December’s Athlete of the Month relfects on his journey to Lewis & Clark
By ABE FIELD
On a moonless morning at 5:00am, spiders spin their dew covered webs in trees along Terwilliger Blvd. The air is frigid. As the fog begins to roll off of Pamplin Sports Center, Markel Leonard and the Pioneer Basketball team make their way to the gym for their morning practice. As a transfer junior from Richmond, California, Leonard is just now getting used to the cold Portland winter, but he already has a great sense for the basketball court. This fall, Leonard joins the Pioneers as their starting point guard, hoping to lead Lewis & Clark to their first NCAA tournament berth since 2007.
Leonard has been playing basketball since he was five years old. Raised by his mother and her parents, Leonard learned the art of the game from a very young age. One of his first memories of the game is sitting on his grandfather’s couch watching the Philadelphia 76ers lead by Allen Iverson against the Los Angeles Lakers lead by Kobe Bryant in the 2001 NBA finals. “It was so fun watching someone smaller do so much damage on the court,” says Leonard of Iverson.
Leonard’s grandfather trained him with the perfect foundation to be a point guard. After he finished his homework, Markel’s grandmother would watch him shoot free throws or jump shots in his backyard. “I must have taken more than 200 shots each day with her,” Markel adds. From the moment Markel could dribble, his grandfather pushed him to “play up,” or play with the older kids instead of those who were his age. Although the older guys were bigger and would knock Markel down to the concrete, his grandfather continued to push his limits. As Leonard remembers with a smile, “we would practice until the streetlights came on.” “Without him,” Leonard tells me, “I wouldn’t have the skillset that I have today.”
Leonard attended Salesian High School while he was growing up in Richmond. Starting on the varsity team as a sophomore, Leonard started getting calls from Division I schools who came prepared to give him a scholarship to attend and play. In 2012, his junior year at Salesian, Leonard’s team won the California State Championship and Leonard collected numerous individual awards, including ESPN Player of the Week. His senior year, Leonard set the school record for the second all time wins in four seasons, second only to a dual sport athlete.
The point guard position in basketball is one of the most important on the court. He must make split second decisions in order to decide who gets the ball, so they must be a leader on and off the court. Leonard fits this position perfectly. Coach Dinari Foreman says, “Markel is a natural leader who is re-learning how to play free without looking over his shoulder.” Leonard takes his mentality on the basketball court to the classroom as well. He tells me, “I’m always in attack mode, being proactive in class and going to office hours.” Although he is not the tallest player on the court, he makes up for his size with his court presence.
Since the start of the season, Leonard has started three of the Pioneer’s first four games, averaging 28.8 minutes per game. Already, he has made an impact for the team with 9.8 points per game and 15 assists on the season. Leonard’s contributions will continue to push the team forward as they try to return to the Northwest Conference championship game.