In praise of quiet charisma

Still calm.
Still calm.
Image: AP Images/USA TODAY Sports/Sergio Estrada
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Toronto will be uncharacteristically loud today as it celebrates the city and the country’s first NBA championship. But at the center of the noise there sits a quiet 27-year-old, Raptors star and NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, a Los Angeles native who throughout Toronto’s season maintained a serenity and focus that epitomizes California cool.

Leonard arrived in Toronto less than a year ago, and was met there with public criticism. He had been traded by the San Antonio Spurs after a dispute about playing through an injury, and critics felt he may be a bad addition to the Raptors. It wasn’t obvious that Leonard, who was seen as “disgruntled superstar,” was willing or even healthy enough to play.

At that time, arriving in a city he hadn’t chosen, Leonard asked the fans to focus on the present moment and said he was there to do a job. During the season, he proved himself as a reserved but emotionally intelligent leader.

Then, as the Raptors advanced through the playoffs, the team patterned itself after him. Leonard’s quiet confidence stabilized the Raptors when the team fell behind, first against the Philadelphia 76ers and then against the Milwaukee Bucks. His even-keeled attitude spread to his teammates, helping them to focus on the task at hand, rather than fret about past playoff disappointments.

Now, his dedication to delivering over showboating is positively arresting, and something Americans arguably need a dose of in 2019.

An American work ethic

The New York Times today noted that “Toronto, a city filled with the success stories of immigrants and other bootstrappers who share Leonard’s work ethic, embraced the seemingly silent powerhouse.” That may be true, although one could easily substitute the name of any American city in that sentence. The work ethic in question is not unique to one country, and though it can be easy to forget in the Trump era, cool modesty is an American virtue, too. Not long ago, even the Oval Office had it.

Leonard’s humbleness runs deep. In a Sports Illustrated profile of the athlete, journalist Lee Jenkins writes of a high school-age Leonard who was unbothered by a reporter who routinely mis-credited one of his teammates with his points. It simply didn’t threaten him. He also wasn’t interested in the exposure a Nike camp was ready to give him, and he accepted San Diego State’s offer because it had recruited him first.

The picture Jenkins paints is something like a Warren Buffett of basketball, driving a fixed-up ’97 Chevy Tahoe instead of a Cadillac. Leonard, the writer says, has dismissed suggestions to lose his cornrows in order to lure more lucrative sponsorship deals. In a look-at-me era, he can’t be found on social media.

Jenkins even found a metaphor for Leonard’s lack of pretension in his name:

Though Kawhi Leonard was not named after Kauai, the garden isle on the northwest tip of the Hawaiian archipelago, he believes his father liked the sound of the place. Kauai is lush and bountiful, yet subdued compared with some of its overstated cousins to the south.

An effortless cool

In his post-game interview, Leonard said a few things that could sound cliche. “I just keep growing up as a man,” he told one reporter. “I try to be wise and learn from others.” But from someone who, in that same interview and others, also expressed the concern he felt for his injured friends on the opposing team, the statements don’t sound canned. A person can’t live without an ego, of course, but at least for now, Leonard isn’t big on his.

It all adds up to a kind of effortless, refreshing charisma, making the Raptors’ championship a victory for quiet and compassionate leadership.