Kawhi Leonard discovers plenty in offseason trip to China

Spurs star learns about country's culture ... and world-wide popularity of his team

Rob Reheuser, Special to NBA.com

Kawhi Leonard is a man of few words on the court. The two-time NBA All-Star with the San Antonio Spurs prefers to let his play do the talking.

During a recent weeklong trip to China, Leonard’s interaction with Chinese youth and his appreciation for the country’s culture and love of basketball spoke volumes.

> Spurs.com: Recapping Leonard’s trip to China

The 26-year-old covered a lot of ground in his first trip to China — which took place from Aug. 17-24 — and was struck by how many Spurs fans he encountered at events in Beijing and Shanghai.

“Seeing all these Spurs fans surprised me,” said Leonard, who went through etiquette training prior to his trip to become more versed in Chinese culture. “I wasn’t sure if there would be any fans watching Texas basketball because they say our market is so small. With social media, I guess every market is a big market, but I didn’t think I’d see so many fans of mine and the Spurs.”

San Antonio’s popularity in China can be traced to an appreciation for Tim Duncan and his fundamental approach to playing the game. Leonard won an NBA title alongside the Spurs’ legend in 2014 and shares many similar traits with Duncan, who retired after the 2015-16 season.

Leonard’s trip featured a visit to The NBA Academy Zhejiang in Zhuji, an elite basketball training center for the top male and female prospects from China. As the first NBA player to visit an NBA Academy in China, the two-time Kia Defensive Player of the Year worked with players on the court and shared some words of wisdom.

“My message was for them to enjoy the game and respect it,” Leonard said. “That means studying it, going out and working on your game, eating the right foods, making sure your body is ready. Also, make sure to take care of your schoolwork. If you’re not fortunate enough to go to the NBA, you could also get a degree and focus toward something else in life.”

Leonard also spent time at the NBA Beijing office shadowing NBA China CEO David Shoemaker as part of the NBA Career Crossover Job Shadow program, one of several programs offered by the NBA’s Player Development department to assist current and former players with their career development off the court. Leonard attended business meetings with NBA China executives and conducted a chalk talk with NBA staff. He came away from the experience impressed with Shoemaker’s vision for the game in China.

“He’s very smart,” Leonard said. “I asked him a few questions about the business and how he’s trying to grow it. How he’s making kids in China gravitate to playing basketball and making it more fun. It’s been a great experience overall, just meeting him and gaining some knowledge. I’m going to use some of it for myself in the future when I’m working with kids and trying to grow the game in my home community.”

As part of his trip, Leonard conducted an NBA Cares clinic in Beijing to help celebrate the league’s 30-year partnership with CCTV; met fans at NBA 5v5, the NBA’s five-on-five tournament for elite players in China; visited Tencent’s broadcast studio; and made a special appearance at the NBA Playzone in Shanghai, an NBA-themed family entertainment destination for kids and their families.

One of the highlights for the Los Angeles native was getting the chance to tour The Great Wall.

“I didn’t know it was going to be so unique,” Leonard said. “I thought it was just going to be a wall, but it’s a lot of stairs and pathways, a bunch of stories that these walls tell. This is a memory I will take in and always remember. [This] won’t be my last time here. I’ll probably come back next summer.”