Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and his San Antonio counterpart, silver-haired Gregg Popovich, were having a post-game conversation on the sidelines of the Crypto.com Arena Saturday night when an intruder interrupted their chat and sneaked between them to grab Popovich in to take a hug
It was Kawhi Leonard, the winger who came to San Antonio in 2011 as a defense-focused project and went on to become the Finals’ most valuable player with a silky jump shot before departing in 2018 after a bitter seven-season divorce with the franchise.
Popovich smiled widely, whispered in Leonard’s ear, and then blinked as Leonard pointed across the square towards his family. Before both returned through separate tunnels to their respective locker rooms following the Clippers’ 119-97 win, Popovich placed his hands on Leonard’s shoulders one last time and the two smiled again.
“He meant a lot to me, he’s the reason I’m the player I am today,” Leonard later said of Popovich. “He built that foundation by showing me how to win basketball and yes, he’s a great coach. Still one of the best coaches I’ve had.
“We’ve been in too many fights to leave a scar on our relationship.”
It was one of Leonard’s most detailed comments on the state of his relationship with his former team and leader since it appeared to have deteriorated in 2018. The aftermath left scar tissue – but how much exactly remains a topic of intrigue within the league four years later.
Four seasons away from the split between Leonard and Spurs, Popovich said ahead of Saturday’s tip that Leonard “will likely be a Hall of Famer.”
“He wasn’t a Hall of Famer when he was first drafted, so I’d say he’s improved quite a bit,” Popovich said. “He did a great job. He busted his ass.”
After a quadriceps injury that limited him to nine games in 2017-18, Leonard reportedly spent some time off the team working with his own medical team, and despite being eligible to sign a $219 million extension, to remain the face of San Antonio’s franchise, he was traded to Toronto in 2018. He’s received an icy welcome in San Antonio since the split, mercilessly booed during warm-ups on his first return in 2019 with the Raptors when Spurs fans called him a “traitor” while shooting free throws.
On his next visit to San Antonio in 2019 after joining the Clippers in a free hand, Leonard was jeered every time he touched the ball again.
In October, Leonard called his 15-month rehab over a knee injury he sustained in 2021 that was very different from his recovery from his most recent serious injury that ended his time at San Antonio.
“This is just a different situation when I was swapped from one team to another and how that rehab process went for me,” Leonard said Oct. 22. “It was very different going through that and having the team behind my back. And going forward, they want the best for me.”
Leonard and Popovich have shared heartfelt moments since arriving in Los Angeles. After a November 2019 game in Los Angeles, the coach smiled as he tapped Leonard on the back after they met for a quick post-game chat. And in early 2020, Leonard said of his experience with Popovich and Spurs cornerstones Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker: “Obviously I have respect for them.”
https://www.latimes.com/sports/clippers/story/2022-11-20/clippers-daily-sunday Kawhi Leonard says he has no ill will toward Gregg Popovich