The Other Side of the Mountain

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

The craziest part was how quiet everything got. It was like the air went out of the whole arena. Maybe I was just in shock, but I felt like I could hear individual people in the crowd gasping. I could see them covering their faces.

The trainer was running over to me.

At first, I didn’t really feel anything. I tried to stand up and walk it off, but I couldn’t. I hadn’t looked down at my leg at that point.

Then I noticed that some people in the crowd were taking out their phones and filming me. That was surreal. That’s when I knew it must be bad. So I finally looked down at my leg and … yeah.

One second I’m 24 years old, playing for Team USA, about to make another run at the title with the Pacers, and the next second it’s like my whole career is flashing before my eyes.

Moments like the first time I made the SportsCenter Top 10, dunking over a dude in my first game at Fresno State.

The first time I played in Boston and I saw KG, Rondo, Pierce, Ray Allen and Shaq rolling out onto the court looking like the Monstars from Space Jam, for real.

The first time I had to guard T-Mac and was in such awe of him that I was sitting at my locker after the game, like, “Did that really just happen?”

Even while I was still laying on the floor, waiting for the stretcher, I was thinking, Am I ever going to be the same?

Thank God my mom was in the crowd that night. We’ve always had a really special connection. She was actually the one who rode along in the ambulance with me to the hospital, and I remember she kept repeating, “It’s gonna be alright, son. It’s gonna be alright.” 

While I was still laying on the floor, waiting for the stretcher, I was thinking, Am I ever going to be the same?

Now, if anybody else had said those words to me in that moment, they wouldn’t have meant anything. But coming from her, it was so powerful. Because my mom had known real pain. The pain I was in was nothing compared to what I had witnessed her overcome when I was a kid.

When I was six years old, she suffered a stroke and two blood clots. At one point, the paramedics actually pronounced her dead. I was too young to fully grasp what a miracle it was that she survived. They were able to revive her, and she made an incredible recovery over the years. More than we ever could’ve prayed for, really. But unfortunately, she was left partially paralyzed and had to deal with a lot of pain and rehabilitation. It was a long road.

I remember I used to pull a chair up next to her hospital bed and hold her hand and fall asleep with her. When they let her come home, they set up her recovery bed in our den and I’d put a bunch of sheets and pillows on the ground and sleep next to her at night.

So when I broke my leg, and she was the one in the ambulance with me, holding my hand and telling me, “Son, it’s gonna be alright,” it wasn’t just empty words. I really believed her.

There were times during my recovery when I was so depressed, so down, so frustrated. But I would talk to my mom and get so much strength. She knew I was going to get back, because this was all I ever really wanted to do with my life. That’s no exaggeration. Go ask her. She’ll probably tell you how I used to be outside hooping 24/7 with no shoes on in my all-black “ninja” outfit. Eleven o’ clock at night, barefoot in the rain, hooping. It wasn’t that we couldn’t afford shoes. Nothing like that. I just genuinely couldn’t even be bothered to take 30 seconds to lace up my sneaks, that’s how excited I was to go hoop.

Courtesy of Paul George

My sisters will tell you that when they took me to play my first five-on-five game at the YMCA, all the other kids came out in full team gear, and I came out rocking some jorts. Homemade, custom jeans shorts, man. I just cut them off at the knee with some scissors and I was ready to go.

It was like I was too consumed by basketball to even think about anything else. It was beyond a passion. It was a sickness. When I say I did nothing else but play ball, I really did nothing else but play ball.

You have to understand where we were living, and when. If you’re not from California, I need to paint the picture for you. You know when you’re in Hollywood, right? Or Beverly Hills? Well, we weren’t from there at all. You know those mountains way off in the distance? We lived on the other side of those mountains.

Palmdale. The Antelope Valley. The other Los Angeles. A lot of families moved out there in the ’80s — from neighborhoods like South Central, Inglewood and Compton — for a better life. It was like a little blue-collar town in the middle of the desert, and there was nothing really to do but play ball or go to the mall. So just think about it. I’m 10 years old in the year 2000. You got Kobe and the Lakers about to go on their three-peat run, and you got the Young Clippers coming up with D-Miles and Lamar Odom and Elton Brand. It was a crazy time for L.A. basketball, and my family was split 50-50 between the Clippers and the Lakers.

Kobe was my idol, 100%. I modeled my whole game after him. But then you had D-Miles coming straight out of high school, catching those lobs and rocking the white headband. Kobe was the greatest alive, but that Clippers team was the culture. I’m saying, I was obsessed. If you tried to talk to me, we were talking basketball. Anything else, I couldn’t relate.

My sister Teiosha was five years older than me, and we used to go at it out in the driveway. Well, actually, fact-check — we couldn’t play in the driveway because my dad would be yelling out from the front window, “Don’t you be hitting my car with that basketball!”

So we’d have to drag our portable hoop out into the little cul-de-sac to play one-on-one. And when I tell you this hoop was raggedy, you don’t even know. The rim was drooping down. The pole was all wrapped up with black electricians tape. It was sad, man. But it was our hoop. We’d go at it, all hours. Around the world, 21, one-on-one, whatever. And don’t get it twisted. She worked me. Her game was crazy. She had the Tim Duncan midrange. Inside, outside. Off-the-glass. She was the Big Fundamental. I literally don’t think I ever beat her until my sophomore year of high school, and then I spent the rest of my life ducking the rematch.

Sam Maller/The Players' Tribune

The thing about the (661) was that nobody was coming out our way to recruit. No-body. I didn’t know a single person who played college ball. As I got a little older, and YouTube was first coming out, I was looking at all these mixtapes of the big AAU guys from L.A. and New York, and it was like they were living in another world. Lance Stephenson, DeMar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday. They were around my age, but they were almost like famous to me, you know?

