Clippers coach Tyronn Lue and his San Antonio counterpart, the silver-haired Gregg Popovich, were sharing a postgame conversation Saturday evening on the Crypto.com Arena sideline when an intruder cut their chat short, sneaking between them to embrace Popovich in a hug.
It was Kawhi Leonard, the wing who arrived in San Antonio in 2011 as a defense-oriented project and developed into a Finals most valuable player with a silky jump shot before leaving in 2018 following a bitter divorce with the franchise after seven seasons.
Popovich smiled wide, whispered into Leonard’s ear and then squinted as Leonard pointed across the court, in the direction of his family. Before each returned to their respective locker rooms through separate tunnels after the Clippers’ 119-97 win, Popovich put his hands on Leonard’s shoulders one last time and the two smiled again.
“He meant a lot, he’s the reason why I’m the player I am today,” Leonard later said of Popovich. “Built that foundation on showing me winning basketball and yeah, he’s a great coach. Still one of the best coaches I had.
“We been in too many battles to have a scar on our relationship.”
It was one of Leonard’s most in-depth comments on the state of his relationship with his former team and its leader since it appeared to deteriorate in 2018. The fallout led to scar tissue — but precisely how much remains a topic of intrigue within the league four years later.
Four seasons removed from the breakup between Leonard and the Spurs, Popovich said before tipoff Saturday that Leonard “is probably gonna be a Hall of Fame player.”
“He wasn't a Hall of Fame player when he first got drafted, so I would say he's improved quite a bit,” Popovich said. “He's done a great job. He's worked his ass off.”
After suffering a quadriceps injury that limited him to nine games in 2017-18, Leonard reportedly spent time away from the team to work 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 has received an icy reception in San Antonio since the break-up, booed mercilessly during warmups in his first return in 2019, with the Raptors, when Spurs fans could be heard calling him a “traitor” while he was shooting free throws.
During his next visit to San Antonio in 2019, after joining the Clippers in free agency, Leonard was jeered every time he touched the ball again.
In October, Leonard called his 15-month rehab from a knee injury he suffered in 2021 far different from his recovery from his last major injury, the one that ended his time in San Antonio.
“This is just a different situation from me getting traded to one team to another and how that rehab process went for me,” Leonard said Oct. 22. “It’s been very different going through that and having the team behind my back. And moving forward, they want what’s best for me.”
Leonard and Popovich have shared cordial moments since his arrival 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 brief postgame conversation. And in early 2020, Leonard said of his experience being around Popovich and Spurs cornerstones Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, “obviously I have respect for them."
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.