Smile For Me, Kawhi

(J.P. Wilson/Icon Sportswire)

You never have to guess when Russell Westbrook is on the court. You’ll know. It’s like he wants you to.

Oddly enough, off the court, Russ has quite an understated personality. He’s soft spoken, hiding behind a pair of glasses he surely doesn’t have a prescription for and rarely snarls with the same ferocity that he does when in uniform. If I had to describe him just by sight outside of an arena, I’d probably say that he looks like a really nice kid.

But on the court? He’s a whirling dervish of masculinity.

The Oklahoma City Thunder point guard is the physical manifestation of machismo in modern sports. He plays with such a vibrant, visceral flair that it’s damn near impossible to keep your eyes off him no matter what else is happening on the possession. Even before the opening tip, Westbrook looks like he is there to disembowel the other team. He is aggressive to the point of anger, a ferocious predator let loose in the wild. It’s an amazing transformation.

It’s his role. It’s the role he’s supposed to play. For Russ, his on-court ferocity is not just accepted, it’s often cited as his greatest advantage as a player and a professional. These qualities that most associate with manhood are the very same ones that basketball fans claim make him such a great competitor. How many times have you heard that as his primary descriptor? No one asks Russ to turn it down. It’s what makes him great. It’s what makes him a man. It’s a compliment.

Meanwhile, standing mere feet from him on the court stares a man who couldn’t be more diametrically opposed to Westbrook. No, not in skill. After all, we’re still talking about one of the ten best players in the league. But the accoutrement surrounding those abilities? Couldn’t be more different.

We’re talking about Kawhi Leonard.

The reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year doesn’t have less of an effect to the on-court proceeding than Russell Westbrook. In fact, he may have more. Leonard, a shoe-in for a first or second All-NBA nod, is almost certainly the best two-way player in the league and is unquestionably the best player on the second-best team in the league. He’s a monster defensively, with instincts that are matched only by his basketball intelligence and God-given physical gifts. At any point in the game, a gravity-stunting dunk or a momentum-changing steal aren’t out of the question. In fact, we all expect it.

Offensively, his monstrously large hands, immense wingspan and otherworldly athleticism make rim-shaking dunks more of a foregone conclusion than anything else. If you’re watching a San Antonio Spurs game and you don’t witness Kawhi throwing it down despite the outstretched arms of one, two or even three opposing defenders, than perhaps you’re not watching hard enough. It’s a nightly occurrence.

Both Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard destroy the teams they face. It’s a methodical deconstruction, a relentless attack composed by two of the very best players the NBA has to offer. They are young, hungry and will never stop coming at you. Ever.

But they couldn’t be more different.

Whereas Westbrook wears his heart upon his hideous sleeved jersey, Leonard’s is beating in his chest, but most times that seems like an allegation more than anything else. More than his defense or his numerous accolades and trophies, Kawhi is known as a silent, expressionless killer. Some would even go so far as to say boring. On the hardwood, Westbrook is a living, breathing animal, snorting flames out of his nose and hunting for blood. He drips of testosterone. Meanwhile, Leonard is a robotic killer, executing his gameplan like it was programmed into the back of his neck.

Kawhi doesn’t pump his fist. He could be dunking on the ever-quotable Steven Adams or the alleged rim protector Dwight Howard and do nothing but run back on defense…hard. Take a look at his highlight reel from Game 1 of this series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Nary an emotion in sight, despite a 25-point performance.

Kawhi doesn’t argue with the referees. He doesn’t make faces after no-calls or stare down anyone after contact. This won’t be a surprise, but in 324 regular season games, Leonard has zero career technical fouls. None. Amazing.

Kawhi doesn’t smile. It’s almost as if he doesn’t take any joy in being one of the best players in the league. It doesn’t matter if his team wins by 40, or loses by 40. If they win a playoff series or two, or three, or four. His expression stays the same. Leonard is seemingly emotionless. It’s as if he expects himself to perform at this level, so what kind of joy could he take out of merely performing up to his abilities? It’s all this and more that make him a perfect match for the San Antonio Spurs.

