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Three big questions with Meyers Leonard: NBA season start date, free agency and social justice

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After the longest season in NBA history, Heat center Meyers Leonard chose to unwind in the most Meyers Leonard way possible.

He planned to make a cross-country trip in a Coors Light-themed RV.

The beer-loving big man is in the process of traveling from Miami to Los Angeles, where Leonard typically does his offseason training. Alongside his wife, Elle, and his dog, Koko, Leonard planned pit stops to see close family members but remain socially distanced amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Leonard’s Heat played in the final game of the 2019-20 season on Oct. 11, losing to the Lakers in Game 6 of the NBA Finals inside the league’s bubble at the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida. Now, with team owners and the National Basketball Players Association discussing a quick turnaround for the 2020-21 campaign — ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Zach Lowe reported Wednesday the expectation is a reduced 72-game season will start Dec. 22 — Leonard is taking advantage of a tight window.

“Being in the bubble was stressful,” Leonard told Sporting News before the start of his trip. “It was different. I was away from home. So the ability to, during these times, to travel safe and away from people and COVID with my wife and dog is important to me.”

Leonard spoke with SN last week as part of a promotional interview on behalf of Coors Brewing. He covered the unusual nature of this offseason, how he is approaching his impending free agency and what players can do to ensure their social justice efforts continue outside of the bubble.

(Note: This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.)

SPORTING NEWS: You mentioned the grind in the bubble. Obviously, you guys played the last game of the season. With all the news about potential start dates for next season — we’ve heard late December, then we’ve heard Martin Luther King Day — what are you hearing about the start of the upcoming season and where discussions stand?

MEYERS LEONARD: I can only speak for myself in terms of what I feel about it. I’m gonna do whatever I’m told. I love my job, I’m blessed and all those things. So if the season starts around Christmas, fine. Is that a shorter offseason than anticipated? Yes. Would I like to have more time to work on my game just as I always do in Los Angeles every offseason? Yes, of course. But, again, I seriously mean this: I am so thankful every single day of my life to compete at the highest level and to play a game I love and to take care of my family. So really, it’s a no-brainer for me to just do what I’m told. That’s just who I am as a person.

But I would say — and this isn’t that I’ve had conversations with these people — but take Jimmy Butler and LeBron [James], for example. Those are high-usage guys, a lot of load, lot of minutes, and they could probably use some time to relax their bodies and recover, and mentally, to just get away. The grind is real, period. The bubble was something totally different than anyone had literally ever gone through.

I would say that there is a part of me as a player, in trying to understand what most players would say, I’d be like, “All right, cool. I would lean more toward an MLK, Jan. 18 start than I would a Christmas start.” But then, there’s the more business-minded thought process that says, “Well, the players’ money is stake. Everybody’s money is at stake. There are TV deals in place. Can we get fans in the arena? When can we do that?”

There are so many different components to this that I just don’t have the answers to. It’s just an interesting time we’re all living in, and everyone’s been impacted by it. I’m just gonna do my best. I’m gonna grind as hard as I possibly can for the amount of time that I have, and then I’m gonna show up for camp ready to go. To give you a more clear answer, if someone was to take a poll of every NBA player that’s currently in the league, I would say a majority of people would pick Jan. 18 over Christmas, I would think.

SN: In addition to the season start date, there is a condensed offseason calendar, too. You’re set to become a free agent. We don’t have a firm free-agency date after the draft. In terms of your approach to free agency, how much do you know about that time period and what kind of market there could be for you and other free agents?

ML: From a timeline perspective, that will all handle itself. The draft will happen, then free agency will start. From more of a money perspective, I have an agent for a reason. I mean that. I hire him to handle the logistics. I hire him to talk to teams, figure out who’s interested, what might make sense from a role perspective, a team perspective, etc. While money certainly matters, it doesn’t matter that much to me. Everyone wants to feel as though they have some sort of respect around the league. That doesn’t matter all that much to me, but there is that component.

Beyond that, there’s more to me than just money. It’s winning, having a significant role, whether it’s starting or coming off the bench, 20-25 minutes. I’ve really shown people that I can play and impact the game every night. When I was starting every game for the Heat prior to getting hurt, I think that I really showed people what I’m capable of, and there’s still more to come. I know that. That’s why I’m always excited for every offseason. It’s because I continue to add more, continue to polish my game, continue to watch film and understand myself, understand other players around the league and how I can be better.

