The Kawhi-ary: Call me Kawhi

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 14: Kawhi Leonard
OAKLAND, CA - MAY 14: Kawhi Leonard /

An entry from Bryan Harvey’s Kawhi-ary, an ongoing diary about a season without much basketball.

This is a true story.

The San Antonio Spurs have come to be known as a family. Continuity of personalities and a consistency of results have made such a metaphor both apt and easy. Families, however, are not static institutions. They also are not always steadfast and whole. Sometimes they crumble. Sometimes they are misshapen. And other times they break. But they are always in the process of becoming.

So what if Stephen Jackson thinks Tony Parker is an awful human being. Everyone who follows the Spurs secretly suspects the little guy is possibly the worst. But you know what so is your uncle and so are my relatives who will remain nameless because they’re real and really awful. But  still they were part of a family. And, while Stephen Jackson isn’t currently on the San Antonio roster or any roster for that matter, he’s still on the periphery of that family as a second cousin twice removed or something. Family can talk crap about the family.

But slamming doors and raised voices don’t usually sound from the walls in San Antonio. The place is a mission with fortified walls and church bells. The place is where the league sends its loyal soldiers and quiet nuns. And maybe the narrative is easier than the reality.

Read More: Kawhi will drink your milkshake all up

On March 9, my wife and I woke up early. We left our daughter Althea at our house, with her grandparents. We drove to the hospital for a scheduled c-section. The drive up I-95 to Woodbridge, a DC suburb in Prince William County, was clear and uneventful. Gillian, my wife, hadn’t eaten anything for several hours. When we walked into the delivery wing, one of the nurses noticed her carrying a water bottle and quickly bemoaned, “You haven’t been drinking that, have you?” The answer was no. Gillian is an adamant rule follower.

Then the plan changed.

The doctor made certain observations and measurements. The doctor said we would be perfect candidates for a VBAC. We were left alone to talk it over. I joked that I didn’t think I was a perfect candidate. My wife joked that my joke wasn’t very funny, and then, in all seriousness, she regretted following the rules. A Nutri-Grain bar at 9: 30 p.m. is not the best way to prepare for a labor that will eventually total near twenty hours.

The reason our second daughter was initially scheduled for a c-section was because that’s how our first daughter was born, and some doctors are creatures of habit and caution. Coaches and parents can also be like that.

Watch a San Antonio game this year, and you’re sure to hear one of the announcers calling the game mention how LaMarcus Aldridge wanted to be traded in the offseason, sat down with Gregg Popovich, and had a conversation. The conversation realigned the relationship and Aldridge has had his best season since exiting Portland. This sequence has been repeated ad nauseam throughout the season, but it bears repeating here.

The player and the coach met face-to-face behind closed doors and discovered a way to make what was broken work again.

Leonard’s leg is obviously not right, and his relationship with the franchise appears to have followed suit. Maybe something was rotten in the state of Texas prior to the Zaza hit, but maybe not. Leonard is due a very large paycheck from the organization, and the Spurs being the Spurs will probably pay him the whole super max extension, as they should. Change keeps a team relevant. Too much change is a wrecking ball. San Antonio has been building a specific culture for two decades. Now is not the time to speed up the Mayan calendar.

On the other hand are Leonard’s concerns. If he wants money, San Antonio has the most to offer. If he wants stability, only Golden State is currently on more stable ground. If its fame he wants, then he may very well need a lobotomy.

Rumors abound that Leonard wants his own shoe. To date the Jumpman brand has not granted such a wish. The most prominent ad featuring Kawhi Leonard features two young basketball fans engaging in an academic debate as to whether Kawhi Leonard could stop Kawhi Leonard from scoring. The ad is brilliant because it presents Kawhi Leonard as peerless. However, the ad also reveals how in a world driven by capitalism and charisma Kawhi Leonard may be his own worst enemy. San Antonio isn’t stopping The Claw from selling shoes; having a nickname like The Claw is stopping him. The moniker is by default. Kawhi Leonard is Kawhi Leonard and trying to sell him as anything else rings false, even if his hands are abnormally large.

Michael Jordan wasn’t always so polished, but he was hungry out of the gate to be a pitchman. At 26, Kawhi Leonard’s a little late in the game for rebranding, but perhaps a change in cities would offer such a chance. And yet that’s an old American lie: pack up and become someone else. It’s also harder to do if you’re already famous.

