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Kerry Eggers on Sports: Ankle sprain sidelines Heat center, but he and wife warmed quickly to Miami

PMG FILE PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Then Potland big man Meyers Leonard gets pumped during his big outing in Game 4 of the 2019 Trail Blazers playoff series with Golden State.When the Miami Heat step onto the court at Moda Center on Sunday night to face the Trail Blazers, Meyers Leonard should be making his first appearance there as a former Blazer.

He won't be.

The veteran center/power forward sprained his right ankle Monday in a 137-106 rout of Philadelphia and is projected to be out for four to six weeks.

"It was a pretty bad sprain," Leonard said Friday from his home in Miami Beach. "You never know how long the swelling is going to be in there. I am a fast healer, and I'm very dedicated to rehab. I've been 24 hours a day in a boot to get the swelling down and minimize movement. Then I'll get to the rehab process.

"It's nothing I can't bounce back from. I just wish I were out there with my teammates now."

Leonard, who turns 28 on Feb. 27, spent his first seven NBA seasons in a Portland uniform. Sunday's return to Rip City had been a red-letter day on his calendar.

"To be being completely honest, I'm incredibly bummed I'm not going back to Portland to play, for a couple of reasons," the 7-1, 260-pound big man said. "No. 1, I know I can help my team win. I'm frustrated I'm not out there on the floor.

"There is also a strong connection between me and Portland. I was 20 when I got there. I became a man in Portland. I got married in Portland. There are a lot of fond memories in Portland, and I built a lot of very strong life-long relationships there. I was really looking forward to it. It's a bummer, truly."

Leonard had started every game at center for Miami this season, and though he has averaged only 20.1 minutes per game, his offensive numbers have been solid: 6.1 points and 5.1 rebounds while shooting .520 from the field, .429 from 3-point range and .654 from the free-throw line.

The Robinson, Illinois, native had his best game with the Heat on Feb. 1, collecting 18 points and 14 rebounds in 29 minutes in a 102-89 win over Orlando. Two days later, he went down with the ankle injury and was lost to the Heat, who are 34-17 and in fourth place in the NBA Eastern Conference after a 105-97 loss Friday at Sacramento.

"It's very frustrating, because I feel I've had a major impact on us winning in Miami," Leonard said. "I've been playing well."

And as luck would have it, the injury prevented a return to Portland on the Heat's only visit this season.

"Just wanted to see what it was going to be like," Leonard said. "I don't get to feel the initial impact of a game in Portland. It's going to be a whole 'nother year before I go back."

Leonard's seven years with the Blazers were a veritable roller coaster, his popularity with the fan base rising and falling with the ebbs and flows. Leonard wanted so badly to win over the fans, he often put too much pressure on himself, and at times his performance reflected it.

His final game, though, was the ultimate glorious sendoff — a 30-point, 12-rebound gem in Portland's 119-117 loss to Golden State in Game 4 of their first-round playoff series last April. Leonard hoped it would help heal wounds with the Portland faithful and perhaps further his chances of increased playing time with the Blazers in the future. Six weeks later, he was sent to Miami in the deal that brought Hassan Whiteside to Portland.

"I had this very polarizing effect in Portland," Leonard said. "You either loved Meyers Leonard or you hated him. I understand that. I knew I wasn't going to win everybody over. But in my heart, I wanted the city to love me.

"It doesn't matter how mean somebody can be to me; I'm going to always want them to love me. I recognize they are loyal fans — the Blazers' fan base is incredible. Deep down in my heart, if I were to return to Portland to play a game, I think (the reception) would be a solid ovation. I hope that would be the case. I would think that any hard feelings would diminish over time.

"I wanted nothing more to win them over and show them how much winning mattered, but also how much that community meant to me and my wife. There is always going to be this place in our hearts that cares about Portland. It was special."

Leonard was in the middle of a workout in Southern California last July when he got the news.

"I had a strange numbing sense in my body," he said. "I couldn't get my mind away from the fact that I'd been traded for the first time.

"I played really well at the end of last season, and I felt I would get my opportunity to consistently contribute for the Blazers. I wanted it so badly to work. I'm also a realist. I understand now that me being moved was the best thing that has ever happened to me."

Leonard immediately moved into the Heat's starting lineup alongside 22-year-old power forward Bam Adebayo, who will play in the All-Star Game next week in Chicago.

"I've gotten an opportunity," Leonard said. "Sometimes I look back and understand I didn't always play well in Portland. I was young. I needed to earn my minutes. At some point, I did that. By the end of my time in Portland, I showed people I could produce and perform in the big moments.

"But sometimes getting a fresh start is the key to success. Miami saw me for who I was when they traded for me — the man I am, the player I am."

