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For the last decade, Kawhi Leonard has belonged in the public imagination to cities other than his hometown.
At Riverside King High, he first gained attention as a prep star who dominated while saying he preferred being considered an underdog “so [opponents] don’t expect what’s going to happen.” College years in San Diego led to first-round selection in the NBA draft.
In San Antonio, he won his first NBA title and a reputation as a lock-down defender. Just one season, capped with a championship, in Toronto was enough to earn him status as an adopted son of Canada. His face has adorned a mural in downtown Los Angeles just blocks from Staples Center, his home as a Clipper, since 2019.
But as a crowd waited Saturday inside Moreno Valley’s Weston Park to see the basketball court the All-Star had helped donate, one about to be dedicated in his name, Leonard said his travels since leaving the Inland Empire had done little to fray a connection to the city where he spent most of his childhood and the place he feels most rooted in adulthood.
“This is where I grew up. When I come here, you get all the memories back in your head, the thoughts of the fun, the downfalls and the uprisings,” Leonard told The Times. “It’s a lot of mixed emotions for me to come out here. My family’s here still, and it’s always a good time when I come back.”
Though Saturday was organized as just a one-hour celebration, the ceremony, in which Leonard stood at a lectern for a brief speech, carried broader significance as the continuation of a summer in which Leonard has deepened his commitments in Southern California in the form of courts and contracts.
In August, he re-signed with the Clippers for four years and $176 million, and because NBA rules will allow the team to offer Leonard a contract extension in two years, the 30-year-old could feasibly spend the second half of his career in a Clippers uniform.
Established NBA stars used to shun the idea of representing the Clippers, but the outwardly (and famously) understated Leonard has increasingly done so in ways beyond putting pen to paper on his contract.
He attended New York’s Fashion Week in a sweatshirt emblazoned with “Clip Gang Or Don’t Bang.” Days later, when the team unveiled updated plans for its new arena, it was Leonard’s voice, along with fellow All-Star Paul George, helping narrate a team-produced video. At the arena’s groundbreaking, the sweatshirt was back as Leonard dipped his shovel into Inglewood dirt.
“The fact that he's not only decided to remain a Clipper but that he's firmly planted his flag in the ground, I think … it's validation of a lot of different things,” said Lawrence Frank, the Clippers’ president of basketball operations.
Since returning to Los Angeles in 2019, Leonard has kept an eye on Moreno Valley. He previously took part in a backpack giveaway to the city’s students and invited some of his former teachers at Palm Middle School to attend a Clippers home game in 2020. In April, New Balance helped distribute new shoes to children attending an after-school childcare program operated by the city — whose seal was emblazoned on the tongue of Leonard’s sneakers during the postseason.
Hinting at future partnerships in his hometown, Leonard described the park project in an interview as “just the beginning, the start.”
Leonard said Weston Park was selected for its improvements because he had seen that it did not include a court. The city, Leonard’s family, New Balance, the NBA 2K Foundation, NRG and Shoe Palace contributed to complete the additions, according to the city, and painted into the court’s multicolored design are the sayings “You are stronger than you think” and “Life is beautiful.”
“It’s hard for me to forget [about Moreno Valley] because I’m always a guy that’s been going to L.A. every weekend to visit my dad and then coming back,” said Leonard, whose father, Mark, was killed in 2008 in a still-unsolved shooting at the carwash he ran in Compton. “So I guess it’s like, the interest to come back to where I’m from and give back with as much as I can and helping the best ways possible.
“It’s just where I’m from. I still got friends and family that’s out here, youth still in these streets living here. I want them to succeed.”
With Clippers training camp opening Tuesday in San Diego, Frank cautioned that “no one knows” whether Leonard will play during the upcoming season after undergoing surgery in July to fix a partially torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee but echoed the high preseason expectations set by team owner Steve Ballmer with or without the All-NBA forward.
“We'll have a very good team,” Ballmer said this month. “… We'll make the playoffs. We could be a decent playoff team, according to the bookies’ [prognostications]. Of course, I'm more optimistic.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.