Art and sports are more connected than they seem on their faces. Sporting events may be considered a particularly intense form of improvised performance art — hyperathletic, ultracompetitive dance with byzantine rules attached, if you will. There are heroes and villains. There are storylines with inciting incidents and rising action. There are climaxes. Most importantly, there are intense emotional reactions to the events as they unfold. We know none of it is “real.” That does nothing to diminish the deep investment, though. Sports is more than escapism. It is more than entertainment. It moves people too deeply to be brushed aside as a lark or a way to pass the time.
This NBA postseason has been a wild, strange ride, and its shining star — the newly minted Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard — took an unexpected path to get there. Leonard won his first Finals MVP in 2014 with the San Antonio Spurs. His contribution was his defensive prowess: keeping the juggernaut that is LeBron James somewhat in check. There is a famous moment when James was at the free throw line and looked back to see which player was checking into the game. When he saw Leonard loping back onto the court, he flinched. The moment sums Leonard up: He’s a quiet peril.
Leonard seemed to be on the path to becoming the next great Spur. Then he suffered a nagging quad injury, and it unexpectedly shattered the trust between him and the Spurs organization. Leonard maintained he was too hurt to play and sat out virtually all the of the 2017–18 NBA season, playing only nine games. Things got ugly. Some thought Leonard was faking his injury, and his character was questioned. Much of the sports media latched on to the narrative, and his reputation suffered. His teammates called a meeting to confront him, and it went poorly. Tony Parker later threw him under the bus publicly, claiming the quad injury he had recovered from was 100 times worse than Leonard’s. The relationships couldn’t be salvaged, and the Spurs agreed to trade Leonard. Enter Masai Ujiri, the president of basketball operations for the Toronto Raptors. He wooed Leonard, traded away the Raptors’ marquee player, DeMar DeRozan, and fired the Coach of the Year, Dwane Casey. The rest is history. A championship banner will hang in the rafters of the Raptors’ home at the Scotiabank Arena.
The storyline is fascinating, and I can’t wait to watch the 30 for 30. Art is more than an interesting story with unexpected twists and turns, though. Art forces us to look at the world in new ways. It shifts the lens through which we see things. In this way, I believe Kawhi Leonard is an artist.
Leonard’s interviews and press conferences are art. Ironically, it is his refusal to perform that makes it so. Leonard is a quiet, reserved man, who doesn’t show much emotion — positive or negative. He is thoughtful. He is direct. He understands that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. He isn’t flashy, and the NBA is a league that embraces and promotes the razzle dazzle. Leonard is an improbable superstar. He is also odd.
Leonard’s tenure with the Raptors began with a press conference during which he insisted he was a “fun guy” and uttered a rusty laugh that launched a thousand memes. It sounded like someone trying to start a disused engine that refused to turn over. It was mechanical and awkward. Leonard sometimes presents as mechanical and awkward. In Jayson Jenks’s oral history of Leonard for The Athletic, staff and players from Leonard’s time at San Diego State revealed some of Leonard’s eccentricities. Leonard would say, “Bucket. Bucket” after a score, and “The board man gets paid” was his mantra. All this plays into the notion that Leonard is an emotionless cyborg, whose software patches can’t quite capture the nuances of human behavior. I’ve never understood that interpretation. I find Leonard’s shy stiltedness endearing and charming. It sitting next to such unwavering self-confidence, drive, and ability does make it incongruous, though. Perhaps that’s what some people struggle with. The way Leonard exists in the world and interacts with it defies expectations.
Leonard’s literalism when answering journalists’ questions can create hilarious moments. Some are unintentional; others are deliberate. Every now and then, after he responds to a question in a way that exposes the absurdist theater he’s contractually obligated to participate in, the barest hint of a smile creeps through to let us realize Leonard knows exactly what he’s doing most of the time. He manages the interrogations too well not to. It’s always the person who asked a question lacking substance who comes out on the losing end of the exchanges. Leonard never berates or humiliates anyone or shows frustration, though. He’s professional, humble, and always, always even-tempered. Leonard’s steadiness is how he expresses his iron will.
This post-season was the first time Leonard was the solo superstar leading a team, and, as the Raptors got deeper into the playoffs, he was forced into speaking to the media more than he had in the past. I enjoyed his media sessions. They weren’t precisely entertaining, but Leonard has a watchable quality and a pleasing, deep speaking voice that, combined with his unruffled demeanor, is soothing to listen to. Leonard exudes an almost monastic simplicity, and his responses reflect profound self-awareness and a mature perspective and outlook on life. When he discusses some of the immense difficulty he’s had to overcome in his personal and professional lives, he is also motivational without the schmaltzy oiliness that often accompanies it. He is honest but diplomatic, unpretentious but never self-effacing. He’s a real one, and it comes through. It all makes Leonard unexpectedly riveting television.
Authenticity. Genuineness that hasn’t been curated for Instagram. It’s rare to see. It’s refreshing. As is the mystique Leonard’s retiring lifestyle has generated around him. We don’t know much about him. He likes it that way. I think we do too. It’s nice to have the distance to wonder. It’s nice to see someone actually be different because they are and not because they’ve concocted some elaborate, phony persona. Leonard leaving the coolness of Nike and Michael Jordan’s Jumpman brand for New Balance and their late afternoon walking shoes exemplifies his separateness from the pack. Think about it: Leonard folded up a good portion of the most formidable basketball talent on the planet while wearing New Balances. Some sort of singularity may have been achieved.
Leonard came out of his shell while celebrating the Raptors’ victory with his teammates and showed more emotion than we’ve seen from him. He was open, smiling, and laughing in his post-game interviews. What a good teammate and leader he is really came through. I wonder if that looser version of him will persist, or if he’ll button things up again when he gets back to business next season. It’s unclear what pending free agency will bring for Leonard. He’s become a folk hero in Canada, and nearly anyone else would stay to soak up the adoration of a grateful nation. Leonard isn’t everyone else, though. Wherever Leonard ends up and whatever happens next, I believe he’ll continue to excel and create more great art.