Love and Loyalty: The Meyers Leonard story
Meyers Leonard owns a clothing line called "Meyers Leonard Brand" established about a year ago. One of the first pieces of apparel available to consumers was a hoodie with "Love and Loyalty" inscribed on the back.
"Those are the two words that mean the most in my life," the Trail Blazers center/forward says during a recent in-depth interview with the Portland Tribune. "At the end of the day, money is not going to mean anything. Possessions are not going to mean anything.
"Whenever my time comes and I have all my friends and family around me and the memories of what you did together — that's all that's going to matter. What I experienced, how I impacted people, how good of a husband I was, how good of a friend I was — those are the things that really matter in life."
If it sounds corny, well, that's Meyers — Portland's version of Mister Rogers, equal parts Pollyanna and Jiminy Cricket, with a heaping helping of "The Hammer" thrown in for (on-court) good measure.
"I call him 'Snow White,'" says Elle Leonard, his wife of four years. "Meyers always sees the world as the glass is half full. He is the most pure-hearted person I've ever met, he truly is. He's a giver, very protective, and he always looks on the bright side of anything, especially for the amount of pressure that comes with being in the NBA."
The pressures grow immense when things aren't going well for the player.
Leonard experienced that during the fifth of his seventh seasons with the Blazers, in 2016-17, when he was playing poorly and drawing boos from some of the home fans, which — combined with lingering health issues — plunged him into a deep mental tailspin.
Leonard is out of his funk now, thanks to a support crew that includes his wife, friends and a group of mental and physical health specialists he calls his "Dream Team."
Leonard hasn't gotten the playing time that he'd like this season, but he has kept a positive attitude — there is no better "team guy" on the Blazers — and has played well more often than not when he has gotten the call from coach Terry Stotts.
He wants fervently to play a bigger role, but there have been no complaints. Maybe it's because there is a higher calling.
"What I truly live for is impacting people, making a difference in this world, starting a family and raising the kids to be good young men or women," says Leonard, a thoughtful young man at 27. "I've been immensely blessed in my life, and I want to share that with other people."
Leonard is in the third year of a four-year, $41-million contract that calls for him to make $10.6 million this season. That's a lot of greenbacks for any millennial, but in particular for one of Leonard's humble beginnings.
He was reared in rural Robinson, Illinois, a burg of 7,500 located 150 miles from St. Louis, Missouri. Meyers and brother Bailey, older by two years, were the offspring of Jim and Tracie Leonard. Jim, a golf pro, was killed in a bicycle accident when Meyers was 6. Tracie was mostly housebound from around that time as the result of serious back problems.
Even so, "I wouldn't change it for anything," Leonard says now. "Growing up in a small town instilled certain values. It's a blue-collar place, a rural, gritty country place. You work with what you have. People get by every day.
"I was forced at a young age to grow up in certain ways quicker than others. But Robinson is a special place for me. As I grew older, and people realized we didn't have much, the community took me under its wing."
For three years while with the Blazers, Leonard conducted summer basketball camps for youths in Robinson, donating the proceeds to the community school programs.
"I haven't done it the past two summers because I've been training nonstop," he says, "but I'll go back in the future. It was so much fun.
"At this point, I'm kind of the pride of my hometown, and it feels good. It's cool to know that I inspire young people in the community."
It may be selective memory, but Leonard doesn't remember much about the poverty surrounding his family during the formative years. Sometimes there was little food, no running water, scant furniture and frequent moves from place to place.
"We had a lot of struggles just trying to get by," he says. "But struggles can shape your life in a good way if you allow them to. It taught me to never take anything for granted. I'm so thankful, so appreciative of how kind people were to our family and how understanding they were of our situation.
"As I grow into more of a man, I look back on my past and try to understand and put myself in other people's shoes. I've had a ton of help along the way. I'm in debt to so many people — not just financially, but because they care."
In particular, the Silers, whom Leonard says "essentially adopted me" in a story not unlike that of the film "Blind Side." Parents Brian and Tarita had three children — Austin, Aaron and Abby, the latter "like the sister I never had," Leonard says.
Austin and Meyers were in the same grade and became close pals, playing basketball together and winning a state high school 2A basketball championship as seniors.
"We were in the same first-grade class," says Austin, now 27 and living in Portland with Aaron, 24. "We were like brothers. We disagreed at times, but we loved each other."
From age 8 on, Meyers wound up spending more and more time at the Siler house and became dependent upon them for financial as well as emotional help.
