The laugh is pure bodies-in-the-trunk, and everything else recalls The Onion’s Hillary Clinton op-ed. Kawhi Leonard has always been uniquely strange, cornrow-sporting artificial intelligence with an overcranked normalcy coefficient. He is a “fun guy” who presumably enjoys such activities as conversing with people for whom he has affection and eating so as to have the necessary energy to perform important tasks. He stands out among the NBA’s great fulsome weirdos for being the opposite of eccentric. He is decidedly not J.R. Smith gassing a Coors Lite while riding a PhunkeeDuck after a Finals loss, nor Boris Diaw setting down his cappucino to ace a vertical leap test, nor Brook Lopez speaking for “81 uninterrupted seconds” about the history of Disney World, where he (of course) owns a home. These goofballs are generally well-liked because they’re different from their peers. Most athletes are bland, process-oriented people, so when some six-foot-nine dude with legs like a tree frog’s is slightly off-center, we appreciate him as an oasis of personality amidst so much featureless desert.
Kawhi is the heat invisibly radiating off the sand. He hasn’t ever said anything interesting. He barely says anything at all. For most of his career, this laconic pose has suggested, not a cynic guarding his brand or a glowering misanthrope, but an accidental celebrity wholly uninterested in being a public figure. The popular analysis of Kawhi as recently as a year ago was that he’s an even more introverted version of Tim Duncan, who during his playing days was guarded and soft-spoken and not particularly friendly with the press. But, though he was a blank slate when he was young, we eventually came to know some stuff about Duncan. As he aged, he became marginally more comfortable sharing his personality and interests with journalists, long-time teammates told stories about him, and a thin portrait of one of the best big men in NBA history emerged: he’s a charming dork who likes paintball and collects swords. If Duncan retired still something of a mystery, we at least got the broad strokes. Kawhi, by contrast, might just spend his free time staring blankly at the walls of his sparsely furnished home. Does he, um, like movies? Or have a favorite color? We may never know. The guy once No Comment’d a question about juice.
So our impression of Kawhi Leonard, using the man himself as a primary source, is no impression at all. That hasn’t changed, but his silent inaction throughout the 2017-18 season revealed an aspect of his character, however unintentionally. He hardly played due to a quad injury, and more curiously than that, the Spurs, under obligation to say something about why he wasn’t on the floor, were repeatedly noncommittal about when he would return. They made an announcement that he would miss the preseason, and another about him being absent from the season opener. Then Gregg Popovich said in mid-November that he expected Kawhi back “sooner rather than later.” He played sparingly in December and January, for nine games, rarely in consecutive contests, on a minutes restriction, and looked merely like an aspartame-infused version of himself.
The Spurs didn’t officially shut him down after that nine-game spell, but he didn’t see the court again. He went to New York for three weeks and sought a second opinion on his quad. Reports surfaced that Kawhi and Spurs management didn’t agree on the severity of his injury and weren’t getting along. Those reports were subsequently refuted by Kawhi’s just-perfectly named Uncle Dennis. There was buzz Kawhi might return in March. That didn’t happen, but he did tell some journalists that he wanted to retire as a Spur. He wasn’t with the team during the playoffs. Popovich said flattering things about LaMarcus Aldridge “playing through everything” that sounded a lot like him throwing grumbling subliminals at Kawhi. From there, everything fell apart—or perhaps more accurately, stayed broken. Kawhi got shipped to the Raptors, in a move that felt somewhat retributative. No way in hell were the Spurs sending him to the Lakers.
The thing that kept popping up in scuttlebutt about what had become, by midseason, a full-blown Kawhi Situation was that—huh, apparently he’s like that with everybody—he wasn’t communicating with the team. He left phone calls and texts unreturned. When teammates or coaches could wrangle him and ask him a question to his face, he was unresponsive or evasive. A players-only meeting toward the end of the season, in which Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili urged Kawhi to come back for the playoffs, clarified nothing. A June meeting with Popovich was very brief and in retrospect probably sealed Kawhi’s San Antonio exit. The Spurs are an organization that keeps things in-house better than anybody, but it did appear, from the outside looking in, that no one in the locker room or the front office had a great handle on why Kawhi was so upset in the first place. What, he wanted more time to come back from his injury? That doesn’t, on its face, seem like a problem that would permanently rupture the relationship between a well-run franchise and their most important player. Remember, Popovich once punted on a postseason, with a team that finished 53-and-29, scratching Tim Duncan after he tore his meniscus late in the year.
There are numerous alternative theories floating around the NBA Internet about what the source of Kawhi’s discontentment was. The Spurs didn’t treat him quite as special as other teams treat their stars. He was miffed that he wasn’t getting enough attention playing in a relatively small media market. He wants a more lucrative shoe deal. The people advising him—Uncle Dennis among them—dislike Spurs brass. Any and all of this might be true. Kawhi obviously won’t confirm or deny it.
At any rate, he’s left San Antonio for some reason, and he’ll be in Toronto for at least part of this upcoming season. Hopefully he’ll be back to his pre-injury best sometime soon. But even if it turns out he hasn’t changed as a player, our perception of him has irreversibly shifted. A player we previously understood as a robotic extension of Gregg Popovich’s will has become complicated. What was often described as diffidence and a monk-like devotion to the game (and maybe social anxiety) can now be read as surly impassiveness. You can be a jerk without opening your mouth. Sometimes you’re a jerk precisely because you refuse to engage.
It’s possible that any up-to-date ideas about Kawhi are roughly as incorrect as the ones tossed out when he was a babe mumblingly accepting his Finals MVP back in 2014. People aren’t one thing all the way through, all the time. Kawhi is almost certainly not a “fun guy,” but he’s not necessarily a selfish or poisonous one. Perhaps he’s made a mistake. Perhaps he knows something exculpatory that we don’t. We shouldn’t expect him to open up; that’s not who he is. But the story about everyone gets told one way or another, through what they say or don’t, their actions, the ways they affect others, and it always grows knottier as it goes along. Kawhi Leonard wasn’t going to be simple forever, and he’s not anymore. You could finally say he’s a human being, in the popular imagination. Kawhi might even tell you that much—if nothing else.