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Kawhi Leonard’s Stoicism and the Underrated Value of Silence

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Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) and Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry (7) celebrate after winning the NBA Championship over the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena. Photo: Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

By Benre J. Zenarosa |

Since NBA free agency for the 2019-20 season began at 6 p.m. ET on June 30, speculations surfaced about where the stars were going. Days later, Kevin Durant’s name was off the board; the other stars comfortably found new constellations to join. We were left with one history-altering superstar: Kawhi Leonard. And it didn’t surprise me at all.

Lavish contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars made themselves known to us. They remind us that NBA basketball – the game we enjoy watching on TV and on our smartphones – is at the end of the day a business where team owners or governors sit at the top of the food chain. Their right hand and fingers – the General Manager and the President of Basketball Operations – are fully absorbed scrutinizing who’s available and not for the trade. We don’t see them whenever we want. But we know that they’re there, soaring above the clouds, yes, beyond the stars. But a power shift is unfolding as days pass by. And probably, just like me, you barely noticed it at first.

When Kawhi Leonard injured his left ankle in 2017, which then developed to right thigh tendinopathy, and miserably played only nine games with the San Antonio Spurs during the 2017-18 season, he was called names: loser, traitor, fake. Commentators despised him for being unfair to the fans and to the media. He opted to remain silent as his personality dictated him to be. He didn’t mind the outside noise. His inner circle knew the truth. He waited. Patiently. He focused on what he thought was right. And now that he’s a reigning champion and a 2-time Finals MVP, everybody adores him.

It’s convenient to let unspoken messages fade, for time to find meaning in his actions, and to console ourselves with the reality that another NBA season has ended. How ludicrous could that be?

On Saturday morning, Kawhi Leonard shocked the basketball world when he decided to join the Los Angeles Clippers. Days prior to the announcement of this news, the frontrunners were the Los Angeles Lakers and the Toronto Raptors according to analysts. But it’s not just him who’s arriving to the Clippers; he’ll be with Oklahoma City All-Star forward Paul George. As it turns out, Kawhi and Paul have been texting and calling each other brought by their eagerness to play together. Paul requested for a trade from the Thunder. The Clippers moved heaven and earth to make their tandem a possibility where tons of draft picks and unknown names were involved. And the Clippers management delivered.

You can see the whole fiasco as a redemption for Kawhi but it’s not. He took his time. He’s heavily involved in the recruitment process. He made the core of his plan known to the Clippers’ front office: to play in Los Angeles – his home, and not build a superteam in the Lakers. 

It was an intelligent move by a superstar. Nobody saw it coming. We are talking about four or five years of someone’s life here. He had to engage, to go beyond the headlines, and speak face to face with those he’ll work with in the future. He had to meticulously try to have a glimpse of the cultures of the organizations through the eyes of its key characters. He perfectly knew that they were salivating to convince him to take his talent to their clubs, to hopefully bring them to the promise land. Because the view at the top is surreal and expensive and sophisticated.

None of these could be happening had he forced himself to play through his injury. No, I’m not just talking about the highfalutin epithet of the condition he had to get over with. There’s always the psychological side for every catastrophic experience. Suddenly, unwanted scripts could play over and over again in one’s mind which Kawhi endured. Is it okay to make this move? Should I drive hard to the hole? Can I take the pressure? What if the injury gets worse? Could it be the end of the tunnel for me?

In silence, Kawhi got what he always wanted. He powerfully and majestically maneuvered his way through the humps. The easier path was to join LeBron James and Anthony Davis with the Lakers, and crush the spirits of the 29 other teams in the NBA. But it’s not his character to throw competitiveness out of the window. Since he’ll be joining the Clippers, here’s a historic narrative in front of him in the years to come: be the first player to be Finals MVP in 3 different franchises. Achieving that will surely cement his legacy, they say, and will probably get him closer to the title of the “GOAT” (Greatest of All Time). Although, he doesn’t care about things of “GOAT” nature, his DNA refutes to declare so. 

In the end, the free agency is not all about money. Free agency is about strategy, timing, and preparedness. And because the Clippers have all these, they instantly become relevant. 

Kawhi is mysterious, but he is his own man. His flawless amount of patience can never be questioned. With the ball and all the time in the world in his large hands, he attentively studied the smallest of details before arriving to a decision.  

There is power in quiet. Nobody comes close. 

Benre J. Zenarosa writes essays and letters. His works have appeared in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Rappler, Thought Catalog, The Nation, Boxing Insider, Abstract Sports, Read Boxing, and others. He is from Makati, Philippines. zenarosabenre@gmail.com

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