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So who is Meyers Leonard, the Miami Heat center suddenly in the national spotlight after using an anti-Semitic slur during livestreamed video-game play this week?
Now under investigation by the NBA, he’s a gregarious, outgoing personality who has been an uplifting presence for the Heat both on the court and in the locker room since joining the team in July 2019.
“Meyers is one of the most special people I’ve ever had the opportunity to coach and to be around,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of the 7-foot center during last season’s Heat run to the 2020 NBA Finals. “He is just an incredible human being and teammate. He has all our hearts. We will do anything for him because he is so pure.”
During his two seasons with the Heat, Leonard has gone from regular-season starter last season, to bit player during the 2020 playoffs due to a severe ankle injury, to benchwarmer this season — and that was before to his season-ending shoulder surgery in January.
As boisterous as any presence in the Heat’s 33 seasons, Leonard has spent much of the past two seasons barking baritone encouragement from the bench, including since his recent return from his shoulder surgery.
That voice has now been publicly silenced, with the Heat keeping Leonard from the team amid the NBA’s investigation.
But it also has been a passionate voice off the court, including his strong social stance during the NBA’s quarantine bubble setup at Disney World last summer amid the coronavirus pandemic.
It was during that segment of the season, when the NBA focused on the Black Lives Matter movement, that Leonard opted to remain standing for the national anthem as the rest of the team knelt in a statement of protest and solidarity.
Leonard, 29, said at the time he believed dual messages could be sent while standing wearing a Black Lives Matter shirt.
“I know in my heart, and if I can shed some light on this, people can be both,” he said, his brother having served two tours in Afghanistan with the U.S. Marines. “I can have true, raw emotion in my heart about the military and what that flag and that anthem and everything about it means to me. Because every time that anthem comes on, it makes me think of my brother, it makes me think of other people who have sacrificed who I was close with. By the way, sacrifice to the ultimate extent. This is not easy for me.
“But, at the same time, I look at this culture that I’ve been around in the NBA and now in Miami, for many years, and I see it, I understand it, I try to feel that pain. And I do. So that’s why I’m saying you can be both. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
With a personality as large as his 7-foot, 260-pound build, Leonard’s antics while under quarantine in his Disney hotel room made him something of a social media celebrity. He threw down a challenge to other players to “shotgun” beers, as he had demonstrated from his hotel room in his isolated boredom.
He later turned that fame into an offseason cross-country excursion on the Coors Light Chillstream, a beer-themed recreational vehicle provided by the Colorado brewery.
It was amid that tour that he expressed the contentment of finding an NBA home after seven uneven seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, who selected him with the No. 11 pick in the 2011 NBA draft out of the University of Illinois.
“I came here not knowing any idea what to expect, other than I knew that I could impact the game every night when I knew what my role was going to be,” he said of being acquired in the July 2019 trade that sent center Hassan Whiteside to the Portland Trail Blazers. “And all of a sudden, I started every game, almost, that I played in, and had a significant role. And that’s what I loved, was winning, and having a role where people cared.”
Born in Woodbridge, Va., and raised in Robinson, Ill., Leonard on Aug. 2, 2015 married his long-time sweetheart Elle Bielfeldt. The two founded a health-food company called Level Foods, with their energy bars featured as an option inside the Heat locker room.
Leonard lost his father, a golf pro, at age 6, in a biking accident. In the months after that loss, his family was left with no running water or electricity at his home, with his mother unable to work due to back problems. He eventually was befriended by another family in town.
In a story for ESPN’s The Undefeated, Leonard noted of the NBA’s call to recognize systemic racism, “I come from a white community, a rural farming community. Good-hearted people. People that love everyone, just like I do. But I didn’t see some of these things growing up. I just didn’t until I was on the AAU circuit. And that’s what I keep saying, AAU circuit, college, all these years in the NBA, basically, I’ve now been around African American culture long enough to feel the pain they’re feeling during these times.”
In that first-person piece, Leonard also said, “I grew up without a dad, I grew up with all these different challenges, I still have white privilege. And I get it … I don’t know what it’s like to be racially profiled. I don’t know what it’s like to be [former Portland Trail Blazers teammate] CJ McCollum and get pulled over for going one over the speed limit. And the police are saying, ‘Oh, what are you doing around here?’ "
Leonard over his career has emerged as one of the NBA’s elite video-game players, joining the eSports organization, FaZe Clan, with his play routinely streamed on the Twitch platform.
Included in Leonard’s play was a 24-hour stream for charity during the NBA’s coronavirus shutdown last spring, raising $70,000 to support Feeding American.
It was on that platform, while playing the battle-based game Call of Duty, that he was heard using the anti-Semitic slur between profanities, subsequently banned from the platform and removed from FaZe Clan’s gaming unit.
Leonard and his wife in February purchased a $7.8 million estate in Miami, after renting Whiteside’s Miami Beach home last season. He has earned over $60 million in salary over his nine NBA seasons.
For now, he remains out of view, viewed in a different light than he likely ever had anticipated.
“I just want to impact people, man,” he said in his first-person Undefeated essay. “So it’s how can I continue to use my voice, use my platform, use my money, use whatever, to say, ‘Look, this is what’s in my heart and this is what my family believes in.’ But please understand that I am with it. And I want you to know just how badly I want to help people and will continue to do so.”