Toronto Raptors: Who is Uncle Dennis and what is his impact?

Kawhi Leonard (Photos by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Kawhi Leonard (Photos by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images) /

As Raptors fans patiently wait for the season to begin, many have questions as to whether Kawhi Leonard will ‘warm to the Raptors’ and entertain the idea of re-signing with the club. One man, Dennis Robertson, may have an insight into the direction he chooses to go.

In January of 2008, Mark Leonard, the father of Kawhi Leonard, was tragically shot dead at a car wash he owned in Compton.

The shooting was never solved. No suspects arrested. No answers or resolution for family members and friends. What impact this had on a 16-year-old basketball phenom is hard to ascertain.

Uncle Dennis’ role

With the absence of his father, Kawhi’s uncle, Dennis Robertson, stepped in to help his family, “Our family has always been close. It didn’t change the way I looked at things. I was happy to be there so my sister wouldn’t have to go through that process.”

The media has referred to Dennis Robertson as a “new influence” in Kawhi’s life. Professionally this might be true; personally he has been a staple in Kawhi’s life for some time.

Family was integral in his decision-making process to attend San Diego State, not UCLA as many anticipated.

“Our family has always been close. It didn’t change the way I looked at things. I was happy to be there so my sister wouldn’t have to go through that process.”

As Leonard prepared to leave San Diego State, and enter the 2011 NBA draft, he sought a professional agent. (Uncle Dennis spent a successful career in finance – but was not trained in athlete management or sports marketing).  Leonard needed someone to help him navigate through the deep waters that are professional sports.

He hired Brian Elfus as his agent.  By all accounts, Elfus had a positive impact on Leonard.

The future two-time All-NBA star remained quiet, grounded, and humble. He shunned the fixings that come with fame and money.

His brand was unique from many other NBA stars.

There were few flashy purchases. No new cars. In fact, Leonard drove a ’97 Chevy Tahoe for as long as it would run.

His inner circle didn’t get much bigger.

In 2014 he became an NBA champion and a Finals MVP. In 2014 and 2015, he won Defensive Player of the Year. The Spurs were happy. All was good.

And then in 2016, things started to change.

Following a five-year, $90 million deal to stay with the Spurs, Elfus’ role changed. He became less involved.

Then, in 2016, Elfus and Leonard parted ways in an acrimonious manner. A lawsuit several years later would allege that Elfus was not fully compensated for his role with Leonard. Leonard stayed on with the agency but listened to other advisors.

Kawhi’s Injury

What kind of advice and the nature of it depends on what camp you are in.

If you believe the multitude of rumors coming out of San Antonio, you would be led to believe that Uncle Dennis is responsible for, not only Kawhi sitting out the entire year, but also forcing the Spurs into the trade with Toronto, as well as the defeat at the Alamo 180 years earlier.

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The rift is centred around the nature of the injury. The Spurs have claimed the injury is a  quadriceps tendinopathy, a condition where the muscle is in a state of constant exhaustion.

Leonard’s camp, presumably led by Robertson and agency chief Mitch Frankel, sought a second opinion. A group of doctors from the New York area, connected with the Philadelphia 76ers and the New York Islanders, took over.

Their diagnosis claimed the injury is an ossification, or hardening of the muscle, leading to atrophy and then tendon issues.

Plenty of rest would be needed; far more than is typical for an injury that resembled what Spurs doctors were diagnosing.

Amidst the rumblings of trouble beneath the surface, Uncle Dennis claimed the Spurs were in lockstep with Leonard’s team. However, reports later surfaced describing the tension between the two.

But, rehab continued. In New York. The Spurs continued without Kawhi. The process was beginning to be questioned privately.

According to Peter Vescey, Leonard’s uncle was convinced Kawhi the Spurs’ medical staff were more concerned with the team’s best interests rather than his.

Despite claims from Spurs brass rejecting reports of trouble, clearly things were not sunny in San Antonio. Players Only meetings were called.

Spurs royalty were doing the unthinkable: airing their dirty laundry – “You’ll have to ask his group,” Popovich consistently said when asked for updates. Popovich made it clear that the Spurs were powerless in this scenario. He also publicly stated that his frustrations were with Leonard’s team, not Kawhi.

League sources suggested the reason for this was that the voices around Kawhi were getting louder, stronger.

Sources claimed that the tension between team and player began with the dismissal of Elfus. They cite poor communication and ‘ulterior motives’ on the part of Uncle Dennis and Mitch Frankel as the root of the problem.

They claim that, once Uncle Dennis felt betrayed by the Spurs over the injury, the relationship could not be mended. Leonard’s loyalty, it appears, stuck with his uncle and not the Spurs.

From there, rumours abound that Uncle Dennis had ambitions to move Kawhi to a bigger market such as Los Angeles or perhaps he was manipulating the situation to help him start his own marketing company.

Whatever the reasons, a once healthy relationship between a top 5 player and the best-run organisation in sports deteriorated. Fast.

The trade to Toronto

Leonard certainly seems to put a lot of trust in the ‘team’ he has around him. And for good reason. Robertson is a man who played a vital role in Leonard’s life when tragedy struck. He remained there to help Kawhi blossom into the player he is today, despite the recent struggles.

Should we believe the talk of the NBA? Is Robertson truly the negative voice that has led to the biggest crisis in recent Spurs history?

Certainly the Spurs must bear some responsibility for the outcome as well.

Read. Three Ways Kawhi Trade will improve Toronto Raptors. light

How this translates to and affects the relationship between the Raptors and Leonard, if at all, is still to be determined. Masai has already had conversations with Dennis Robertson, which have been “positive”.

One thing is clear. If the Raptors hope to re-sign Leonard, Masai must keep it that “positivity” with Uncle Dennis.