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Kawhi Leonard’s passion for Earl Lloyd documentary comes through loud and clear

Quiet Spurs star is co-executive producer of film about NBA’s first black player

Popcorn was available, of course, as were beverages. Family and friends in the private room were excited to watch the film during some rare down time on 2017 NBA All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. San Antonio Spurs All-Star Kawhi Leonard was hosting the viewing of the documentary that he co-executive-produced, The First to Do It, about black basketball pioneer Earl Lloyd.

“The guy was like 22 years old when he was the first African-American basketball player,” Leonard told The Undefeated. “He was a guy who paved the way for us on and off the court. He was loved by fans and other races while he’s playing, then walks off the court and gets treated a different way just because he didn’t have the same skin color. I learned from his experiences and take them into my everyday life.”

The First to Do It is based on the basketball career and life of Lloyd, a Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer who died Feb. 26, 2015, at age 86. Lloyd joined Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton and Chuck Cooper as the first blacks to play in the NBA during the 1950-51 season with Lloyd playing first due to a scheduling quirk. Lloyd also joined Jim Tucker as the first African-Americans to win an NBA championship with the Syracuse Nationals in 1955. Lloyd went on to become the NBA’s first black assistant coach and third black head coach.

The First to Do It was directed by Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah and is scheduled to be released on the opening weekend of the 2017-18 NBA season. In his first film project, Leonard joined Spurs teammate Tony Parker, New York Knicks All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony and former NBA star Michael Finley as executive producers. Leonard described Lloyd’s story as “not too shocking” when considering “our history in America and where African-Americans come from.”

“About two or three years ago I wanted to check out who was the first African-American basketball player,” Leonard said. “I just searched it on the internet and I came up with Earl Lloyd. I didn’t want to read too much on him. I just wanted to figure out the answer. Two years later, I hear from people that are going to do this documentary. …

“[The Lloyd] story was very informative. It just makes you love your job even more just the way society is today.”

Executive producer Arka Sengupta said Leonard was first contacted through his agent Mitch Frankel. After Leonard showed interest, Sengupta met with the four-time NBA All-Star to talk to him about how he could be involved in the film. Within five minutes of the pitch, Sengupta said, the 2014 NBA Finals MVP agreed to join as an executive producer.

Sengupta added that Leonard’s role as a producer has been “huge” as he has connected them with “people within basketball.” The 25-year-old Leonard is interviewed in the film. Leonard also spent time talking to Lloyd’s son, Kevin, to learn more about the basketball pioneer.

Kawhi Leonard in the documentary, The First to do it – Earl Lloyd

Courtesy of Constant Beta Motion Picture Company

“I knew the relationship would be a productive one when Kawhi insisted that his younger cousin and friends sit in on the meeting,” said Sengupta, who is also CEO of the Constant Beta Motion Picture Co. “ ‘I want you to learn something about our history,’ he said to them. Kawhi comes across as quiet, but he has clearly done his homework. He was engaged and excited, asking questions and making suggestions.”

Leonard is extremely quiet by nature, but speaks loudly with his game. He is the cousin of NFL free agent wide receiver Stevie Johnson, has a young daughter and he drives a 1997 Chevy Tahoe nicknamed “Gas Guzzler.” While Leonard has been game to promote the Lloyd documentary, he prefers to keep his other ventures private.

“This is probably one of the more press [recognized] things because it involves the NBA. I am definitely trying to do some stuff off the court, but I want to keep it personal,” Leonard said.

The 2017 NBA MVP award race has widely been viewed as a two-man competition between Houston Rockets guard James Harden and Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook. But Leonard is also a quiet threat for the hardware.

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the San Antonio Spurs shoots a lay up during the game against the Oklahoma City Thunder on March 9, 2017.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

He has averaged a well-rounded 26 points, 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 1.9 blocks entering Thursday’s game against the Memphis Grizzlies. And he could aid his MVP credentials by leading the Spurs to a top playoff seed in the Western Conference over the Golden State Warriors. The last time the Spurs had an NBA MVP was Leonard’s old teammate and two-time MVP Tim Duncan in 2003.

“He’s really quiet as we all know. Very respectful as we all know. But he has a hunger as far as wanting to be a great player,” Spurs coach Gregg Popovich told ESPN.com. “Everything that I’ve given him, he’s taken it seriously and he handles criticism because he wants to learn. He just adds something to his game every season.”

Said Leonard to ESPN.com: “I’m just coming in and doing my role. And that’s basically it.”

An earlier version of this story stated that Earl Lloyd was the NBA’s second black head coach. Al Attles served as a player/coach for the Golden State Warriors before Lloyd became head coach of the Detroit Pistons.

Liner Notes

ESPN.com Spurs reporter Michael C. Wright contributed to this story.

Marc J. Spears is the senior NBA writer for Andscape. He used to be able to dunk on you, but he hasn’t been able to in years and his knees still hurt.