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ANAHEIM, Calif. — On its surface, the story does not make sense.
Kawhi Leonard needed someone to drive him? Leonard, a 6-foot-7, do-everything talent for San Diego Statewhom his coaching staff and teammates hail as the Aztecs’ most tireless worker and the man behind the wheel of their historic N.C.A.A.tournament journey, could not drive himself?
Not exactly. But in what has become a comical subplot to the tale of a player who is one of the topN.B.A. prospects in the tournament, Leonard’s basketball career was once threatened by an inability to secure transportation.
“The coach wouldn’t let me play when I was a freshman,” Leonard said by telephone this week of his first year at Canyon Springs High School in Moreno Valley, Calif. “I missed the tryouts, and I sent him an e-mail saying why and how my mom was out of town and I couldn’t get a ride over there. He knew I was a good player, but he just didn’t want me to play.”
Inspiration, however, is hardly in short supply for Leonard, a 19-year-old sophomore forward.
The memories of his father, Mark Leonard, and how he was shot to death at the age of 43 at his Compton car wash in 2008, remain agonizing and persistent. Yet as the shy and wary Leonard deals with the tournament hype, questions about his father keep coming.
He answers them all respectfully, making clear how much he wishes his father was still part of his life instead of part of his bio. No, he does not want to know the identity of the killer, who was never found. Yes, he misses those weekend days scrubbing cars with his father, with whom he did not live but with whom he spoke every day.
Leonard started playing basketball as a sophomore at Canyon Springs, then transferred toMartin Luther King High in Riverside as a junior and was named Mr. Basketball for California as a senior. The night after his father’s death, he scored 17 points for Riverside King in a loss to Compton Dominguez. Those in attendance saw him burst into tears afterward in the arms of his mother, Kim Robertson.
Those who came to know him later would see the same penchant for perseverance.
“Kawhi has had to deal with more stresses in his life than most at a young age, and he has managed to do that, to do it in his own way, and to do it with his head held high,” Aztecs Coach Steve Fisher said. “He is soft-spoken, quiet off the court, and someone who is filled with the burning desire to compete, improve and win, and he has done that everywhere he has been.”
The next challenge comes Thursday when No. 2 seed San Diego State (34-2) takes on No. 3 Connecticut (28-9) in the West Regional.
The Aztecs had never won an N.C.A.A. tournament game until this year, but victories over Northern Colorado and Temple have them wanting more and have Leonard thinking twice about his future.
There were already plenty of accolades on his résumé, from the back-to-back Mountain West conference tournament titles to his selection by Sporting News as a second-team all-American. But Leonard, who has yet to decide if he will enter the N.B.A. draft in June despite being widely projected as a late lottery or mid-first-round selection, said the fun of the tournament might affect his thinking.
“It’s tempting to come back,” said Leonard, who is averaging 15.6 points and 10.6 rebounds a game. “People like to have a winning team. It makes you want to keep playing.
“My family doesn’t need the money right now. We’re not starving, hungry, living poor. It will be nice to have a lot of money, but I think my family could hold out two more years if I play through my senior year.”
He no longer wants for transportation as he once did. And as Leonard has shown, he will be the one picking his path.