I’ve always been invested in sports more for the players than the games.
Perhaps I owe that quirk to a lifetime of rooting for teams that have mostly disappointed me — I grew up a fan of the perpetually mediocre Minnesota Timberwolves and the Cincinnati Bengals, who seem eternally damned to never extend a season beyond the first round of the playoffs — or perhaps it’s just a testament to my love for good storytelling. Either way, I’m a sucker for a good sports narrative. The trade rumors and stats all serve larger storylines; and with every player’s thinly-veiled tweet and every pundit’s rushed analysis, the sports folklore is fortified, the athlete further deified. I live for these moments of mythologizing, when a player’s history is written and rewritten in accordance with their results. In the Internet age, when every professional athlete can have both a Twitter account and a podcast, it’s easier than ever to see these people not just as players, but also as personalities.
Kawhi Leonard is the stoic NBA star who resists the machinery of sports narrative. At a time when players have seemingly endless opportunities to become celebrities outside of the arena, Leonard resists, allowing the way he plays the game to build the narrative all by itself. Take his impossible run through these NBA playoffs, including his stunning game-winning shot to clinch the series against the Philadelphia 76ers. There is something so wonderful about the fact that Leonard is doing all of this while also shirking the microphone; we’re left to fixate not on Leonard the man, but Leonard the player. It is a vital reminder that what happens on the court is also a narrative, and also mythology: Michael Jordan’s hand on Byron Russell’s hip during a crossover in the waning moments of the 1998 NBA Finals. LeBron James’ desperation block of Andre Iguodala in 2016. The difference is that those two guys went on to star in Space Jam movies, while Leonard’s story begins and ends on the court.
In his early years, Leonard stood out for his defensive ability, making life difficult for LeBron James in the 2013 NBA finals (though his Spurs still lost the series). He was seen, early on, as the gritty, silent type, someone who might, maybe, show a burst of personality if the accolades ever came rolling in. But even after his career began to take a star turn around the 2014–15 season, Leonard remained the same guy he’d always been. One photo, taken in 2014, shows Leonard going in for a fastbreak dunk, his face a portrait of duty. He looks, well, like someone who’s performing a job. Even in Leonard’s final season with the Spurs, which was cut short by a bizarre injury, he revealed almost nothing of his thoughts.
This commitment to a mood has made Leonard’s brief flashes of humanity delightfully jarring. There was the moment, during his Raptors introductory press conference, where Leonard let out a short but loud and genuine laugh that faded as quickly as it arrived. It became a meme, and was the first time many NBA fans had ever heard what Leonard’s laugh sounded like. It happened again after that winning shot against the 76ers — Leonard let out a triumphant yell, and Twitter went insane. (Of course, the passion was short-lived. Moments later, the grin faded and he resumed his usual blank demeanor.)
Maybe Kawhi Leonard is so businesslike because basketball is what he does, not who he is. Most players won’t let you believe that could be the case, and most fans don’t want to believe that could be the case. The sport is supposed to be more than a job; it’s supposed to be an art. People talk about the beauty of basketball by comparing it to the work of artists, and there’s truth in this. Kyrie Irving’s handle or Steph Curry’s shooting — there’s a sense of spontaneity, of music coming to life. Leonard’s game doesn’t have that. He shoots mid-range jumpers, he rebounds well. Leonard plays the game like a person laboring, albeit efficiently, with one goal in mind: winning. Muscling through the paint isn’t poetic, but it is effective. Winning doesn’t have to be beautiful.
Sports fandom relies on the idea that a single person can insert meaning into thousands — sometimes millions — of people’s lives. Because Leonard won’t show people much beyond his on-court self, people make up personalities for him: A recent tweet about Leonard eating 12 apples with a knife and fork at a restaurant went viral (and took quite a while to be properly debunked). In this vacuum of personality, onlookers take it upon themselves to create one. In the case of Leonard, this has been largely harmless, propelled by humorous memes and made-up quotes. It has all made Kawhi Leonard a different kind of fan favorite: one who offers very little of himself, yet is still rewarded with affection.
Leonard’s story begins and ends on the court.
Maybe that’s the smart approach. There’s a definite danger to giving in too freely to the will of the fans and the narratives they build for you, or of giving so much of yourself that fans know what will push your buttons, as well as what won’t. In game 5 of the NBA Finals, Kevin Durant made his long-awaited return to the court. The Golden State Warriors star had suffered a calf strain in early May, and was on the bench as his team went down 3–1 versus Toronto. That Durant came back at all was a feat of resilience, and maybe a reaction to public pressure. Durant has become something of a villain in recent years, due in part to his joining an already-stacked Warriors team, and also to a few bizarre Twitter feuds. But he was told he was needed, and he heeded the call.
Perhaps he should have stayed in his street clothes. After a stunning first quarter where he looked much like his old self, Durant ruptured his Achilles, officially putting an end to his season (and probably most if not all of next season too). The game took place in Toronto; some fans in the stands cheered his injury.
As the rest of the series unfurls and people begin to think about who to blame for Durant’s misfortune, I cannot help but think of Leonard, who is one game away from bringing Toronto its first NBA championship. Lest we forget, Leonard sat out most of last season against the advice of San Antonio Spurs doctors, souring his relationship with the franchise that drafted him and leading to his trade to the Raptors. Leonard had a lingering quad injury, and decided to trust his own doctors and (more importantly) his own body. He didn’t appear to consider much beyond the fact that he had an obligation to take care of himself and his future potential to make money in the NBA. It didn’t matter if people called him selfish; Leonard looked out for himself, because ultimately, the fans never do.
And now here he is, on the cusp of an NBA championship. Narratives are flimsy; winning lasts forever. Watching Kawhi in these playoffs has made me realize how little I actually need the narrative flair that surrounds the league. The game he plays provides more than enough to keep me intrigued.