Most athletes are boring, especially the ones who try to seem interesting. Kyrie Irving is exhausting; Joel Embiid has the chops of a fragile open miker. The lie that your favorite player is also a richly fascinating human being isn’t new—the Sports Illustrated vault has quite a few examples of writers straining windily to find something noteworthy to say about Dale Murphy or whoever—but down in the sooty content mines, where the entire culture has retreated, the briefest flash of light is confused with the rising of the sun and we’re more apt than ever to raise the klaxons over a laconic tweet or nothing-special anecdote. Every noise finds a megaphone. You guys won’t believe this, but they have coffee in NBA locker rooms. The din is enough to make you want to purchase a porch at the end of the earth, and just stare off the end of it until you expire.
So let’s not outthink ourselves. Kawhi Leonard is boring. A long drive with him would stretch out into infinity. I highly doubt that beneath that stoic public persona, he’s got brambly and discursive ideas about Still Summer in the Projects or the Democratic primary race. That’s okay; it’s not what he collects a salary on. But Kawhi is different from his peers in that he’s powerfully boring, in the way a glacier chews through rock. He is affectless to the point of being unnerving. He is blank as shrink-wrapped notebook, and because he’s famous for something else, people deposit a lot of swirly eyed theories into that vast blankness.
Here is one of those, maybe. Norman Mailer once helpfully defined style in writing as “an attack on the nature of reality.” Basically, when you’re alone in a room with your thoughts, and you’re trying to get at some truth, you’re necessarily going to employ a certain kind of approach. You’re trying to describe something knotty, so your prose is going to have gnarl and contradictions. You’re trying to describe something beautiful, so your prose becomes careful and spare. Everybody has their own notions about which approaches suit which subjects. Perhaps talent is the ability to match them in inspired ways.
Mailer crucially distinguishes style from expression. (Expression is probably too gooey a word for Mailer, but here it means the manifestation of the vain and seering need in the writer’s soul to communicate.) Style is a mechanism through which expression becomes possible, rather than the expression itself. If you’re someone who has, say, spent nearly a decade positing style in sports as an end unto itself, you might blanch at this, but the notion of style as a strictly utilitarian thing—a hammer, a tube of toothpaste—that aids in the accomplishment of a specific task seems like something Kawhi could articulate, if he had any interest in articulating it.
He owned Game 4—most importantly, carrying the Raptors through a first quarter in which his teammates were tight to the point of uselessness—in his typically understated fashion. 36 points, 11-for-22, 12 boards. Four steals. He was the tide against which the Warriors raged and were eventually swept away.
His performance was hyperfunctional all the way down. There were no slingshotted jump-passes, or snaking dribble moves, or extravagant finishes at the rim. To describe Kawhi’s objectively awesome performance in language he might use: he got the ball, created some space, and shot it. And it went in, over and over again. When he got double-teamed, he backed away from the pressure and found the open man. There are players in this league whose internal monologues must sound like a block-long New Orleans jazz ensemble as they drive the lane. You can see the elegant thought bubbles above Kawhi’s head as he cooks.
To the right.
Good enough. Shooting now.
He plays offense like he plays defense, which is to say with expertise and economy. It’s basketball stripped down only to what works. Kawhi is doing math, and while it lacks the baroque flair of a Dame Lillard blackout, the thrilling dimension of it still streams through brightly because—sweet Naismith!—no mortal being has any right to make draining bucket after bucket in the NBA Finals look as painless as arithmetic. By Mailer’s formulation, Kawhi has a perfect style, because it consistently finds what it seeks: the bottom of the net.
It’s a far from ugly impulse to search for meaning in athletes. We all want the things that excite us to be more than facile hobbies. But it takes more studying than noticing in order to get anywhere worthwhile. In his Dreiserian straightforwardness, Kawhi allows us a unique opportunity to contemplate what he is and what he stands in for. The author’s dead, and he doesn’t like giving interviews.
He’s one win away from becoming a champion again, this time in a city that’s never known such success. That’s a deep subject, whether he has an opinion on it or not. Beneath, around, and exactly at Kawhi’s boring surface are multitudes. All he does is drain tough jumpers, lock down scorers, and mumble. Put another way, all the moon does is reflect the sun’s light back at us. We’ve managed to find a few interesting things to say about it.