Kawhi Leonard and his unique legacy in the NBA

Central Park is bifurcated. In the space between the crowded lower half of the park and the solitude of its northern portion, where one can get lost in various greenbelts, is a piano that anyone can play.

A line formed behind the piano. The next performer anxiously awaited to play the plain instrument, and his nervousness drew in my attention. He was a young man, a boy really, with angular features that contrasted his sunken chin and pre-pubescent mustache. When the applause for the player before him died, the boy fidgeted his feet towards the piano. He glanced over and over again at his father with a begging smirk; he wanted permission to play, and his dad kept nodding back to him. The kid tucked his right leg underneath the other and sat awkwardly for a moment while he tapped the keys on the upper register. I immediately became concerned for the kid, believing that he might be caught in some Whiplash scenario where his parents, or someone else, pushed him so hard that he became intimidated and afraid of an instrument. When the boy eventually settled both of his feet on top of the pedestals and hovered his fingers over the ivory keys, he disabused me of that notion.

The first piece he played, Chopin’s sixth waltz, or the “Minute Waltz,” seemed to be a deliberate choice. The music is immediate. From the first note, the piece demands dexterity and attention, and requires the pianist to dash across the keyboard. He wanted to get to know the piano, to push against it and pull away from it, so that he could understand the instrument’s limits. We in the audience applauded the young man at the end of the waltz and watched him again smirk towards his father, who again nodded in approval and permission. Then, with his newfound knowledge of the piano’s strengths, the boy belted out the fourth movement of Rachmaninoff’s “Morceaux de fantaisie.” The Russian composer crafted the set of five piano solos in 1892, and the fourth one challenges any pianist to command the lower and middle registers, which were the more tuned portions of this particular piano. The boy’s hands oscillated between acting as sledgehammers and feathers, and he threw his shoulders and torso into each note over the course of the piece. He possessed and displayed the kind of focus that only a labor of love can produce. He flowed.

Physically, though, the boy looked a mess. He wore his plain white t-shirt inside-out, and his atrocious red and blue basketball shorts clashed with his shoes: grey and black New Balance sneakers. New Balances: less assertive than Air Force One’s, less distinguished than Chuck Taylor’s, less fashionable than Stan Smith’s. New Balances: the kind of sneaker’s one wears to blend in with the pack, to hide. Of his entire outfit, these shoes, at least, made sense — talent often disguises itself as innocuous and plain before it roars out of its simple shell to overwhelm all comers.

***

I mention the shoes because New Balance is the shoe company that sponsors Kawhi Leonard, who, in this past NBA Finals, cemented his legacy as one the NBA’s most unique players in its history. Although I appreciated, respected, and admired Kawhi Leonard as a fan of his game early in his career, his gravity as a superstar never felt dense enough for me to consider him an NBA legend. And, although he’s certainly played basketball with ferocity and skill on both ends of the court throughout his career with San Antonio and Toronto, he did so in a way that lulled so many of us into believing that Kawhi Leonard did not, somehow, belong in the same stratosphere with LeBron James, Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, or James Harden, and instead settled him amongst mid-elite players like Paul George, Kyrie Irving, and Russell Westbrook. I, alongside other wayward basketball fans, feel like a fool for falling into the trap he laid with so much guile. We got got.

During Game 4 of this past NBA Finals, ABC broadcaster Mark Jackson called Kawhi, “Not Kobe, but Kobe-like.” Jackson and other commentators continued to compare Kawhi’s game to Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, but also hedged these compliments with qualifiers such as “like” or “-ish” or “kind of”. The comparisons of style between the three players make sense. They all look alike. Kawhi drives like Jordan and finds his spot like Kobe; like Kobe, Kawhi asserts his presence in crucial moments, as he did with a stunning string of made shots at the end of a Game 5 that the Raptors let slip, and, like Jordan, Leonard pressures the other team on both ends of the court throughout each and every game without pause or mercy. But these traits poured out of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant from the dominatable wills that each of them possessed — they wore these wills on their sleeves, as if their attitudes arrived to the court ten minutes before their physical bodies did. If no one put a basketball before Jordan or Kobe when they were kids, both of them would have eventually found an outlet for this outward competitiveness (which is why many people believe Michael Jordan, with enough time, would have matriculated into Major League Baseball). Kawhi looks like Jordan and Kobe, but he doesn’t quite feel like them when you watch him.

