dr. Jonathan Glashow, an orthopedic surgeon at New York’s Mount Sinai Medical Center who had worked with the Philadelphia 76ers and the NHL’s New York Islanders. The New York doctors believed the problem was not in Leonard’s quadriceps tendon, but the muscle itself. They prescribed a new course of rehab.
In September, the Spurs announced Leonard would miss training camp and the preseason. He did not make his season debut until a Dec. 12 game at Dallas.
The Spurs were cautious with Leonard, declining to play him on fewer than two days’ rest. On Jan. 13, he scored 19 points with eight rebounds and four steals in a 112-80 victory over Denver. Leaving the AT&T Center that night, Leonard sounded optimistic about his recovery.
“No complaints,” Leonard said. “I need to string some games together. I talked to veteran guys who have been in this situation. They say to give yourself time … to get back to being yourself.”
Leonard would never play in a Spurs uniform again.
Two days later, Leonard experienced pain while warming up for a game in Atlanta and did not suit up. The next day, he flew to New York with the Spurs, who were scheduled to play their next game at Brooklyn.
There, Leonard met with his New York medical team, which advised him not to play until further notice. On Jan. 17, the morning of the game against the Nets, the Spurs announced they were shutting down Leonard indefinitely.
At the time, Popovich scoffed at the notion “indefinitely” meant Leonard could be out for the season.
“It hasn’t responded the way we wanted it to,” Popovich said of Leonard’s injury. “He’s given it a shot. He’s frustrated as hell. He wants to play badly. But if we’re going to err, we’re going to do it on the side of health.”
Out of sight, mind
For the next two months, the words “return from injury management” — the official reason the Spurs gave for Leonard’s appearance on the nightly inactive list — became an everyday part of the Spurs fan’s lexicon.
In mid-February, just after the All-Star break, Popovich told reporters he didn’t think Leonard would play again in 2017-18.
With tensions high and questions mounting, Leonard addressed the San Antonio media on March 7. It was his first public interview in more than two months.
Leonard denied any sort of rift with the Spurs.
“Everything was done as a group,” he said. “I don’t feel like nothing was friction.”
When asked the admittedly loaded question of whether he planned to finish his career with San Antonio, Leonard answered with a not-exactly-enthusiastic, “For sure.”
Regarding a timetable for playing again, Leonard told reporters that day the same thing he had been telling teammates for weeks.
“Soon,” he said.
By mid-March, signs had been growing that Leonard was on the brink of a return. With the Spurs mired in a stretch of seven defeats in nine games and their playoff hopes in peril, the timing was ripe for the two-time All-Star to come back.
Leonard’s camp was targeting a March 15 home game against New Orleans to rejoin the team. Veteran ESPN sideline reporter Lisa Salters reported as much during a nationally broadcast March 10 game at Oklahoma City.
Yet Leonard did not play in the game against the Pelicans. Two nights later, he remained out against Minnesota, sparking the ill-fated team meeting afterward.
Nothing had changed, and things were about to get worse.
Sticks and stones
On the morning of March 21, Leonard slipped on a Spurs uniform for the first time in more than two months.
It would also be the last time.
Leonard was on hand for the annual team photo at the AT&T Center. He left not long after it was snapped, as the rest of the squad went through shootaround in preparation for that night’s game against Washington.
Having been stung by the false hope that Leonard had seemingly been ready to return days earlier, veteran guard Manu Ginobili said the rest of the Spurs needed to approach the remainder of the schedule as if their best player was not going to be around.
“We’ve got to think that he’s not coming back,” Ginobili said, “that we are who we are, that we’ve got to go fight without him.”
Ginobili said something else that day that hinted at the frustration teammates felt from Leonard’s prolonged absence from the locker room.
“The bulk of the camaraderie is pregame, postgames and halftimes, when you are going through some adversity or trouble,” Ginobili said. “And he is not with us most of the time. You have to make an effort to be around and still be a part of the everyday topics. … You have to make an effort.”
Two days later, Parker — the ringleader of the players-only meeting — fired what Leonard’s camp considered another shot across the bow.
Asked about the trouble Leonard had experienced getting back on the court, Parker expressed sympathy, noting the ruptured quadriceps tendon he himself had suffered in the playoffs the season before and the difficulty of his own rehab.
“I’ve been through it,” said Parker, who has signed to play in Charlotte next season. “It was a rehab for me for eight months. Same kind of injury, but mine was 100 times worse. You just stay positive.”
Parker’s quote was mostly innocuous, except for three words.
Leonard’s representatives took issue with the phrase “100 times worse.” They were furious, believing the Spurs point guard was questioning Leonard’s commitment to returning.
Three days afterward, Leonard was on his way back to New York.
With emotions already raw, Leonard and his camp were further inflamed on April 1, when Popovich shrugged as reporters asked if the All-Star was at last near his long-awaited return.
“I don’t know when he and his group are going to feel like they are ready to go,” Popovich said. “If I knew, he would be here.”
What Popovich was saying, however, was true. Two weeks before the start of the playoffs, he was as in the dark about Leonard’s status as anyone else.
The end becomes official
Behind the scenes, Popovich and general manager R.C. Buford worked hard through the spring and early summer to mend fences with Leonard and his camp.
They had a trump card in their pocket. The Spurs were the only team who could offer Leonard a five-year, $221 million contract extension this summer. If traded, he would be ineligible for that hefty payday.
On June 15, Leonard’s representatives let it be known he would like to be moved anyway, with the Los Angeles Lakers as his preferred destination. Two days after that, Popovich was on a plane to Leonard’s home in San Diego for a long-scheduled meeting with his prodigal superstar, hoping to repair the relationship.
Popovich has not revealed what was said at the sit-down in San Diego, but afterward the Spurs began listening to trade offers leading to the June 21 draft.
“While none of us would wish we are where we are, we are going to do what we can to build the best relationship we can with him,” Buford said after the draft with Leonard still on the roster. “We will explore all of our options, but the first one would be to keep Kawhi as part of our group.”
Almost a month later to the day Friday, Leonard was in Toronto to take a physical examination and meet staffers from his new team.
The Raptors posted a photo of Leonard with Ujiri on their official Twitter account. Leonard was kind of, sort of smiling.
When it comes to the mystery of what exactly happened between the Spurs and their erstwhile franchise player, only one man knows for sure.
Leonard, so far, is not talking.
He did not meet with the media in Toronto during his visit Friday. He has not spoken in a public setting since early March, when he gave half-hearted assurances that he wanted to remain a Spur for life.
It could be some time before San Antonio has a satisfying answer for why a player everyone assumed would carry the city’s proud NBA franchise to future glory is now set to ply his trade in Canada.
The task of keeping Leonard and his team happy belongs to the Raptors now. Leonard can opt out of his contract after the 2018-19 season and become an unrestricted free agent. Many NBA observers expect he will take that opportunity to bolt for his hometown Lakers.
Don’t expect a public autopsy coming out of the Spurs’ front office any time soon, either. Under Popovich’s direction, the team has issued a “no-looking-back” edict.
On June 21, nearly a month before the Spurs would at last execute the trade that would cut ties with Leonard, Buford uttered the words that would come to summarize the premature end to the All-Star’s era in San Antonio.
Said Buford, “I think all of us would wish that things would have gone differently at times.”