"We just didn't have enough (money)," he says. "They were paying for my basketball entry fees, my basketball shoes. ... I would go to basketball tournaments with them, go on vacation with them. They took me to church. I'd go to lunch with them after church, and it became me hanging out at their house, then staying at their house, in the end just about every night.
"Amazing family. I'm thankful they recognized the position I was in, and also for how unselfish the kids were. I will forever be grateful to them."
When Leonard was going through his personal turmoil two years ago, he reached out to the Siler brothers.
"I told them, 'I need somebody other than my wife and my teammates that are like family,'" Leonard says. "And they moved to Portland, essentially for me."
The brothers quit their jobs in the Midwest and rented an apartment together not far from the Leonard home in Wilsonville. For a while, they both worked as a personal assistant to Meyers. Austin now has a sales job at Aruba Networks. Aaron is helping Elle run the ML Brand, works at the Adidas Employee Store and is finishing up school at Warner Pacific.
"Meyers is a goofy guy, always joking around," Austin says. "But he is also very passionate, very caring. He would probably do just about anything for my brother and I. We don't talk about basketball much. We just talk about life.
"I was worried about him when we moved here. He is a sensitive guy. He needs people to lift him up. It hurt him to have the fans act like that toward him."
Meyers has had other strong role models in his life. Bailey enlisted in the Marines, did two tours of duty in Afghanistan. Married and with two children, he is now back in Illinois working as a corrections officer in a prison.
"We're extremely close," Meyers says. "Like any brothers, we butted heads when we were younger, but Bailey also took a protective, fatherly role.
"I'm a lover, not a fighter. Bailey is more the backbone — Marine-like, I guess. I'm 7-1 and 260 pounds and I still wouldn't mess with my brother."
Meyers says Bailey helped teached him many lessons.
"First of all, to stand your ground and continue to grow into a man, but also to have high character, be humble, be willing to work with others, be willing to do what it takes in the moment to provide," Meyers says. "Bailey is a very special part of my life. He doesn't ask me for anything — ever. That's just the man he is."
The day before this interview was Bailey's birthday. He and his wife recently bought a new house. Meyers sent money to help with furnishings.
"I wanted to surprise him with a nice gift," Meyers says, "It feels good to know that I can help them."
Leonard suddenly became a hot commodity when he grew six inches between the start of his freshman season in basketball to the start of baseball. (His father was 6-4. His mother is 6-foot. His brother is 6-4.)
"I went in the spring for my physical, and the trainer said, 'Meyers, you're 6-10,'" he says. "I'm like, 'There's no way.' It was crazy. I was blessed, I guess, to hit a growth spurt."
Leonard played little during his freshman season at Illinois, but it was still the most meaningful year of his life. He met a coed named Elle (pronounced "Ellie") Bielfeldt, a 5-10 forward who had been quite a player herself, a four-year starter in high school in Peoria, Illinois.
"I have an issue with really enjoying things I'm not good at," she says now. "Basketball did not come natural to me. My dad would make fun of me in middle school.
"My turning point came when I signed up for a coed basketball camp with my brother (Max Bielfeldt, who wound up playing at both Michigan and Indiana) and was the only girl. I didn't want to be the weak link. I practiced."
Elle still practices her shooting. Check out the YouTube of her shooting free throws — two at a time, one with each hand.
"One thing I've always been able to do is shoot," she says. "I'll shoot a few times a week. I would equate it for when people go for a run. It feels relaxing. That's what shooting is for me."
Leonard was smitten even before their first date. It was serendipidy. Meyers was chaperone for her brother's recruiting visit to Illinois. Meyers and Elle met briefly that night, and after he finally summoned the courage to ask her out — "she was so stunning, I was nervous to go up to her" — they wound up going to a gym and shooting baskets for a couple of hours. They started dating that summer, and have been together ever since.
"Elle truly inspired me," Meyers says. "We would go to the gym almost every night together and shoot. I wanted to (improve as a player) for myself. But I also felt it would be awesome if I showed development in what I was doing in my basketball career, to make her proud.
"She is inspirational, but also my biggest critic. She has always been my biggest supporter, yet at the same time, is always pushing me to do more and to realize my potential."
After an impressive sophomore season at Illinois, Leonard was chosen with the 11th pick in the first round of the 2012 draft. Thus began an odyssey for Meyers — and for Elle — that has been truly been a roller-coaster ride.
Chosen with the sixth draft pick in 2012, Damian Lillard was an instant sensation in Portland, earning unanimous acclaim as NBA Rookie of the Year. It's been a harder road for the player taken five picks later.
