Andrew Wiggins and Connor McDavid met for the first time on Tuesday. Beforehand, it had a portentous feel – the initial coming together of this generation of Canadian sport's Lewis and Clark.
For posterity's sake, here's what that first conversation was about, according to Wiggins: "We got a chance to talk about how the summer's going, and how life is."
Presumably, life is pretty goddamned great. But you wouldn't know it watching them here.
McDavid didn't bother looking at Wiggins as he said it. McDavid was staring dolefully at the back of the room. Maybe he was looking for the fire exit. He didn't care to expand.
What did you think of each other?
A brief stoppage in time. Frozen smiles. Mutual stammering that drifted off into nothing. Then a pair of embarrassed laughs.
This is where we could say something about how they grew up a half-hour from each other, but a world apart. That doesn't seem right, though.
In most of the important ways, Wiggins and McDavid seem like exactly the same person: driven to the point of fixation, a purpose-made human tool and largely ill-at-ease in the noisy, peripheral world that stratospheric talent eventually pushes you into.
They were here, at a North Toronto high school, to shoot a commercial for a sports nutrition drink. Standing around before a news conference, they kept their distance from each other. Both had their hands jammed in their pockets. Both looked immensely pained by all the attention.
They were like a pair of Grade 9 students being forced to pair up on the first day of school, while a dozen cameras documented every twitch. Out of uniform and outside the lines of play, you're reminded that while they are sportsmen in our imagination, Wiggins and McDavid are still uncomfortable kids everywhere else.
At 20, Wiggins is the elder, with a year of pro ball behind him. He did most of the talking. It still wasn't much talking. McDavid sat alongside, one leg pistoning up and down under the table.
Ten minutes of tortured, monosyllabic clichés, and they were almost freed. The last bit was a photo op. McDavid – who is no shrimp – stood up beside Wiggins.
"I look so small," he said mournfully. Wiggins put a comforting arm around him. Since it seemed to grab McDavid more at neck than shoulder level, it rather amplified the effect. They stood there stock-still.
"Mix it up a little," a photographer shouted.
They moved a foot apart and stood there stock-still some more.
All in all, it was a long way from mythic. ESPN will not be doing a 30 for 30 about this first encounter some day. But it all seemed pleasingly Canadian.
One of the great modern complaints about professional athletes is that they say too much and assume even more. We have a vision of them on the ice or the field or the court, being better than the rest of us. Why can't they be that way all the time? Every very human mistake made out in the real world is an affront to our admiration.
Here are two young stars – potentially transformative figures – who play the game. And that's it. They don't court attention. They don't need to have their opinions heard. They have no interest in engaging a crowd away from the arena. They just want to play.
Even their voices are downcast. Both speak in a near whisper. At a DNA level, they were both built for doing rather than talking. If either ever feels the need to give a locker-room speech, someone is going to have to dig up a bullhorn first.
They're giving us what we say we want – sports excellence and nothing more. Going down the line, it'll be interesting to see if that makes people happy. I rather suspect not. We always want it both ways, and more besides.
Someone asked Wiggins how many days a year he devotes to personal brand development and sponsorship opportunities.
It depends, he said, trying to dodge.
But how many days?
He had no idea. He just goes where they tell him. Wiggins worries about basketball. He lets other people worry about everything else.
They are still prodigious children, and may grow into the rest of it. Maybe in five or seven years – after a few playoff series or Olympic tournaments – they'll begin to enjoy to-ing and fro-ing with the public and the media. But that's another thing I doubt.
The primary characteristic shared by this country's two most electric young athletes appears to be introversion.
We think of the best players as performers, but it might be more apt to see them as artists. They do one thing extremely well, and spend most of their free hours thinking about how to do it better.
What they don't spend any time worrying about it is how to please their audience. That sort of professional myopia is what separates visionaries from craftsmen.
We don't often put it in these terms, but it is reductive to compare a Wayne Gretzky (also an introvert) or a Michael Jordan (more of a misanthrope) to averagely talented people doing what they do. They have more in common with a Picasso or a Stravinsky. They see the world differently from the everyone else. It's more than a surplus of ability. It's a form of physical genius.
That odd way of looking at the world can manifest as prickliness or extreme shyness, pushing most people away. That gives them the space to continue being unique.
It's far too early to say if Wiggins or McDavid will turn out to be that sort of player – the linkage between the old way of doing things and a new, heretofore unconsidered way of doing them even better.
But they have the first two necessities – the capacity for greatness, along with a laser-like focus on tending to it to the exclusion of all other things.