Nor does he feel like any of his contemporaries. He doesn’t strut and fret with the same buoyancy of Steph Curry, who, to his credit, overcame the expectations of privilege to not only sustain any legacy his father created, but build upon it in unimaginable ways. Kawhi doesn’t feel like LeBron, who bumbled with superstardom at 16, navigated it at 24, and mastered both his game and celebrity at 30 in order to forge his nearly perfect stature amongst NBA greats. He’s not Kevin Durant — the NBA’s Baryshnikov — whose hollow limbs allow him to play basketball with fluid grace — a player who can get buckets from any spot on the floor in a way that may not be easy but looks so. Nor does Kawhi feel like James Harden, an intelligent, mercenary scorer who can contort his body to drive the lane and accumulate points with a monk-like statistical consistency. Kawhi doesn’t feel like Giannis Antetokounmpo — Shaq, but with less jokes and more three pointers — who doesn’t so much run the floor as much as stalk it with his overwhelming presence.

All of these superstars invoke something within NBA fans that is singular to them, their brands of basketball, and their various personalities. When one stacks Kawhi Leonard next to them, one struggles with the enigma Leonard presents. His marketing material is sparse, filled with stories about ’95 Chevy Tahoes, strange laughs, and stranger anecdotes about the nicknames he gives himself while he dominates other players on the court. “Board Man” sounds like a hero who couldn’t make the cut in Ben Stiller’s 1999 Mystery Men. Cumulatively, Kawhi should feel exactly like a player raised in the shadow of Tim Duncan would feel, but his holdout obliterated all notions that Kawhi could be or wanted to be the heir apparent to the Spurs’s continual string of “humble” superstars, a string that stretches back to David Robinson. Kawhi’s humility doesn’t even feel like humility, or, at least not NBA humility, or, sports and entertainment humility: the kind of image and performance that is cultivated in opposition to flash and flair; the kind that is coded with verbal and body language that relates to a “broader” audience, meaning a “whiter” one. Basically, someone like Tim Duncan or David Robinson or even Steph Curry crafts their humility to become a tool, one that emboldens and protects their success. This humility disables attacks on their character from an American media that will, historically, find any excuse to bury the personal reputations of people of color. Kawhi’s humility doesn’t articulate itself in that way in his language or his play. In fact, I’m not sure he’s “humble” at all. Certainly, one cannot point to him and say that is the feeling he elicits from us. Observers should note that there are more dimensions to Kawhi than those of simple contrast.

And yet, Kawhi’s opaqueness supports his uniqueness. Kawhi Leonard will be remembered forever and always as one of the most special players in the NBA canon for achieving something that no other player has in the NBA’s history. In 2014, Kawhi Leonard won the NBA Finals MVP for stopping LeBron James over the course of four games. He wore down LeBron. He pushed LeBron to the edges of his athleticism — hurt LeBron — and, in the end, forced LeBron James and the Big 3 Miami Heat to fold. In their last season, the Big 3 Miami Heat stumbled through their last game together as an embarrassed, tired, and defeated team. Kawhi sloughed that dynasty in five games, and if he retired the next year, the effort would have been enough to earn him admiration for the rest of his life. But this year he did the same exact thing. With the Warriors, Kawhi faced a machine born out of the ashes of the Big 3 Miami Heat — a team comprised of ultra-talented players who played for a coach who crafted the most efficient and effective basketball system the NBA’s seen yet. And there Kawhi stood again, only this time he played for a different team, one without pedigree and with a rookie coach. Kawhi Leonard embraced the role of David in the NBA Finals against two different Goliaths: two teams that literally and metaphorically embodied and expressed the NBA’s most grandiose, glorious, and grotesque contemporary trends. David only needed to slay the giant once to become king, but Kawhi tested his mettle twice, and both times wore down his opponents with his effort to earn the Larry O’Brien trophy and the Bill Russell Award as NBA Finals MVP. It’s as if Kawhi is a fever, one designed to burn down all the atrophied and bloated parts of the NBA organism. Or, Kawhi Leonard is the NBA’s only vaccine — The One True Dynasty Killer.

But that still doesn’t answer how Kawhi might make someone feel while watching him, which brings me back to that piano and that kid.

When I listened to that thirteen-year-old goofy nerd bust out Chopin and rattle off Rachmaninoff, I could not tell whether the kid pulled the music out of the piano, or pushed the music into it. I could only tell that he enjoyed playing it more than anyone else might enjoy anything else, and that he understood the instrument on an ethereal level that most of us couldn’t even begin to comprehend. Watching Kawhi Leonard play basketball gives me that exact same impression. It’s as if Kawhi is totally unconcerned with the material world (which would explain the New Balances), but also perfectly aligned with what is required of the temporal moment. He’s competitive, but competition doesn’t consume him. He’s athletic, but what he does with his body doesn’t define him. No, something outside of the seeing world drives Kawhi Leonard’s play on the court.

And, in a world where everything is either already discovered or found out to be fake, I am okay with sitting in the mystery that Kawhi provokes. In fact, I’m grateful for it.

Writer/Educator

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