Walking across the stage at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on draft night last June, Kawhi Leonard fitted an Indiana Pacers cap carefully over his braids, then shook hands with commissioner David Stern as photographers captured his first moments as an NBA player.
Within minutes he got an early lesson in the business of the league. He could keep the blue and gold Pacers cap as a souvenir if he liked, but his rookie uniform would be silver and black.
The Pacers had used their 15th pick in the first round to select him for the Spurs, the small forward from San Diego State was told. Leonard was the biggest piece of a package sent by the Pacers so they could acquire George Hill, a combo guard who had become one of the most popular Spurs, both to his coach and the team’s fans.
The stoic Leonard, 20 years old at the time, accepted the news with a shoulder shrug, determined to stay in a moment he described as “living the dream.”
For Hill, that moment was a nightmare, even if it meant returning to Indianapolis, where he had been a high school and college star. Hill could think only of his three seasons with the Spurs, during which he had gone from a relative unknown out of a mid-major college to a key reserve on a 60-win team.
Embracing San Antonio as if he had been born in the shadow of the Alamo, he envisioned a long career as a Spur.
The player Gregg Popovich called “Indiana George” returns tonight to ATT Center, playing much the same role for the Pacers he had with the Spurs: a backup at both guard spots and defensive stopper whose true value defies quantification.
Indicative of the respect he had earned from a coach not given to sentimentality, Hill got a phone call from Popovich alerting him about the draft night trade hours before it was announced.
The conversation was difficult on both ends.
“Emotions were bare,” Hill recalled. “Coach Pop explained the nature of the business, which I respected, and explained how difficult the decision was and how bad he felt. At the time, he said it was something he had to do for the betterment of the team.
“It was difficult to swallow, but from Day 1 he had been honest with me. It meant a lot that he had the respect to give me a heads-up.”
Popovich described the difficulty of the decision to send Hill to Indiana.
“On a scale of one to 10,” he said, “it was a 10 and a half.”
Fully recovered from a Jan. 31 chip fracture of the left ankle that sidelined him for 12 games, Hill enters tonight averaging 9.4 points on 46 percent shooting and 40.4 percent 3-point shooting for a Pacers team with the fourth-best record (30-20) in the Eastern Conference.
That he is playing well in an important role with his hometown team offers some solace for Popovich.
“We’re thrilled for him,” Popovich said. “I want nothing but for him to be successful, and our players want the same for him, and he has been.
“One thing that gave us a little bit of peace about it is that we were sending him back home. He’s back in his hometown, and he was doing some great community work there, just like he was here. It made it a little more palatable, knowing he was going back home.”
No Spur misses Hill more than DeJuan Blair, the starting center who found a best friend in the locker next to his at the ATT Center.
“I was in a cab in New York City when I heard the news,” Blair said. “I was devastated. I said a few curse words.”
Before tipoff tonight, Hill will share a hug with Blair and the other teammates left from his three seasons in black and silver.
“It’s going to be kind of weird,” Hill said. “You know I’m going to have fun out there. It will be good to see everyone again and see everyone smile, but emotional because you miss those guys. You’ve created a bond with them, but now you understand it’s a business, so you play it like a regular game and have fun.”