Leonard has earned the respect of Miami coach Erik Spoelstra.

"He has been a great fit for us," said Spoelstra, the former point guard at Jesuit High and the University of Portland. "Often, it's about the right timing and sharing the same values. That's how we feel about Meyers.

"We like so many things about him, from his work ethic to being a great teammate to his personality. He fits our culture."

Spoelstra credits Leonard for being a strong influence on the development of Adabayo.

"Meyers has quietly been a big part of Bam's progress," the Miami coach said. "We've been able to start a big center who spaces the floor and can guard the other team's centers while they're on the court together. That's helped to unlock Bam's versatility. They have a great chemistry together."

Leonard feels the same way.

"Bam and I have a very strong connection," he said. "I take pride in playing a role that is very important to his development and that of our team. I take the physical demands of having to bang down low with the fives. That allows him to play freely on the defensive end.

"Bam is incredibly talented, a very good teammate who cares about winning and cares about his teammates. He always has this positive vibe about him. We're similar in the sense of how we work and approach each day as professionals and how we treat other people and care about our teammates and the staff."

Leonard has also enjoyed playing with small forward Jimmy Butler, the Heat's other All-Star this season.

"I go from playing with Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum — who are both incredible players — to Jimmy, who is, too," Leonard said. "Most people in or around the NBA have heard that Jimmy's an ass, or that he's too hard on his guys. That couldn't be further from the truth.

"Jimmy is as competitive as hell, he loves to win, and expects his teammates to do the same. That's the way it should be."

Leonard said Butler has gone out of his way to extend an invitation to join him for a meal on a road trip.

"He really cares about his teammates," Leonard said. "He is charismatic, but he's so intense, it can be taken the wrong way. Starting with (team president) Pat Riley, through Coach Spoelstra and down the line, there's an expectation of culture and work ethic with the Heat. Jimmy is right there at home in Miami because of that. I love playing with Jimmy."

Soon after Miami acquired Leonard, he got a text from Spoelstra.

"I want to get to know you," the text read. "I'd like to come to L.A. to watch you work out and have a couple of meetings with you."

"I knew right then that he cared," Leonard said. "We had another two-hour-plus lunch in Las Vegas that summer. His level of intensity and focus every single day is unmatched. It's incredible how much he loves to win, how much he loves to coach. I'm so thankful Pat and 'Spo' saw something in me."

Leonard believes he is a part of the turnaround from Miami's 39-43 record of a year ago.

"Players impact winning in different ways," he said. "I think my presence has been felt here in Miami. It's not always going to show up in the box score.

"I have a voice in our locker room. I have leadership tendencies; people listen when I speak. That's because of the way I carry myself. I'm a true professional. I do what's necessary to help us win. Individual accolades mean nothing to me. That presence and that approach is well-respected in Miami."

Leonard would not be human if he weren't paying attention to the kind of season the man he was traded for is having.

"Hassan is putting up monster numbers," Leonard said. "I don't know him personally, but the guy is incredibly talented. It seems like the Blazers are starting to get into a rhythm. The question is, what will the rotation be like when 'Nurk' (Jusuf Nurkic) and Zach (Collins) come back?"

The irony is, Leonard is renting the house Whiteside owns in Miami Beach, on a canal not far from the ocean. Does Miami seem like home?

"It does," he said. "My wife and I were sitting out on the dock at our house the night before the first day of training camp. It was a beautiful night, and though I had only played in scrimmages and worked out with the guys, we both had the feeling that this can make sense for another long-term run.

"There's something about the (organization's) culture here that I love. It's been a great experience so far. It does feel like home, although it hasn't been that long."

The Leonards attended their first Super Bowl together last Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium.

"I wasn't planning on it," Leonard said. "Elle and I aren't exactly into football. But when I asked if she was interested, she said it was kind of on her bucket list. We ended up going and had a great time. It's nice to spend time with my wife."

Elle is knee deep into her new business, Level Foods nutrition bars.

"She is doing very well," her husband said. "She loves waking up to the sun. It's been a fresh start for both of us."

Leonard likes the Heat's chances in the playoffs.

"We have a very good chance to make a deep run," he said. "Getting (Andre) Iguodala and (Jae) Crowder were great moves. We have every little piece that you need. Sometimes, all the puzzle pieces don't fit together. Here, they do. Our locker room is very strong. The chemistry is off the charts. All anyone wants to do in win. We had that in Portland, too, but what we're doing right now is unique."

Leonard's contract is up this season. On July 1, he'll become a free agent. The Heat have indicated interest in bringing him back.

"I hope it works," he said. "I feel I fit very well here. I know my role. I know they value what I do both on and off the floor. I think this could be a long-term situation for me. You never know. It's a business. But I can see this working. I don't see this as a one-year thing."

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