For the past two decades, mostly coinciding with the careers of Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan, the five-time champions have been considered the greatest boring team in league history. For all their success and mounting win totals—in both the regular season and postseason—the Spurs haven’t rivaled the Miami Heat, Cleveland Cavaliers, Golden State Warriors or Boston Celtics in popularity or notoriety. While their style of play hasn’t always been boring, the workmanlike quality of their players has given them such a reputation.

Tim Duncan. Manu Ginobili. Tony Parker. Brent Barry. David Robinson. Patty Mills. Danny Green. Boris Diaw. LaMarcus Aldridge. Bruce Bowen. All known far more for their on-court accomplishments than anything that has ever happened to them off the court. The San Antonio Spurs unpack their bags, get into uniform, destroy the team they’re playing that night and then they go home. End of story. A boring, monotonous story. A twenty-year long story.

Kawhi Leonard fits that mold to a T. He doesn’t throw around his masculinity on the court. He doesn’t yell and scream after every dunk or make gestures to the crowd after a back-breaking three-pointer. Kawhi gets back on defense. It’s admirable, but the baser instincts in me are constantly asking how someone so good at his craft can’t show a little emotion every once in a while. Why can’t he just throw a fist pump in there sometimes? Even Tim Duncan, the most boring-est player ever, manages to break through every few years.

But is all this any different than saying “C’mon Kawhi. Smile for me, baby”?

In the NBA and professional sports in general, there’s a basic desire for our stars to be expressive, however respectfully so. We want them to exert their power and not be afraid to show it. Celebration at that point, seems like a requisite action. A scream to the heavens, a scowl while running down the court, a punch in the air. When we look back at Tim Duncan’s career ten years from now (though there is a distinct possibility that he’ll still be playing at that point), we’ll look back on that three-pointer against the Suns and subsequent tidal wave of emotion (played in slow motion, of course) and it’ll be one of his career highlights. The funny thing about that? That was in the first round. The first round of the 2008 playoffs which didn’t end up in one of his five championships.

We demand this of our players, albeit sometimes implicitly. The Spurs are boring. Okay. Fair enough. Why? Because they’re not explosive? They’re not aggressive enough? Because testosterone doesn’t flow out of their veins on every dynamic put-back basket or three-pointer with the clock winding down?

Many times, we ask this of Kawhi. How could a guy this good be so understated? How could one of the most destructive players in the NBA not be more demonstrative? Why is he so different than Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook? Why can’t he be more marketable?

It’s a bizarre double standard in the NBA. It’s only a taboo to call the Spurs and Kawhi boring because that means you don’t “really appreciate basketball”. If it’s because they don’t hoot and holler on every game-changing play? That’s completely understandable. For two decades now, we’ve been asking the Spurs, and now Leonard, to express themselves more, to smile more. To show more machismo on the court. To be more exciting.

All of it is a strange sexist statement that undercuts what basketball is supposed to be about. We want the aggression from the Spurs that we see in the Thunder. We would love it if Tim Duncan was as expressive as he was that one night in April 2008. If Manu Ginobili flexed after throwing down a dunk, you bet it’d be on Sportscenter just as much as it was the other night when LeBron James did it (though I think we’d all be just as mystified that Manu was still able to dunk).

Whether it’s tacitly or not, we’re consistently asking our superstars to be men. We want the metaphorical version of a sword fight. It’s on full display right now as we watch a squad of silent black and white-clad killers face off against the bright blue bolts of explosive lightning from the Sooner State. In a society where gender bias and stereotyping is such a hot button issue, it’s alarming to me that we’re still chastising our athletes for not acting manly enough. What we’re asking of them doesn’t seem congruous with the way these discussions are headed. Why can’t we have these very same conversations about Kawhi Leonard and the San Antonio Spurs and what we’re expecting from them? We’re asking for a snarl from Kawhi. But is that all we’re asking for?

That is, if we even know if Kawhi Leonard is there.


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The Great Mambino has contributed to SB Nation, Silver Screen & Roll and twice moonlighted on Grantland's Cheap Heat professional wrestling podcast, one of which was mysteriously deleted and was never heard by human ears. He lives in Los Angeles and hates underdogs.