After brilliant performances in games 3 and 4 of the NBA Finals, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard is getting more attention than ever before. Leonard has quietly played extremely well in his first three NBA seasons, but with most of the Spurs talk centering around their Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili, Leonard has mostly slipped under the radar. But after being the driving force behind the Spurs last two blowout wins over the Heat, even the most casual fans have no choice but to acknowledge how well Leonard is playing.
There’s just one thing here: no one knows anything about him.
Leonard is the rare professional athlete who is not on any form of social media. Furthermore, in post-game interviews, he comes off as extremely shy, like he would rather let Duncan or Parker do the talking, but since he had another fantastic game, he has no choice but to address the media. He also has no signature celebration dance or taunt that we could either love or hate him for. Finally, we know next to nothing about Leonard’s personal life. Really, the only thing we have to guide our impression of Kawhi Leonard is how well he plays basketball.
To put it another way, it’s all about The Process.
A 2012 episode of Futurama focused on a critically acclaimed actor named Langdon Cobb, who was so reclusive, he wore a bag on his at all times, including in his movies. His explanation for this was that he had no interest in being judged for his good looks, and he wanted to simply be judged for his abilities as an actor*. In a typical bit of Hollywood pretension, he referred to this as The Process. Well, Kawhi Leonard doesn’t play basketball with a bag over his head, but he’s about as close to the NBA equivalent of Langdon Cobb as we’re going to get.
While sports fans may not want to admit it, the way we evaluate athletes is often affected by what we think of their personalities. We might partially overlook the brilliance of LeBron James because he seemed arrogant after The Decision, while also conveniently ignoring Derek Jeter’s poor defense over the years because he’s Such A Class Act. Whether these biases effect our perceptions in a positive or negative way doesn’t necessarily matter. The point is, we are almost never judging athletes solely by how they perform on the field. There is always some extracurricular knowledge about that player that guides how we think of him in one way or another. But Leonard is a blank slate, and we are forced to judge him simply by how he performs on the court.
It might not always be this way. The Spurs are just one game away from winning the Finals, and Leonard has a shot at winning the MVP. This will likely lead to him being in the spotlight a lot more than before. He might finally join Twitter, or start dating a famous actress or model, and we’ll find ourselves associating him with that rather than what he does on the court. There will also likely be more and more interviews with Leonard where we learn more about how he thinks, and what his deeply held personal beliefs are. None of this is bad, of course, but our ability to judge him without bias may be permanently compromised. We’ll either love him because he’s so good to his mother or hate him because he’s dating our favorite Victoria’s Secret model. Either way, the time when we can judge Kawhi Leonard solely on The Process is likely about to come to an end.
So, when you watch Game 5 on the Finals on Sunday, take some time out to really appreciate what Leonard does out there. His tight defense on LeBron James, his remarkable ability to drive to the basket, and his deadliness from beyond the arc. Because Kawhi Leoanrd is about to become a celebrity, and this might be our last chance to appreciate him for nothing more than his brilliance as a basketball player.
*To all the Futurama fans reading this: yes, I know Cobb turned out to be a soul-sucking alien, and all the stuff about The Process was just a cover. But I kinda had to ignore that for the purpose of the analogy. You’ll understand, right?