I didn’t have an AAU team or a trainer or anything, so I’d make up my own crazy DIY workouts. Teiosha got some Jumpsoles for Christmas one year, and I’d borrow them from her and just be walking around the neighborhood all day like, “I’m about to dunk for sure. Six more months of this, I’m dunking.” Sometimes I’d grab my backpack and fill it up with rocks and go running out in the desert right behind our house. I’m doing push-ups out in the tumbleweeds with a big bag of rocks on my back. No iPod, no nothing. Just the sound of the wind. That was the Palmdale Equinox.

I was trying to get to the other side of that mountain. I felt like I had to get seen. I felt like I couldn’t fail, because I saw how hard my dad was working to hold it down for our family while my mom was sick.

He worked at a rim shop during the day, and this was the early 2000s, so they had plenty of work, man! That was peak rim season. The 22s. The spinners. Everybody had rims back in the day. As I got older, he started doing carpentry jobs on the side to make extra money. He used to wake up at three o’ clock in the morning to take a job and not come home until seven o’ clock at night. And what was so amazing to me now, when I think back on it, is that he used to come home and still do yard work, still take my sisters to the mall, still take me out fishing on the lake when he could.

I just felt like, I can’t fail, seeing how hard my dad works. In reality, though, it took me a long time to break through. I didn’t really get noticed until my sophomore year of high school. Shout out to Dana and David Pump, man. They saw me randomly at some tournament, and they invited me to come play for their AAU squad, the notorious Pump-N-Run. But it was way more than a roster spot, actually. They practiced down in the Valley and in different parts of L.A., and my family couldn’t afford to get me there. My dad was working 24/7, and my mom couldn’t drive. But the Pump brothers went above and beyond to help me. They’d send a car to pick me up for practices and take me back home at night, and that changed my whole life.

Fresno Bee/Getty Images

If they hadn’t done that, there’s no way I’d be telling this story right now. I’d have never made it D-I, never made it to the league, never gotten to experience everything that I have in life. I mean, I was so off the radar that at my first practice, all my teammates were looking at me like, “I never heard of you, bro. Who are you?”

And I was looking at them like, “Well, I definitely heard of you.”

That’s what’s so funny about this whole summer, actually. Because people keep saying, “Oh, you and Kawhi, you guys have been knowing each other since you were coming up in AAU.”

But that’s how you really know who’s from Los Angeles, because weren’t in the same orbit at all. I didn’t meet Kawhi until I was in college and he was playing for San Diego State.

I was supposed to see the dude when we were at Bron’s camp my freshman year at Fresno State, because all everybody was talking about at this camp was, “This dude Kawhi, he’s supposed to be nice.”

The first two days, Kawhi didn’t show up. So obviously the legend kept growing. It was a whole mystique. “Kawhi, man. I hear dude is crazy.”

I ended up getting hurt at the start of the camp, and I had to leave early. I didn’t think anything else of the dude until we’re playing San Diego State my sophomore year, and I’m looking down their roster and I see, “F — Kawhi Leonard,” and I’m like, “Ohhhhhhhhh.”

But still, I’m thinking, Is this dude for real?

You know, sometimes guys just get that aura around them.

Mannnnnnnnnn. Kawhi came out for warmups, and it was like he knew. We were sizing each other up from the jump ball. We went so hard that night it was crazy. He didn’t say one word, naturally. But his intensity was on another level. I remember looking at him after the game, like, Oh, O.K. You’re different. You’re a dog.

No way anybody in that gym that night was thinking they just saw two NBA All-Stars going at it. It was two dudes from outside of L.A. Two dudes who were a little bit off the radar. Two dudes playing in the Mountain West on a Tuesday night.

All these years later, man. Me and Kawhi on the same squad, back in the (213).

That whole journey from Pump-N-Run to Fresno State to getting DNPs my rookie year, to Most Improved Player, to NBA All-Star in Indiana, to OKC … Man, let me just pause here to say that I genuinely, genuinely loved playing for those fans in Oklahoma City. Y’all were just so great to me, from the first time I stepped off that plane, literally. And I had a special bond with Russ that is really rare in this league. I loved my experience in OKC.

This journey back to the (213) is incredible to me in retrospect, because when I left home for college 10 years ago, I don’t think anybody in my family expected all this to happen. My mom and dad, the first time they started getting calls from agents and seeing my name on draft boards, I’m not lying when I say it was like their minds were blown. They used to drive three-plus hours from Palmdale to Fresno to see me play for every single home game. It was seven hours in the car, round trip on a Tuesday, just to see me in person.

To them, I’m still that little kid dragging our raggedy-ass hoop out into the cul-de-sac in my bare feet. It wasn’t that long ago, to them.

Sam Maller/The Players’ Tribune

That’s why it felt so good to call my mom this summer and tell her that I was really coming home to the (213) to play for the Clippers. I don’t think people realize how hard it’s been for her to travel to see me play, especially in the last few years. She’s a warrior, and she never complains. We’re so blessed. But it’s not easy for her to get on airplanes. For my dad to be able to drive her to Staples to see me play, it’s a beautiful thing.

Look, I didn’t grow up in that L.A.

I’m from the other L.A.

I’m from the (661) and I’m proud of it. But I used to be out in the desert, running around with my big sack of rocks, dreaming about getting on somebody’s radar, dreaming about getting on the other side of that mountain, dreaming about playing at Staples, dreaming about those bright lights.

L.A. is not just what you see on TV from the blimp. I’m trying to represent for all the spots that made me — (661), (213), (818), (310), everybody. I’m trying to win.

I’m trying to represent for all the spots that mademe — (661) , (213), (818), (310), everybody.

So we know why we’re here.

We’re just trying to bring a ring to the (213), man. Period, end of story.