There have been a couple of injuries, including shoulder surgery. His playing time and performance have been up and down. He had a terrific third season in 2014-15, averaging 5.9 points and 4.5 rebounds in only 15 minutes per game and shooting 50/40/90 — .510 from the field, .420 from 3-point range, .938 from the free-throw line.
The nadir came during the 2016-17 season, when he drew increased playing time and a dozen starts but seemed to put pressure on himself, shooting poorly and struggling with most aspects of his game. He had a back injury and was going through some inflammatory issues that included a thyroid problem. Some fans, unaware of the physical difficulties, were ruthless on social media. He suffered quietly. Miserably. At the end of the season, the Leonards' beloved Siberian Husky, Bella, died of lymphoma.
"I was dealing with levels of depression and anxiety," Leonard says. "This is something people don't know. It was hard. Some days, I didn't want to get out of bed. Elle and I didn't want to go in public for fear of what people thought of me. It affected our relationship. I was at a really rough point of my life."
It was a difficult time for Elle, too.
"Meyers wouldn't leave the house," she says. "You feel helpless when you have someone you really care about in that situation. What they feel, you feel. The darkness Meyers felt, I was living with it. That has effects on relationships. What fans may not realize is when these guys are struggling or social media is being harsh, what they have at home is their silent support system. He didn't have anybody else. It was me. That was hard.
"He was also sick. That contributed to things going downhill faster. When Meyers came home from practice, he wouldn't stand up. I thought it was because he was so tired. He would lay down all day. He couldn't move. He'd say, 'My legs feel like tree trunks.' I was like, 'Your legs are tree trunks.' But he was dealing with some major inflammatory and energy issues. He wasn't getting much sleep at night. We couldn't figure it out."
The light at the end of the tunnel began in December 2016, when he connected with a nutritionist in Los Angeles, Dr. Phillip Goglia, the founder of Performance Fitness Concepts who has worked with many pro athletes, including Kevin Love. Goglia helped line Leonard up with the proper training program, diet and rest.
Goglia told the website CloseUp360 that the excessive training Meyers was doing, in addition to his basketball duties, was breaking down his body.
"You get stronger in your kitchen and bedroom," Goglia said. "That was a real epiphany to him."
"The first thing (Goglia) did was blood work," Elle says. "When he saw it, he called Meyers and said, 'What the hell is going on with you? Inflammatory markers going through the roof are showing up in your blood. No wonder you're not sleeping.' "
With some tweaks in Leonard's diet, reduction of the inflammation in his body came quickly, but "it took eight months for everything to sort itself out," Elle says. "The next summer was the first time in Meyers' life he felt healthy. I had my partner back. Dr. Goglia changed our lives."
That summer, on the recommendation of former teammate Wes Matthews, Leonard sought out renowned basketball skills trainer Drew Hanlen in Los Angeles. Through agent Aaron Mintz — "I didn't have the confidence to call him," Leonard confides — they arranged a week of workouts.
Says Leonard: "After our very first workout, Drew said, 'When I'm thinking about bringing on a new client, I deep-dive into who they are and what they're about. Dude, you are incredibly talented, but you need the right people in your corner, and you're not confident right now.' I said, 'You're right, my confidence is shot. I don't understand why I'm not having more success. I just want to be a better player. I'm willing to put the work in. What do I have to do?'"
Thus began a relationship that flourishes today. Leonard spent most of that summer in L.A. working with Hanlen, training and playing pick-up games with other Hanlen clients, including Joel Embiid, Jayson Tatum, Bradley Beal, Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Oubre.
"We developed and still have a great relationship," Leonard says. "I'll go back down to work with him again this summer."
Elle remembers one night in Portland where she, Meyers and Hanlen sat for a long spell discussing Meyers' quest to fulfill the promise the Blazers believed he had when they drafted him and then extended his contract three years ago.
"Meyers really feels like he owes it to Portland to become the player that they drafted and extended," Hanlen told Closeup 360. "That's really what has motivated him. He wants to be able to help Portland win more games and make a run in the playoffs. That's what wakes him up early in the morning and that's what makes him skip the meals that all of us enjoy over summer. He just wants to do everything he can to make sure that he's getting the best out of himself every night out."
Over the last two years, Leonard has compiled his "Dream Team" of specialists, which includes strength trainer Ben Bruno, masseuse Barrence Baytos and physical therapist Fabrice Gautier. Most are in Southern California, where Meyers and Elle will spend most of this summer.
Leonard has played well through most of the past two seasons, though he hasn't been a regular rotation guy — playing behind Mason Plumlee (and then Jusuf Nurkic), Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis the first year, and behind Nurkic (and then Enes Kanter), Aminu and Zach Collins this year. But Leonard is in a much better mental place to handle it now.
