As It Happens

Kawhi Leonard's high school coach rooting for the Raptors all the way from California

Kawhi Leonard's high school coach Tim Sweeney says his former student might just be "the greatest player in the world."

'This kid's going to be an NBA all-star,' coach Tim Sweeney said of the young player

Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, left, playing high school basketball in Riverside, Calif. (Submitted by Tim Sweeney)
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Torontonians will be tuning in en masse Thursday to root for the Raptors as they play in their first ever NBA Finals match against the Golden State Warriors.

And all the way on the other side of the continent, California's Tim Sweeney will be joining them. 

Sweeney was Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard's basketball coach when he was a student at Martin Luther King High School in Riverside, Calif.

He spoke to As It Happens host Carol Off about working with the future star. Here is part of their conversation.

Coach Sweeney, before we talk about anything else, let's get one thing clear. Who will you be cheering for on Thursday night?

The Toronto Raptors. It's so exciting to see, for Canada and Toronto ... the excitement of them reaching their first NBA Finals. I can't wait for Thursday night.

It's exciting for everyone here too, but people here don't share the same experience that you had, which is that you knew Kawhi Leonard when he was in high school. Can you tell us the first time you set eyes on this player? 

I called my father right away — he was a Hall of Fame high school coach and a college coach — and said, "You've got to get to the gym, we've got an NBA player."

He drove on down to watch a little bit, and he goes, "You're absolutely right."

And I said, "No Dad, I think I got it wrong — this kid's going to be an NBA all-star!"

What was it about Kawhi Leonard that stood out?

Well, it's the way Kawhi played the game. It was the intangibles ... his ability to change a game and do things without having to score.

What league do you see Kawhi Leonard in?

I see Kawhi Leonard as one of the, if not the, greatest player in the world. 

And he's only 27 years old.

As we see him probably play at least another 10 years in the league, you're going to see an evolution of a continued superstar and perhaps the greatest player.

Leonard, right, with his high school basketball Tim Sweeney, left. (Submitted by Tim Sweeney)

People have remarked about how cool he is. I mean, through all these things where everybody else is in a state of anxiety and emotion watching him play, he is so steady. How would you describe him? What's his personality like?

He's always been that quiet, introverted young man. And when he gets on the floor, it's been all businesslike. He takes the game very, very seriously. His work ethic. He wants to be the greatest player ever.

And he has, just his personality, ice in his veins. He doesn't get over-emotional either way. 

There was one occasion, though, when you saw him deeply emotional. Can you tell us what happened?

Well, it was a Friday night. We just got off a big game at home. ... I was sitting at a Cactus Cantina with my father and all my coaches having a dinner with our families like we usually did on a Friday night, and I got a phone call halfway through our meal and it was his mother letting us know that Kawhi's father had just been murdered.

The next day we had a extremely big game against Dominguez High School, one of the best teams in the nation. And this is in Kawhi's junior year. 

I called Kawhi in the morning and said, "I fully anticipate and expect that you're probably not going to be there tonight. We're going be there supporting you as much as we can give you in this situation."

Lo and behold, he showed up and he played in the game. 

I think that was his first way of really dealing with it. 

Leonard nearly cracks a smile while hoisting the NBA Eastern Conference championship trophy. (Claus Andersen/Getty Images)

What do you think he has brought to the Raptors? 

He's changed the team. They certainly had a great team last year and then the trade happened with Kawhi and DeMar DeRozan, and, you know, Kawhi is a superstar. He is going to most likely [be] talked about in the same breath of, you know, your Jordans, your Kobes.

I think what is also very special is the type of player that they have with Kawhi. Also being, you know, arguably the best defender in the world, and he brings an attitude and he brings a heart and soul that permeates through the fabric of the team.

Written by Alison Broverman. Interview produced by Ashley Mak. Q&A has been condensed and edited for clarity. 

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