When you think of the truly great “Canadian” athletes – and we’re not just talking here about holding the right travel documents – you end up with a small list.
In all likelihood, the first image that pops to your mind is a hockey player. Maybe Wayne Gretzky, or Bobby Orr, or Gordie Howe. All guys from small towns or second cities. Raised the right way. Among the best at what they do.
But, most important – reticent to the point of opacity. The only place you ever noticed those guys was on the ice.
When forced to speak off it, they were shy, occasionally bumptious, cyphers. Never got very angry; never celebrated too much; never, ever took themselves too seriously.
(This would be in opposition to the American way of being great – having a lot of talent and turning up the volume until every single inhabitant of the country knows about it.)
We have many wonderful contemporary competitors continuing in this grand national tradition – good at what they do; don’t like talking about it.
But though he is not a native son, Kawhi Leonard is becoming the great Canadian athlete of modern times.
Nobody was sure what to expect from Leonard when he joined the Toronto Raptors via trade over the summer. For more than two months, he said absolutely nothing about it. That led people to reasonably assume that Leonard was upset in some way.
As it turns out, not quite. Given the choice, Leonard just never says anything about anything, for any reason, under any circumstances.
This past week, a reporter tried to draw him out with a guaranteed conversation starter: “Merry Christmas! Can you talk about your favourite Christmas moment?”
Leonard, dead-eyed: “Not right now.”
Leonard will talk – no NBA star can avoid it entirely – but so sparingly and in such an informationless monotone that there isn’t much point to the exercise.
If there is the briefest lull in questioning, Leonard will exit the scrum by the most direct route possible – straight through everyone. He is a very large person, so it’s a bit of a fire drill.
There is never any hint of ill-temper in any of this. Leonard is enduring you for a few moments. You’re enduring him. You’re all trying to get through it together. It’s a basketball crucible.
To hear his colleagues tell it, Leonard is happiest when he is not drawing any attention. A Raptors staffer said, “One-on-one, he’s a completely different person.”
Former Raptor Andrea Bargnani was this way – a wax statue in front of microphones, a witty and wonderfully self-aware person away from them.
Maybe this is that – a case of extreme shyness in groups. Or just a case of logical shyness. Most pro athletes acclimate themselves to being surrounded by cameras, stared at by dozens of people and being perpetually one wrong turn of phrase from putting themselves deeply in the weeds. Leonard’s the guy who never got used to it.
On the court, whenever not in motion, Leonard is just as inscrutable. No bad call can unsettle him. No hard foul upsets him. He is an Easter Island statue out there. He’s also already the best player yet to wear the Raptors uniform.
Though born, raised and resident in the United States, Leonard’s approach to his work could not be more Canadian if he took the court in a Mountie’s dress reds.
Perhaps this is why no panic has begun over the idea of him leaving, as he is free to do at the end of this season.
It could be an instance of carpe-diem-ism, but sports fans aren’t often credited with that virtue.
This week the Los Angeles Clippers made clear through journalistic proxies they intend on signing Leonard in the off-season. Leonard’s home is in southern California.
Everyone shrugged. Well, of course they would like to do that. Who wouldn’t?
Had this been said of any other Raptors’ star in previous years, it would have caused hysteria. People would have required the player to deny it was something he’d even consider (in other words, to lie). After he refused to lie, fans would set against him pre-emptively.
But nobody tried that with Leonard, or felt the need to. Maybe that’s because they know what his answer will be – a blank stare. Or maybe it’s because people are beginning to believe that Leonard is too Canadian to leave Canada.
It’s an easy argument to make. He’s famous here, but he’ll never be hockey famous. Which is to say, people will never feel qualified to judge him.
He can make more money in Toronto. He’s left to his own devices when he needs some alone time. The team is championship calibre.
The key lure – that he is not just tolerated here for choosing to reveal nothing of himself, but celebrated for that quality.
This is the beauty of silence – it confers upon quiet people the mien of deep thinkers. The noisier the world gets, the more we believe that.
There’s no point in asking Leonard what his plans are. He won’t answer mildly intrusive questions. Why would he answer one that, regardless of his answer, is not just intrusive, but profoundly against his self-interest?
In order to be himself, Leonard must remain a mystery to the rest of us.
That sort of thing is not going to fly in L.A., New York, or Chicago. It eventually didn’t in San Antonio, which is close to the U.S. capital of mind-your-own-business-ness.
But it does here.
If all Leonard wants to do is his job at an all-star level and then blow out early every evening from now until forever, Canadians will congratulate him on remaining so normal.
If we never know a single interesting thing about him, we’ll think there are many.
And as long as he never says what he’s thinking about remaining in Canada, we’ll consider him one of us, in temperament at least.