"It feels like we're out of a hole," Elle says. "You 100 percent want to feel successful in what you do, but your happiness is predicated by your relationships off the court. All the (on-court) minutes in the world don't guarantee happiness.
"Last year (2017-18), Meyers didn't play a ton, but it was the happiest year we've ever had together. And this year is right there with it. It's been even more exciting for him to get opportunities on the court, and he has kept his glass half full to make it through a season where he hasn't had a consistent role. He's so appreciative of those around him. He realizes he doesn't have time to be negative. The only person it's going hurt is him."
Despite sparse playing time in the regular season, including 20 DNP/CDs (did not play/coach's decision), Leonard averaged 5.9 points and 3.8 rebounds in 14 minutes, shooting .545 from the field, .450 from 3-point range and .843 from the foul line.
"Definitely the best year of my career," he says. "In a lot of ways, everything is just a little better. My defense is better, my timing is better, my ability to contest shots is coming back. The small things add up to the big things."
There has been not a smidgeon of moping about lack of playing time.
"He has done a great job with that," assistant coach Dale Osbourne says. "His attitude is terrific. We talk about it all the time — stay positive, work hard and you're always going to be ready to play. And he's always ready to play.
"He's a big part of why we've had success this season. He's always off the bench, encouraging his teammates. That's what team basketball is all about. When your name is called, you're going to be ready to play, and he has been."
For whatever reason, Blazers fans have eased up on Leonard over the past two seasons. Certainly, he has played better than he did during the 2016-17 season. Maybe they appreciate the hard work he has put in, and his positive commentary about his coaches, teammates and the city of Portland in the media.
"For the people who have disliked me or been harsh in the past — I have had ups and downs in my career," Leonard says. "I'm not making excuses — it's true. Early on, I was young and trying to find my way. I was just as frustrated as they were at times. I understood my potential and what I could bring to the floor.
"At the same time, I just needed some time to play through my mistakes. I went through some serious issues that were very hurtful. I'm not blaming anybody. I'm through it now. I'm on the other side of it, and that maybe feels even better than a smooth ride.
"I do feel I have, quote unquote, won some of the fans over, and it feels truly amazing. I can say I've put my heart and soul into this. I've made mistakes, I will continue to make mistakes, but I'm very confident now. I'm at a new place in my career. The last two seasons, I've continued to show improvement, and it's come with production."
Leonard, 27, has a year left on his four-year contract. Whether he'll be with the Blazers next season or beyond remains to be seen, but he believes good things are ahead.
"With consistent minutes, I consistently produce," he says. "The more time I get, the better I will get. My body is still very healthy. Most bigs in their seventh season in the league have higher mileage than I do. I feel really good, and I'm also a late bloomer.
"I truly feel like right now I'm just now entering my prime as a player. I've only scratched the surface. My ability to finish around the rim is at an all-time high. My reaction time is much quicker on the defensive end. I'm at such a different place now, and I'm thankful I came out the other side."
The Leonards are happy living in the Portland area with their 2-year-old Siberian Husky, Koko. Children, they hope, are in their future.
"We both want three," Meyers says. "That's our goal. Are we trying right now? No. If it happens? Yeah."
Meyers would love to finish his career with the Blazers. He calls himself a "people pleaser," and he'd like to think he has now connected with the team's fan base.
"I've truly embraced Portland," he says. "I love the city. My wife and I got married here. I've spent my whole adult life here. I know I will never win everybody over. There are just people who don't think I can play well. Fine — those people are ignorant. In my heart, I want it so badly, just because that's the guy that I am. But it feels good to know that I am where I am today considering what my past was like."
Leonard has saved some of the ugly messages sent via social media in the past. Some of the complimentary ones, too.
"There are the ones that are like, 'Meyers, you're terrible. I wish we'd traded you years ago,'" he says. "But it's so nice to go somewhere and have somebody say, 'You know what, Meyers? You're a great man. You stand for what's right, and I want to thank you for your level of commitment and how you've developed and continued to work hard through everything that's happened.'
"Those things mean the most to me. It's nice to be loved and respected around Portland, because that's the way I feel toward Portland. It feels good when it's reciprocated."
He may never achieve his personal or team goals in the NBA, where it's about compiling good stats and playing top-drawer ball and winning basketball games.
But there's a lesson he has learned along the way about life in general. Love and loyalty matter, too. In those areas, Meyers Leonard is proving himself a champion.