At the southwestern tip of the Mojave Desert stands a billboard. The colorful sign looks out of place against the backdrop of barren hills and bushes that have survived the scorching Southern California sun. It’s here, 65 miles northeast of Los Angeles’s city center, that Paul George, dressed in the Clippers gear he has yet to wear in a real game, welcomes you to his hometown of Palmdale. “Young Trece,” one of his nicknames, is printed around him in slate-gray lettering; a small Clippers logo sits in one corner, and a URL for a tickets website is in another.
Roughly 85 miles southeast of Palmdale is another billboard. This one is two-sided, and positioned across from a dive bar on a dimly lit road just outside of Moreno Valley, Kawhi Leonard’s hometown. Like George’s, one side of this billboard shows Leonard in a Clippers jersey, with surrounding text that reads “Man Myth” in the same gray font. On the other side, you see a close-up of Leonard sporting a rare smile; above him, white letters span the length of the billboard: “Welcome Home.”
Places like Moreno Valley and Palmdale are what some Southern California locals call “the real L.A.” And it’s in those places where both Leonard and George began their unlikely NBA journeys.
Now, after stints in Indiana and Oklahoma, San Antonio and Toronto, both players have maneuvered their way back there—or pretty close, at least. After lifting the Raptors to the 2018-19 NBA championship, Leonard signed with the Los Angeles Clippers in free agency, on the condition that they acquire Paul George from Oklahoma City. The George trade cost the Clippers a record haul—two players, four unprotected first-round picks, one protected first-round pick, and two pick swaps—but they made this homegrown partnership happen, and are widely viewed as title favorites heading into the 2019-20 season because of it.
But to understand how both players got to this point, you have to go back to their days growing up on the outskirts of mainstream L.A. Here are the stories—told by the coaches, teammates, and friends from their hometowns—of how it all began for George and Leonard.
Kawhi Leonard: Growing Up Serious
When Leonard was in third grade and on a team trip to Staples Center, he found himself on the floor of a school bus, his face pressed against the ground and his shoelaces tied together in knots. His teammates from the Riverside chapter of the National Junior Basketball League were the culprits. On their annual ride to see a Clippers game, they had merged the laces of his left and right sneakers while he wasn’t looking and then called him to the front of the bus. Leonard fell—but he didn’t react.
His childhood teammates did this only once, but the resentment that inspired the prank wasn’t a one-off. This wasn’t because of anything Leonard had done, but because of what he possessed. Gang-related violence was prevalent in pockets of Moreno Valley, and some of his teammates’ fathers were no longer at home. Eric Fredieu, the kids’ rec league coach, wanted to keep them out of trouble, so he turned his house into a hub where they spent time between games and practices. Many would get dropped off at Fredieu’s house without money, but Leonard’s mom always made sure he had some. And while some of the boys would use the same basketball shoes season after season, Leonard almost always had a fresh pair. It wasn’t that he was well off, he was just taken care of—and it made his peers jealous. “I had to fix that issue up,” Fredieu says of the teasing. “I gathered the kids and told them to cut it out. … Didn’t happen again.”
Even at that age, and even in the face of animosity from his peers, Leonard was a steady presence. “He played basketball and video games and didn’t say much,” Fredieu says. Leonard wasn’t the most talented player when he suited up for Fredieu’s rec league teams, first in the NJBL and eventually with the Moreno Valley All-Stars. But he stood out in more subtle ways: Once, before he turned 10, he left an opposing coach bewildered at the size of his hands, and he frequently used those hands to win rebounding fights with kids far bigger than him. His broad build earned him the nickname “Little Mike Tyson” from another NJBL and Moreno Valley All-Stars coach, assistant David Williams, who loved how much Leonard relished doing his defensive sliding drills.
“He’d always challenge me,” Williams says. “If you say anything was outstanding about him at that age, it was the fact that he played defense, and he enjoyed it.”
By the time Leonard was a preteen, people began noticing his wingspan and respecting his talent. He was no longer being teased, but he still kept to himself.
“I remember him just being super quiet, so now when I see people talk about how he doesn’t say much, I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s always been him,’” says Kimberly Carter, who spent the 2003-04 season as an assistant coach on the Moreno Valley All-Stars. “He wasn’t, like, odd or anything like that, but he didn’t play around or be silly, or slack off like normal kids his age.” (Neither Leonard nor George were made available for interviews for this story.)