I don’t want to get into predicting where Kawhi Leonard, if he were to become a free agent in 2019, might land—I’m bad at such predictions because they involve thinking about money and contracts—, but the bigger markets all possess flaws. New York would leave his inner MNSKY exposed. Philadelphia is an interesting, but fragile ecosystem. Washington is impossible. Dallas is out of the question. Boston is San Antonio, but colder. Los Angeles, Chicago, and Houston remain.

If it’s fame he wants, in Houston he’s beholden to James Harden and Chris Paul. In Los Angeles, he returns home, but as a Laker, he is an awfully low man on the totem pole of all-time legacies. Admittedly, though, he would be delivering the franchise from oblivion. And lastly, Chicago might grant him the keys to the kingdom, but that’s a throne without a foundation for winning championships anytime soon. If Leonard does not sign an extension with San Antonio this summer, I fully believe the reason is he no longer believes the franchise can build a true contender, and he will be waiting to see where else the contending pieces might fall. Surprisingly, and maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising. Leonard believes he can have it all, and the all of it includes winning.

Part of me wonders, and this is all speculation, if part of the problem for Leonard’s staying in San Antonio might be something so simple and ugly as jealousy. He must recognize that he arrived a generation or two late for the gold strike and perceives, accurately or not, that the franchise perceives him not as a founder but as a second son.

Everyone assumed Kawhi was okay with the franchise’s power structures, with being in the shadow of Duncan, Popovich, Ginobili, and even Parker, but recent events suggest a more complicated tale.

For some reason, I thought I would know my second daughter better at the start than I did my first. That was a mistake. I am more adept at changing diapers and waking up in the night. I do not panic. But also she doesn’t either. She is not the screamer her sister was. She eats more, or so I’m told. They look alike, but they are distinctly different. With my first daughter, every day she carved out a portion of the world that was hers, and the whole world was up for grabs. With my second daughter, the trick is harder to discern. When she shows me something at this point, she reveals the ways in which she is not Althea, meaning I am coming to know Eliza via differences. I admit the wording here is awful and reveals the battle between parents and later siblings. Eliza cannot change me in the same ways as Althea did. I am already a father. The dramatic change already occurred, but she can alter who I am as a father in ways that at first may be immeasurable.

Part of me is sad to admit that. Another part of me recognizes that such an arrangement is why I will love Eliza as someone other than her sister. Will she understand that?

Similarly, Kawhi Leonard cannot win a title in 1999 or 2003. He cannot write the prologue for Tim Duncan; David Robinson already did that. Kawhi Leonard, however, can carve out a space that is his. He can differentiate himself from what came before. Of course, the most dramatic way to do so would be to take on the moniker: The one who left.

For a San Antonio Spurs fan who blogs about basketball, I write very little about the team in black and white. When writing about Tim Duncan, I have often struggled to be self-deprecating. When thinking about the team as a whole, I often have only a few bullet points to recite, and yet when I think of the team as individuals, the word counts for potential columns grow unmanageably long. That’s why I’ve written six posts circling the Kawhi Leonard question. Prior to these six posts in one week, I had written one post about the quiet forward, sometime in 2013 or 2014. With the total at seven now, I have averaged at least one Kawhi Leonard post per year since he entered the league. So, you know, almost a book’s worth.

Next: A year without a Kawhi Leonard

I did, however, occasionally write a Kawhi Leonard caricature into some of my NBA fan fiction. He makes appearances in With the Memphis Blues Again, but they are nothing more than cameos. In Everything That Dunks Must Converge, however, he walks into a newspaper office where all the old writing hacks bang away at typewriters. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker are all employed here. A man named Gregg Popovich, who has final say on every word, is the wine-swilling editor. Leonard doesn’t say much throughout the story. He is a young man of few words, while the old veterans crank out epic narrative after epic narrative. At the end of the story, Ginobili finally pauses long enough to consider something other than the work and asks the young man for his name, and the young man answers in an echo of Herman Melville’s narrator: “Call me Kawhi.”

When I wrote the line, I thought I was being incredibly clever to place it at the end of the story, seeing how Melville’s whale novel leaps into the ocean following that imperative speck. It always seemed that Kawhi, for that’s what we should call him, arrived after the epics had all been written, and yet his presence kept them alive. And maybe that’s why this season’s so frustrating. Ginobili and Parker are still banging away at the keys, but without the boy beside them, even the sacrifice is a vanity.

Read the rest of The Kawhi-ary: A year without a Kawhi Leonard, Kawhi’s trip from the Planet Wyh, Kawhi Leonard and the Breaks of the Game, The sound of Kawhilence, Kawhi Leonard will drink your milkshake all up