As the dark days of last winter approached, Kennedy Leonard’s fears were realised.

Coughs and wheezes were followed by a positive Covid test.

“I got it and two other team-mates got it as well,” London Lions point guard reveals. “I mean, I couldn’t taste or smell. And I still have issues with it. But, I am one of the fortunate ones.”

Back, almost, up to full speed, the 24-year-old will shrug off the lingering effects to lead her side into Sunday’s WBBL Trophy final in Worcester against Nottingham Wildcats.

The opportunity for the capital club to secure its first piece of senior silverware, a chance for Kennedy to reap a tangible reward from her decision to see out the pandemic in the Women’s British Basketball League rather than spending her sophomore season as a professional in mainland Europe.

Family ties were a secondary part of the lure.

Raised between Chicago and text and schooled in Colorado, her mother Lyndsey had decamped from Dundee to the United States in order further her ambitions of becoming an Olympian in the swimming pool.

She settled across the Atlantic, married and had three daughters of her own. Pondering her options following a campaign in Germany, her youngest offspring sensed an opportunity to spend precious time with her grandmother Alison in the UK, as and when pandemic protocols permitted.

“Because we were trying to stay safe, I didn’t end up going to see her,” she recalls.

Tragically, just weeks after Leonard was plagued by the virus, Gran – aged 80 – was struck down too.

“I’d spoken to her right when she got it. She had actually broken her leg. That’s why she went to the hospital and she was exposed there. She was like, ‘I’m feeling good. I don’t feel anything really coming on.’ She said: ‘I’ll call you in a few days.’ And then three days later, she was dead.”

The indiscriminate brutality of coronavirus, as so many have found. While her aunt Morag was left to take care of the painful formalities, a granddaughter continues to grieve from afar.

“But I’m lucky that I didn’t have that experience with it,” she adds. “It’s a brutal, brutal thing to have to deal with.”

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The show, the game – life – must all go on.

London, pacesetters in the WBBL, will look to the domestic game’s assist leader to be a guiding light against Nottingham, who are seeking their first prize since lifting the Cup in 2018.

Despite succumbing to a first league loss in midweek at the hands of Sevenoaks, Mark Clark’s side are clearly favourites to prevail.

“It’s definitely a good opportunity,” Leonard notes.

“We’ve heard the saying that it’s hard to beat a team three times. We’ve played Nottingham twice. We beat them once with our whole team and then with some people who were out injured. But I think honestly, it comes down to us.

“That’s what we try to focus on. And if we can run and execute our things the way that we need to run and execute them, then we’ll be fine.”

Amid the constraints in place in what passes for her basketballing bubble – and the limitations on what would, in normal times, have been a year of savouring the distractions and discoveries in London to the max – choosing the WBBL over a foreign destination has provided a better challenge than she had hoped.
Full-time rather than semi-pro, the level has exceeded the league’s perception from afar.

“It’s definitely different,” she underlines. “But I think that, especially with our team, we bring a starting five who are all previous Division One players.

“So I think the talent that we’ve brought, it brings the league talent up a tonne. And it’s been good … if we continue to play the way we have been playing, I think more and more people will start to watch this league and pay attention to it.”

The convenience beats Germany, where a translation app became her best friend during her rookie campaign. Although, she notes, dealing with these sorts of challenges toughens the spirit and sharpens the mind.

“You get reminded that you’re not at home,” she says. “But it’s not necessarily a bad thing.”

Solidifying her nascent career in the paid ranks means ambitions can be harboured and chased.

The holder, figuratively, of a single Great Britain cap from a friendly against Sweden in 2019, FIBA’s pernickety and peculiar definitions of eligibility have blocked a follow-up pass.

Like Karlie Samuelson, having one British parent has technically made her a subject of the UK from birth. And yet, since neither physically acquired a passport prior to their sixteenth birthdays, both are classified identically to the slew of Americans – commonplace with countries like Turkey and Russia – who have gratuitously gifted citizenship and financial rewards to those without a drop of a blood tie to their new nation, in return for points and rebounds and a dollop of lustre.

As such, Leonard and the illustrious Samuelson are competing for a single spot. The former will keep making a case with her play. “Sometimes, a chance is all somebody needs,” she underlines. “So I think I could help and make a difference.”

British Basketball, she confirms, are making renewed efforts to plead their cases. Being based on ‘home’ turf might, she trusts, enhance the argument offered to FIBA’s bureaucratic machine.

“But we’ve already fought once, I think two years ago, on a different basis and it was rejected. So now we’re trying to come from a new approach and we’re hopeful. We’ve gotten word that it’s a good argument. So we’re hoping that it goes through.”

London Lions will bid to make a point of their own come Sunday. An opportunity beckons to emulate Leicester Riders by capturing the men’s and women’s Trophy in the same year, albeit with a unique invitation to do so on the same day and on the same arena floor.

Interaction between the brother and sister outfits has been limited, by necessity, Leonard reveals, with the male Lions hit by a mass coronavirus outbreak in January that forced their expulsion from European competition during a whirlwind of a Sunday that saw a short-handed squad vanquished by Newcastle in an oddity of a BBL Cup final.

“Covid has made it extremely tough,” Leonard affirms. “We have different bubbles so we’re not really allowed to mingle. So even if we’re in the same gym, we try to stay on different sides.

“So we see them, they see us. They come talk to us, we can come talk to them, but from a distance. But we’re all excited for us both to be in the final.”

Watch streaming coverage of the Trophy finals via from 2.30pm on Sunday

This originally appeared in The Post Up – MVP’s regular email newsletter with exclusive news and features – Subscribe today.

Photos: Ahmedphotos

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