Both Fredieu and Williams say Leonard’s demeanor made him easy to coach. Only once did they ever hear him complain. Down a few players at a tournament when Leonard was 12, Williams had Leonard, then a wing, play point guard. In the middle of the game, Leonard mumbled something in the huddle, trying to make sure only Williams heard him. “What?” Williams asked. “I don’t like running point guard,” Leonard quietly repeated. He begrudgingly finished out the game at the position, but now, Williams laughs at the irony of the two-time Finals MVP not wanting the ball in his hands. “He got a little taste of it,” he says. “And look at him now.”
Paul George: The Lanky Boy Who Could Dunk
George has a knack for announcing himself with a dunk. His slam against Saint Mary’s in 2008 was his coming-out party at Fresno State. This one over Chris Andersen in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals signaled his arrival in the NBA and earned him a dap from LeBron James. And in high school, Myles Conkrite—a freshman at Pete Knight High when George was a senior—first noticed George out of the corner of his eye when George tried to dunk over him in P.E. during their first week of school.
“I moved out the way at the last second, and I was like, ‘No, bro, not me,’” Conkrite says, laughing. “He understood his body at 6-8. He wasn’t a typical 6-8 guy; he was a 6-8 guard who was real smooth, could handle, shoot and play-make. It was amazing to watch in person.”
When the East Palmdale winters would get too cold to throw a football at the field behind Buena Vista Elementary School or organize an after-school pickup game at Domenic Massari Park, a 10-year-old George could be found either dunking on lowered rims at the local YMCA or dunking on his friends by letting them get up on him in Madden or NBA Live before mounting a comeback. And when the temperature rose north of 100 degrees, he’d be at Jimmy Segura’s—the friend with a pool—dunking on the poolside rim as if it were a real game.
“He always wanted to win, and he was always good at every game,” Segura says. “We’d always talk trash, but he’d always win.”
As George detailed in a 2013 article he wrote for Sports Illustrated Kids, he started playing basketball more and more once he turned 10 because that was the year his mother, Paulette, suffered a stroke. “It was a good distraction,” George wrote.
“In Palmdale, there’s not much to do,” says Lamont Dewindt, who played basketball with George through high school and lived less than a mile away. “We would all just go up and down to Massari Park and we’d play basketball from four or five o’clock until like 9:30, 10 o’clock.”
At age 10, George was already noticeably lanky and taller than most of his peers. And even though he hadn’t played much organized basketball to that point, he had a lot of raw potential—and a reluctance toward being typecast by his height. Those who played with him at that time were taken aback by the fact that the tallest kid in their group wanted to only shoot and play on the perimeter. “He never played center, he never wanted to be that,” Dewindt says. Once the other players saw hints of what he could do with the ball, no one questioned him.
George’s desire to be unique even extended to his NBA fandom. His friends were avid Lakers fans, and George would watch games with them. But on his own time, his guilty pleasure was the Clippers. “Kobe was his favorite player,” says Segura, who was a team manager throughout George’s high school years and lived down the street from him. George wore no. 24 in honor of Kobe Bryant in all but one year of high school. “But he loved those Clippers teams. He loved how they played together, how they were a team, and they were unselfish. Even back then he was gravitating toward that style of play.”
Kawhi Leonard: “A Dennis Rodman That Could Score”
For as long as anyone in Moreno Valley can remember, Leonard has had braids. In every picture Fredieu has of Leonard, from age 7 all the way to his freshman year at Canyon Springs High, he has braids.
As a freshman, Leonard, who was then 6-foot-3, played tight end for the football team. That season forced him to miss basketball tryouts, but David Williams, then a JV assistant basketball coach at the school, asked him whether he still wanted to play basketball. Leonard said yes, so Williams dragged the shy Leonard to meet with varsity coach Jeff Stovall. Williams said that Stovall told Leonard he would have to try out to make the team. Then came the curveball: to play on the team, he would need to cut his braids.
Once Williams and Leonard walked away from Stovall, Leonard spoke up.. “Man, I’m not cutting my hair,” he said. Williams remembers Leonard looking dismayed. “I knew right then where he said it, that shit isn’t going to fly,” he says. “That’s his mane, that’s his trend.” (Reached by phone, Stovall denies that he had any opposition to the braids or discussions about them with Leonard. Williams is adamant that the story is true.)
Multiple other people who grew up with or played with Leonard brought up this moment and felt it was a big part of why Leonard eventually transferred to Martin Luther King Jr. High for his junior and senior years (he’d graduate in 2009). And many who were around him at that time say that the transfer was the best thing that could’ve happened to Leonard because King—a newer school that, thanks to a few transfers (including Leonard), was suddenly flush with talent and championship aspirations—gave him a bigger stage.