I loved Miami. I loved Jimmy and [coach Erik Spoelstra] and Bam [Adebayo] and the rest of the guys. They all appreciated me for what I did. Let’s say in a game against an elite offensive rebounder, I’d say, “Bam, listen, I’m taking him out of the game tonight. No problem. Come get every rebound.” I don’t care if you go to ESPN and look up whatever, six points, five rebounds. Trust me when I tell you I don’t care.

Is there some legitimacy to that? Yes. Does every NBA player want to score a bunch of points, take a bunch of shots? Yeah, it’d be crazy to say that anyone doesn’t. However, it matters more to me to win and to have a significant role, a role that people appreciate you for. That’s what I tried to do all year long in Miami. Use my voice as a communicator, box out so we get the rebound. Sure, I’ll get some rebounds. Could I chase down more rebounds? Yeah. Do I space the floor well? Yes. Have I shot over 40 percent on 3-pointers as a 7-footer for three straight years? Yes. Do I continue to work on my game? Yes. Am I confident? Yes.

But I ultimately just want to impact winning. That’s what matters to me. What I’m looking for in free agency from Miami or whomever else, it’s to be on a contending team that’s going to be going to the playoffs and competing for a title. That’s my hope. Lastly, to play and have a significant role.

SN: I wanted to ask about the social justice efforts within the bubble. You added your voice to that conversation and said it’s important to continue to support the Black community. How do you as players — and also the NBA as a league with all of its resources — how do you pull that momentum from the bubble and keep it going? How do you carry that over to 2021?

ML: I would just say the easiest answer is through social media. A lot of these guys have massive platforms, and they’re able to reach a lot of people that way. A lot of times, people listen. They watch. They want to see what athletes are doing. They want to know what they feel, what they think about. I think athletes are becoming more and more comfortable being willing to share maybe some more personal stuff and pull the curtain back a little bit and really show people just who they are. I would say social media would be the main thing right now to just carry that momentum over because COVID is still very real. Going places in person is, for me I would say, I know it’s not necessarily a comfortable thing. I continue to live my life, not living scared. The main thing would be social media, guys continuing to voice their opinions, tell people how they feel on all different issues and topics.

Right now, obviously, there’s still a need for discussion around the African American community and Black Lives Matter and things that continue to happen, which are very unfortunate events in America. I’ve done my best to explain myself, why I stood for the [national] anthem. I stood for the anthem because my brother served two combat tours in Afghanistan for the United States Marine Corps, and, really, my main initiative off the floor has always been the military. I’ve sat with Navy SEAL [Team] Six operators, like lead snipers, guys that have taken on the worst of the worst and the bad of the bad, and listened to these guys and how much pain they have in their voices. You would think these guys are invincible. But they’re not. These people come back broken, physically and mentally, and need help. That real, raw emotion that I feel in my heart toward those people and that anthem and that flag means something to me.

That first time when I stood, if you were to see a video of it, I had to put my head down because it was tough. I’m an emotional guy. But I knew that I had Jimmy and UD [Udonis Haslem] and the rest of my team, the entire Miami Heat organization, their support. That meant a whole hell of a lot to me. The fact that I stood between Jimmy and UD — two very prominent players, period, but obviously they’re African American — they literally put their arms around me. That meant something to me.

On the other side of the token, I know that as a man who grew up, regardless of the fact that I was poor as hell and didn’t have anything, I still had white privilege. That’s very real. I have to use my voice and help other people understand, maybe that are like me or have had similar upbringings. I come from a white community. We’re all good-hearted people, but sometimes people need to be educated. They need to know that I’ve been around the African American culture since my AAU days, into college, into the NBA. All these things matter.

The way to explain it is that emotion that I felt and feel toward the military, my brother and those things, it’s the same [emotion] that some African Americans have felt when these horrific things happen. That’s very real pain, and people need to know that. They need to understand that. They need to understand that things need to change, and there needs to be real support put behind these people. My wife and I donated $100,000 to the city of Miami, in particular two African American communities in Liberty City and Overtown, that have been absolutely crushed by voter suppression and COVID. These people need help. So if I have the resources, I’m gonna help. And if I have a voice, I’m going to speak.

I tend to ramble sometimes, and obviously I’ve spoken about this at length. But the point is, honestly, I know who I am. I know what I stand for. I have a good heart. I love all people. We have to continue to push the message forward. I’m going to help people however I can. It doesn’t matter to me if you’re tall, short, white, black. I don’t care. I want to help people. I want to impact people. And that’s that.

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