Meyers Leonard had a bit of a breakout season as a sophomore.
He increased his production to averages of 13.6 points and 8.2 rebounds from 2.1 points and 1.2 boards as a freshman. While it would be difficult to consider Leonard’s season disappointing at face value, the bottom line is that the year was far from ideal. Illinois lost 12 of their last 14 games, a slide Leonard was unable to turnaround, and the enduring image of the Illini seven-footer was him in tears on the bench during a 23 point loss to Nebraska.
The enduring image you should have of Leonard is a different picture of him in tears:
This picture was taken when Bailey Leonard, Meyers’ brother, surprised him at a practice. Bailey has served two tours of duty in Afghanistan, and Meyers had no idea that he was home.
The fact that the Leonards did not have an easy life growing up is not a secret. It has been widely reported that they were poor, that their father died when they were eight and six, respectively, and that their mother had a back injury that made it impossible for her to work.
But I’m not sure we knew the extent of their struggles until John Canzano, who covers Meyers’ new team, the Trailblazers, wrote this column on the new draft pick:
“There were times we really didn’t have anything,” Bailey said. “I remember Meyers frequently going to eat at other people’s houses because we may not have had enough food. I remember kids saying things like, ‘You can’t play with us because you’re poor.’ And I remember mixing and matching the few clothes we had because we were trying to make it look like we didn’t wear the same stuff to school every day.”
They lost their father. They lost their home to foreclosure. Their mother struggled with a back injury that was so debilitating she couldn’t sit through a basketball game. “I attended every one of Meyers’ games when I was a junior and senior,” Bailey said. “I knew that’s what he wanted. He needed someone there and our mom couldn’t do it. Her medicine kept her down a lot. After our dad passed away, people looked at us as different.”
The Leonard family found a place to live, but they had no furniture, limited running water and no electricity. They had a small battery-powered television that got three channels, they had blankets, and they had each other.
Said Bailey: “The three of us just slept on the living-room floor together.”
Leonard is an easy kid to root for.
Knowing where he comes from, the struggles his mother was having and the fact that he played last season while his brother was in Afghanistan should give you a different view of Leonard’s sophomore season.
Imagine what he’ll be able to do when he no longer has to worry about his family.