Kawhi Leonard is in the midst of one of the greatest playoff runs in NBA history, and in just one season he has turned the down-on-their-luck Toronto Raptors into a terrifying juggernaut. While his play has been unbelievable, Leonard has achieved true folk hero status largely thanks to a flood of behind-the-scenes stories that have come to light during the Finals.
First, there was an oral history from The Athletic’s Jayson Jenks recounting Leonard’s time at San Diego State. In it, Leonard’s former teammates describe him as a hard-working super-athlete with a penchant for idiosyncratic trash talk.
Tyrone Shelley, guard: Most people say it like, “Oh, I’m about to get buckets on you.” He was just like, “Buckets. Layup.” Just one word.
Shelton: He’d be like, “You’re not scoring. You’re not doing anything.” Or he’d be like, “No, no, no.” He’d just move his feet and say, “No.”
Gay: You couldn’t score on him, so that’s what he would say: “Nope, nope, nope.” And when he would score on you: “Bucket. Bucket.”
LaBradford Franklin, guard: If he was grabbing a rebound, he’d say, “Give me that” or “Board man” or “Board man gets paid.”
“Board man gets paid” is a particularly wonderful turn of phrase, and it’s no surprise that it has become a delightful meme.
Then, there was the “Yo-Yo machine” story, via NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh, about when Leonard broke an infamously brutal piece of workout equipment with the San Antonio Spurs.
For most pro athletes, this is a grueling exercise, like a super squat. But after several repetitions on “The Yo-Yo,” it was clear that this wasn’t a challenge for Leonard. Under close observation of strength coaches and teammates, Leonard took it to another level. The trainers added a steel plate that would create a downward force of two times Leonard’s body weight, which at the time was around 250 pounds.
Leonard kept going, with relative ease. Then suddenly, Leonard stopped. The room turned silent as Leonard looked down at his feet. He cracked the metal platform. He literally broke the machine. Said one Spurs staffer who witnessed it that day: “Too strong for it.”
Like Keyser Söze or Bill Brasky, Kawhi Leonard is a legend who’s benefited from being mysterious. He’s a frontier myth, the silent hero who rides into town, cleans up a mess, and then saunters away before dawn. We want to believe all the stories we hear about him, and this explains why this tweet from comedy writer Mike Camerlengo went viral. Few people thought it was a joke.
It’s a pitch-perfect gag, but, because it’s about Leonard, there’s little reason to question the story’s veracity. I mean, how different is “apple time, apple time” from “board man gets paid”? Fake or not, it’s firmly in the Kawhi canon. You can even buy “apple time” T-shirts now.
Like all great genres, these Kawhi Leonard stories follow a series of loosely plotted rules. Here’s how to write one of your own.
Step 1: Kawhi does something astounding.
College Kawhi was impossible to score against and Spurs Kawhi broke draconian weight machines. Your Kawhi should do something equally impressive, but it’s important that he does it effortlessly. Here are some examples:
—”Kawhi played with 50-pound medicine balls until his third NBA season. (“I didn’t realize they made basketballs,” he told San Antonio shooting coach Chip Engelland.)
—”Kawhi has never flown on a team plane but he’s always at the airport, waiting, when it lands.”
—”Kawhi doesn’t have a cell phone. He uses a tin can with a string that just dangles there and he gets perfect reception, even in basements.”
Step 2: An onlooker notes how odd and/or amazing he is.
This may seem like a throwaway flourish, but it’s important as it represents the reader’s perspective. Feel free to use any of the following lines:
—”Raptors coach Nick Nurse couldn’t believe his eyes. ‘I’ve never seen anyone sleep on moving treadmill,’ he said.”
—”’Wow,’ Toronto guard Kyle Lowry whispered. ‘He’s really going to fill in for the entire philharmonic by himself.’”
—”’We begged him to wear a spacesuit, but I guess it didn’t matter,’ added former San Antonio point guard Tony Parker.”
Step 3: Kawhi acknowledges his feat with a brilliant catchphrase.
Kawhi is quiet, but he chooses his words carefully. “Board man gets paid” and “bucket, bucket” are crystalline gems plucked from the sooty mine of language, so try and keep it simple when writing your own Kawhi dialogue.
—”No one could defend Kawhi, even though he was wearing espadrilles. ‘Beach flats. Beach flats,’ he said as he drained his 50th point of the night.”
—”When news filtered back to the kitchen that he had been awarded his third Michelin Star, all Kawhi said was, ‘Tall chef plates sides.’”
—”Kawhi pulled the redwood from the ground and gazed upon its fully intact root system. ‘Tree toes,’ he said. ‘Tree toes.’”
His legend grows, just like tree toes.