Despite the move, Leonard’s game remained the same. Much like he was with his words, his game was calculated and economical. His languid style surprised people; he was less of a fighter jet and more of a locomotive, slowly building up to a speed that he could maintain longer than anyone else.
When Tim Sweeney Jr., then the head coach at King, saw Leonard at the team’s first practice, he immediately called his dad, a former high school coach himself, to come watch. “This kid’s going to be an NBA All-Star by the time we’re done with him,” Sweeney remembers telling his father.
“He was a Dennis Rodman that could score,” Sweeney says.
Kawhi Leonard: When His Game Spoke Volumes
Inside the Canyon Springs High equipment room, Lejerion Carr is reminiscing: “If you say ‘The Lake Club’ to anybody from here …”
Varsity coach Chris Robinson, who coached JV when Leonard was in school, finishes his thought: “Yeah, they know. Everybody went to the Lake Club.”
It was Moreno Valley’s hottest ticket—a humbler version of the Drew League played within the Sunnymead Ranch Lake Club gated community. Residents were allowed to bring in up to 10 guests a month, and Sunday runs there came to host the best players in town. The games were five-on-five, and if you lost you wouldn’t play the rest of the night.
Carr, who went to middle school with Leonard and became close friends with him in high school, remembers how Leonard could fit with any one of the Lake Club teams, how he would swipe balls away from opponents and had fun seemingly only when he won. His intensity came across in how he played, and if you couldn’t match it, Carr says, “get out of the way.”
Carr and those who watched Leonard in his Lake Club days praised his self-sufficiency on the court. The only person he was trying to outplay was himself, and regardless of the venue, he played with purpose. “When he’s playing, basketball makes him feel free,” Carr said.
Those close to Leonard at the time, from Sweeney to Carr to Fredieu and Williams, believe that that’s why Leonard chose to play in a tournament game at UCLA his junior season of high school just one day after his father had been shot and killed at his car wash. Leonard’s coaches told him he could sit out, but he said didn’t want to let the team down. He went on to score 17 points in a eight-point loss. Afterward, surrounded by his family in the tunnel, he broke down.
“I don’t think he fully grieved until after the season,” Sweeney Jr. says. “I think basketball was the perfect outlet, but it caught up to him.”
Leonard’s high school support system tried to help him through that difficult time by keeping him busy. They spent their time not just playing basketball at the Lake Club, but also bowling at Brunswick Zone in Moreno Valley (something Carr says they were still able to do when Leonard was a member of the Spurs, but not anymore), and picking up Buffalo wings at Steve’s Burgers, the roadside shack 2 miles from Canyon Springs High.
Carr remembers one day he and Leonard, then 15, and a group of other friends had just finished playing basketball at the rec center when, unprompted, Leonard spoke up while sitting on the bleachers.
“I’m going to the league.”
No one had ever verbalized that possibility among Leonard’s friend group, but they knew him as someone who could do anything—even become a doctor or the president—if he set his mind to it. So who were they to doubt him?
“There’s really only two choices [in Moreno Valley]. Well, there’s three,” Carr says. “You could go to school and go far away, then you pretend that you’re not from there. Or you could make bad decisions, and then you end up staying there forever. Or you can try to use this as a vehicle to better yourself in other ways. That’s pretty much what he did.”
Paul George: Small-Town Breakout
Every morning during high school, George would exit his grandmother’s house on 57th and S streets in East Palmdale in stages—all of which were witnessed by Jimmy Segura and his mom, who were waiting in the car to take him to school. First, he tossed his gym bag, then his backpack, and then George himself would emerge with lotion in his hands to put on inside the car. He was almost always late.
George was late leaving school too. Tom Hegre, George’s coach at Knight High, remembers coming out of his office several times to see George playing a teammate in a full-court game of one-on-one after they had finished practice. The games would go long enough that the scores would sometimes get into the 90s.
“I’d usually tell the guys, ‘Hey, my wife has called like three times. We need to leave,’” Hegre says now, sitting in the same office.
George didn’t make the varsity team as a freshman, and even though he played well on the freshman team, he was passing way too much for Hegre’s liking. The varsity coach would sit behind the bench and observe; after five games, he told George that he should be more aggressive. It didn’t work. George continued to play pass-first, drive-second basketball until Hegre pulled him aside before a game and made him a deal: Hegre wanted George to score 25 points, and each point he scored would mean one less suicide he’d have to run at the next practice. George got the message. The following day, he didn’t have to run a single suicide, Hegre says.
