Father’s memory helps drive Aztecs star
The memories Kawhi Leonard had of the car wash were ones of fondness, learning the business alongside his father while also using his mammoth hands to scrub until he could see his face in the reflection.
It was a chance to spend quality time with Mark Leonard — the person who had bestowed his unique first name, the one whose meaning was unbeknownst even to his own mother.
The call came from his sister on Jan. 18, 2008, exactly three years ago while he was in the car returning from a high school basketball game.
"She said that our dad died,” recalled San Diego State’s star sophomore forward without even a hint of emotion in his voice. "I felt like the world stopped.”
Mark Leonard was 43 when he was shot and killed at the same car wash in which so many memories were shared.
"I didn’t want to believe it," Kawhi said. "It didn’t feel real to me.”
Leonard went on to play the next night and scored 17 points at Pauley Pavilion as his Riverside King team lost to Compton Dominguez.
"After the game, he just broke down,” said his mother, Kim Robertson. "They were close. Very close.”
Leonard grew up living primarily with his mother, but spent plenty of time, especially in the summers, with his father, who lived about an hour away and owned that car wash in Compton.
"I’m not sure what happened,” Leonard said. "I really don’t know anything other than someone random came to the car wash and shot him.”
Three years have passed and no one has been arrested in the murder. Frank Salerno of the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s Department told the Los Angeles Times that the case likely will go unsolved because of a lack of cooperation among potential witnesses.
"I think it’s better for me not knowing who it is,” Leonard said.
Leonard never talks about it with his mother. He’s a quiet, unpretentious kid who is difficult to get to know off the court — and an unrelenting warrior who plays as hard as anyone in the nation on it.
"I think he thinks about it,” Robertson said. "But he never mentions it. Never.”
Leonard does think about it. His eyes light up when recalling the times he’d help his father open the 100-percent hand-wash car wash at 8 a.m. and scrub until it closed around 6 p.m.
"It was hard work,” Leonard said. "But I loved it.”
He smiles when thinking about how the two would jump over the fence in the backyard and run up and down a hill in Moreno Valley for 30 minutes straight. They’d go out and throw the football and also take to the basketball court together.
"When I told him going into my sophomore year that I wasn’t going to play football anymore, he got kinda mad,” Leonard said. "He wanted me to play both — and maximize my opportunity.”
Leonard was an unheralded recruit who was being pursued by Big West programs such as UC Davis until he transferred to Riverside King prior to his junior season.
Leonard didn’t even play basketball as a freshman at Canyon Springs High after missing tryouts. Instead, he was a safety and wide receiver — and his future appeared bright on the gridiron.
But his heart was with hoops — his father eventually understood his desire to drop football.
As a junior, Leonard attracted the interest of San Diego State.
"I wasn’t as skilled, but I just outworked the next guy,” he said.
Then, his senior season, high-majors such as UCLA, USC, Arizona State, Marquette and Michigan became involved.
"I knew I was their second option and that was a big issue for me,” Leonard said. "San Diego State told me they would give me the opportunity to come in and start. They weren’t going to hand it to me and I’d have to work for it.”
That was music to Leonard’s ears.
Leonard started 33 of 34 games as a freshman last season and led the Aztecs in both scoring and rebounding.
Leonard has proven it was no fluke, this season averaging a double-double (16.0 points per game, 10.3 rebounds per game) and establishing himself as one of the nation’s top players for one of the nation’s top teams.
San Diego State is 19-0 and one of three undefeated teams — along with Ohio State and Kansas — remaining in the country.
"He’s a gym rat,” San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said. "He’s obsessed with getting better.”
Often times, coaches and members of the administration will walk by Peterson Gym early in the morning about 7 and hear the ball bouncing.
"He’ll probably be a lottery pick, for sure a first-rounder,” added one NBA executive who watched Leonard recently. "He’s got the athleticism and you just don’t find guys with that kind of motor and work ethic.”
But Leonard isn’t resting on his laurels. He deflects any questions about whether he’ll consider leaving early for the NBA and realizes how quickly everything can be taken away.
"For us to be here now, words can’t imagine how good it feels,” Leonard said. "It’s exciting to know people feel you can move up to the next level, but we’re just trying to stay focused on the task. Thinking about other things can get you off track sometimes.”
While Kawhi may not talk often about Mark Leonard, his father’s memory is one of those things that have kept him on the right track.
"I think he’d be proud of me,” Leonard said.
"I know he would,” added his mother.