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Kawhi Leonard: It doesn't matter if you put statement on jersey. 'It's about doing the work.'

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. – The sentiment only reinforced that Los Angeles Clippers forward Kawhi Leonard cares more about actions than any words.

Leonard, a Black NBA superstar who has experienced racism and made varying efforts to help his community, hardly seemed consumed with what he might put on the back of his jersey to highlight racial inequality. When the Clippers resume their NBA season against the Los Angeles Lakers on July 30 at ESPN’s World Wide of Sports Complex, Leonard wants to spark change in a different way.  

“I'm still going to continue to help and educate people as well as my teammates,” Leonard said Monday on a video conference call with reporters. “It doesn't matter if we have a statement on the back of our jersey. It's about doing the work.”

Leonard has done the work in a variety of ways.

In the community, Leonard partnered with the Clippers foundation and non-profit Baby2Baby to give a million backpacks to all students in his hometown (Moreno Valley, California) as well as other L.A.-based school districts (Inglewood Unified, Los Angeles Unified).

There have been other efforts he has not publicized even amid nation-wide protests about system racism after a white police officer (Derek Chauvin) killed an unarmed black man (George Floyd) on Memorial Day. That prompted Clippers guard Lou Williams to deliberate on whether he would play to concentrate on social justice efforts, but he recently revealed the team determined that all will either sit or resume the season.

“We're Black, so we've been dealing with this situation,” Leonard said of he and his Clippers teammates. “We've been giving back to our communities. It's just broadcasting now since everybody has been in quarantine. So it's a big focal point on that when you're at home watching the news. But I'm just going to continue to do what I've been doing, giving back to my community, educating my community, and just keep going from there.”

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On the court, Leonard has proven to be one of the NBA’s best players after helping the Toronto Raptors win last year’s NBA title during his lone season there. Before the NBA halted operations on March 11, the Clippers (44-20) trailed the Lakers (49-14) by 5½ games for the Western Conference’s best record, partly because of Leonard’s efforts. He averaged 26.9 points on 46.8% shooting along with 7.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists. He complemented Paul George’s defense and playmaking. And even if he missed a combined 14 games because of various injuries surrounding his left knee (13) and lower back (one), the absence helped the Clippers in two ways.

Despite their occasional inconsistency with play and effort, the Clippers leaned on their depth to figure out varying roster combinations. It also enabled Leonard to feel healthy for when the games really count. That moment is here.

“I feel good,” Leonard said. “I was able to work out, get strong and prepare for this moment now that we're in.”

Leonard practiced for the first time on Monday after the Clippers excused him to attend to a family matter when they flew to Orlando on July 8. Leonard arrived this weekend and went through quarantine protocol. Though Clippers guard Landry Shamet tested positive for COVID-19, they otherwise have a fully healthy roster. George added his surgically repaired shoulders feel 100% after he missed the first 11 games of the season.

That might give the Clippers an initial edge over the Lakers. Forward Avery Bradley opted out of playing so he could stay with his 6-year-old son, who has history with respiratory illness. The Lakers expect Rajon Rondo to be out for the next six to eight weeks after he fractured his right thumb during Sunday’s practice. Though Rondo will have surgery off campus, Lakers coach Frank Vogel remained optimistic he could return during the postseason since his timeline would coincide with the beginning of the second round of the playoffs. Still, a healthy Clippers team has gone 10-1 this season.

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“You obviously need your stars to win. I don't think it's going to be a team that wins starless. Having said that, you need a ton of role players,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. “You need to be able to sustain injuries. When you can, you still have a chance to win, and that will help our team. It also gives us an opportunity to play different lineups.”

It no longer appears the Clippers will have to do that because of Leonard, though. He reported feeling fully healthy. The Clippers lauded him for his training regimen during quarantine. Leonard said he communicated frequently with teammates through texts and phone conversations. That is what Rivers meant when he told his players to “win the wait.”

All of which explains why Leonard doesn’t believe their championship aspirations should be diminished with an asterisk.

“Nobody's life is pretty much how they planned it to be at this point with the pandemic,” Leonard said. “You take it for what it is. Everybody is happy that a championship will be crowned this year. If that's the 2020 championship, then we want it.”

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