George’s habits weren’t totally fixed, though. Before his senior season, Hegre believed he had a talented team—but one that needed a clear no. 1 guy. So he gathered the players in his office and proposed a question: Would anyone here be upset if George took more than 20 shots or tried to go for 25 points every game? No one disapproved.
This group of players had developed a bond; they spent time together doing fundraising car washes, going on a fishing trip with George and his dad to the lake near Victorville, watching George beat them at the local Brunswick Bowl (nearly identical to the one in Moreno Valley) with his curved shot, and grabbing Arizona Fruit Punch to go along with the breakfast burritos they loved from the local strip mall spot Primo Burgers. They were George’s closest friends, and as they helped him sift through the shoeboxes full of recruiting letters that he brought to practice, they realized he wouldn’t be their hometown secret for long.
Seventeen games into the season, Knight High was a paltry 10-7. After a loss to Lancaster High School about halfway through the season, George finally called his shot: He told a reporter they weren’t losing any more games.
“We were all like, ‘This dude is crazy,’” Olando Miller says. “But once he said that, it was like a switch. We gotta back up these damn words now.”
And they did. George took over on both ends of the floor and led the team on a 10-game winning streak to close out the season. He graduated in 2008, and from there went on to Fresno State and, eventually, the NBA. Soon, George would become the biggest thing to come out Palmdale since Afroman.
Kawhi Leonard and Paul George: Full Circle
A few of Kawhi’s friends say that before last season they would hear him complain that TV announcers who called his games would say he was from Riverside or Los Angeles, even San Diego State—but never Moreno Valley. This past season, though, Robinson and Carr say they heard an accurate introduction a lot more often. “I think he had a conversation with someone about it,” Carr says, “because he’d say, ‘I don’t know why they say Riverside.’” At Clippers media day last week, Leonard explained the role his true hometown played in his free agency decision.
“One of the reasons I came back is because of my community,” said Leonard, who paid a surprise visit to a Canyon Springs High practice last week. “To let them know it’s not a myth and that I was just in their shoes one day and they could be in my shoes.”
George, too, keeps in touch with his Palmdale roots. His Nike signature sneakers feature one of Palmdale’s ZIP codes on the midsole, and the NASA edition was inspired by Palmdale’s nearby Edwards Air Force Base. When he changed his jersey number in 2014, he had to buy the rest of his no. 24 merchandise; instead of selling it or hanging on to it, he sent it all to Knight High, and they had a “Paul George Day” in his honor. He also returned to the city just last week to break ground on renovated courts at Marie Kerr Park. Domenic Massari Park’s courts, where he played as a kid, will soon get a similar treatment.
“L.A. can’t claim him,” Dewindt says. “We feel like he’s ours. He’s from the 661, he’s a Palmdale kid.”
The people in these places knew Leonard and George before the rest of the world did. And that knowledge has made watching their rise extra special. Segura remembers cheering in his dorm at Cal State East Bay with Dewindt when George dropped his signature dunk at Fresno State. “I’d be going on NBADraft.net, looking at mock drafts,” Segura says. “Like, ‘OK, they got him 17—he might really get drafted!’” Miller skipped class to watch a 22-year-old George in the 2013 Eastern Conference finals against LeBron James.
Sweeney chuckles at a memory of LeBron wincing at the free throw line when he saw Leonard checking back into the game during Game 5 of the 2013 Finals. A year later, Leonard locked LeBron down in Game 3 of the Finals and went on to win Finals MVP. And when Leonard signed a shoe deal with New Balance last November, former King High assistant coach Jeff Dietz couldn’t help but recall Leonard’s confused face when a Nike shoe rep gave him brand-new sneakers before the team’s California Interscholastic Federation final upset win over Mater Dei at the Honda Center in 2009. In his classroom at King today, Dietz keeps a pair of old, worn, blue-and-white basketball sneakers that Leonard left behind. They’re perched on top of a bookcase next to a Spurs poster of him, like a makeshift altar.
Sweeney predicted Leonard would be an All-Star when he first saw him in practice 12 years ago; now, after watching him win a second championship this past season, Dietz has taken it a step further, believing that Leonard is now the best player in the world. Over in Palmdale, those who have watched George for just as long say it’s about time for him to get his.
“If a dude that grew up in Southern California, in a small city, joins L.A.’s small-time team and wins a championship, he has an immediate legacy,” Dewindt says. “But I’m a Laker fan so I’m like, ‘Shit.’”