Kawhi Leonard is the AP’s male ath­lete of 2019

The Saratogian (Saratoga, NY) - - SPORTS - By Tim Reynolds AP Bas­ket­ball Writer

He was the Fun Guy. The board man who got paid. He over­came in­jury to re­claim his right­ful place as one of the very best bas­ket­ball play­ers on the planet. He con­quered the NBA world for a sec­ond time, bring­ing a cham­pi­onship to Canada. And then he joined the Los An­ge­les Clip­pers, ready to start anew. “What it do, baby?” For Kawhi Leonard in 2019, there fi­nally is an an­swer to his in­fa­mous ques­tion: He did ev­ery­thing, with­out talk­ing much.

Leonard is The As­so­ci­ated Press’ male ath­lete of the year for 2019, com­fort­ably win­ning a vote by AP mem­ber sports ed­i­tors and AP beat writ­ers. He be­comes the fifth NBA player to win the award, join­ing Larry Bird (1986), three-time re­cip­i­ent Michael

Jor­dan (1991 through 1993), three-time re­cip­i­ent LeBron James (2013, 2016, 2018) and Stephen Curry (2015). The award has been made an­nu­ally since 1931, and Si­mone Biles was an­nounced Thurs­day as the women’s re­cip­i­ent for 2019.

Leonard was the NBA Fi­nals MVP for the sec­ond time, lead­ing Toronto to its first cham­pi­onship — five years af­ter he first smudged his fin­ger­prints on both tro­phies with the San An­to­nio Spurs. He wound up leav­ing the Rap­tors in the sum­mer for the Clip­pers, re­turn­ing to his na­tive South­ern Cal­i­for­nia and turn­ing the his­tor­i­cally woe­ful fran­chise into one of the top teams in the league.

“The ride was fun,” Leonard said ear­lier this month on his re­turn trip to Toronto, sum­ming up his year with the Rap­tors. “I had a great time.”

By now, it’s no se­cret that Leonard is a man of few words.

He is not a man of few ac­com­plish­ments.

He re­ceived more than twice as many points in the bal­lot­ing as any of the other 18 vote-get­ters. Bal­ti­more Ravens quar­ter­back La­mar Jack­son was sec­ond, fol­lowed by Kansas City Chiefs quar­ter­back Pa­trick Ma­homes, ten­nis star Rafael Nadal and reign­ing NBA MVP Gian­nis An­te­tok­oun­mpo of the Mil­wau­kee Bucks.

“Kawhi’s pretty steady,” said San An­to­nio coach Gregg Popovich, Leonard’s for­mer coach with the Spurs. “He’s not a big talker. He doesn’t try to find the lime­light or any­thing like that. He’s just a good guy who wanted to be good.”

Some­where along the way, he be­came great.

Leonard was the best player in last sea­son’s play­offs, af­ter a reg­u­lar sea­son where he missed 22 games mostly be­cause of what has be­come known as “load man­age­ment” — the fancy term used on nights when he would sit out to rest. Leonard missed most of the 2017-18 sea­son with the Spurs be­cause of a com­pli­cated leg is­sue, and the NBA said last month that he is still deal­ing with “an on­go­ing in­jury to the patella ten­don in his left knee.”

He was limping at times in the play­offs, but it didn’t mat­ter. He av­er­aged 30.5 points and 9.1 re­bounds in the post­sea­son, his 732 points in last year’s play­offs rank­ing as the third­most in any NBA playoff year. In the big­gest times, he came up the big­gest — 15 points in the fourth quar­ter to carry Toronto past Mil­wau­kee in the se­ries-turn­ing Game 5 of the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nals, and 17 points in the fourth quar­ter of Game 4 of the NBA Fi­nals against Golden State to put the Rap­tors on the cusp of the ti­tle.

And, of course, he made The Shot: the four-bounce­off-the-rim, at-the-buzzer jump shot from the cor­ner to beat Philadel­phia in Game 7 of the sec­ond round.

“With­out a doubt,” Rap­tors coach Nick Nurse mused dur­ing the playoff run, “the best thing about this thing is that some­how I wound up on the side­line get­ting to watch this guy play up close.”

RINGO H.W. CHIU - THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Los An­ge­les Lak­ers’ LeBron James, left, and Los An­ge­les Clip­pers’ Kawhi Leonard (2) chase the ball dur­ing the sec­ond half of an NBA bas­ket­ball game Wed­nes­day, Dec. 25, 2019, in Los An­ge­les. The Clip­pers won 111106.

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