Power Players

Why NBA star Kawhi Leonard still drove a 20-year-old car after signing a $94 million contract

Toronto Raptors star Kawhi Leonard.
Gregory Shamus | Getty Images

NBA superstar Kawhi Leonard will take the floor at Toronto's Scotiabank Arena on Monday night with a chance to win the city's first-ever NBA championship with a win over the Golden State Warriors.

And though the 27-year-old Leonard signed a five-year $94 million deal in 2015, made a salary of over $23 million this past season and is on the verge of free agency where he'll certainly demand a new contract that dwarfs his last, Leonard has managed to remain one of the world's most down-to-earth star athletes.

For instance, as of 2016 — during a season in which Leonard earned over $16 million playing for the San Antonio Spurs — the NBA All-Star was still driving the same beat up SUV he'd had since high school.

Leonard told Sports Illustrated in March 2016 that he still often drove a "rehabbed" 1997 Chevy Tahoe, which he nicknamed the "Gas Guzzler," and that he first started driving it as a teenager living in the Inland Empire region of Southern California.

"It runs … and it's paid off," the famously reticent Leonard told Sports Illustrated when asked to explain why a millionaire professional athlete would hang onto a nearly 20-year-old SUV.

A four-door 1997 Chevy Tahoe LS with no added options is only worth as much as roughly $1,390, according to auto information site Edmunds. However used car website CarGurus also has used 1997 Chevy Tahoe SUVs listed for prices up to nearly $15,000.

1997 Chevy Tahoes for sale

CNBC Make It reached out to a Toronto Raptors spokesperson to ask if Leonard brought the Tahoe with him to Canada when the Raptors acquired him in a blockbuster trade with San Antonio last July, but the team did not immediately respond.

In another show of frugality, Sports Illustrated also reported that the NBA star had done a celebrity endorsement for the chicken wing chain Wingstop. While the sponsorship deal paid Leonard an undisclosed amount of money, the article notes that he also received coupons for free wings from the restaurant chain. Leonard reportedly "panicked" when he lost those coupons, according to Sports Illustrated, at which point Wingstop sent the wealthy NBA player a fresh stack of coupons for free food.

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Those stories don't seem to come as a surprise to others in the NBA who know how practical Leonard can be, and also how uninterested he seems to be in some of the trappings of stardom. "He doesn't give a damn about the stardom," San Antonio head coach Gregg Popovich told Sports Illustrated in 2016. "He loves the game. He ignores the rest of it."

Of course, that doesn't mean Leonard refuses to spend any money. Even though he fixed up his '97 Tahoe to drive regularly, Leonard also reportedly owns a Porsche that he sometimes drives as well. And earlier this year, Leonard even shelled out $13.3 million for a home in San Diego (where he attended college at San Diego State).

That real estate purchase has fueled rumors that Leonard might look to return to Southern California by signing in free agency with either the Clippers or Lakers in nearby Los Angeles. No matter where he signs this summer, though, Leonard is reportedly likely to demand a contract that pays him at least $35 million per season.

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