Kawhi Leonard’s 2019 Free Agency was unlike anything the NBA has seen before. The 28-year-old superstar who just led the Toronto Raptors to their first NBA championship elected not to return to the Raptors, instead choosing to play for his hometown Los Angeles Clippers alongside First Team All-NBA forward Paul George. And while Leonard’s choice to return home wasn’t all that surprising, it was an enlightening five-plus days leading up to his decision where we learned a lot about privacy in the NBA and elsewhere.
One thing a lot of us have come to admire about Kawhi is his prerogative to stay true to himself and do what’s best for him no matter the optics or public scrutiny. He first showed that on his way out of San Antonio, sitting out almost an entire season due to a relatively unknown injury and then forcing his way out of one of the most storied franchises in the NBA with a trade request.
Kawhi continued to demonstrate that desire throughout the 2018-19 season with the Raptors where he went through “Load Management” to protect his injured body from the rigors of an NBA season, ultimately proving to be the right decision when his body held up in the playoffs while so many of his colleagues went down with injuries. The media and fans killed Leonard for those decisions, but he didn’t care: he always does what is best for him.
Another thing we have learned about Kawhi is that privacy is a priority for him: to stay true to himself, he prefers to remain private and relatively unknown. In fact, Kawhi is by far the most unknown superstar in the NBA. Fans and the media — and sometimes even teammates — want to get to know Kawhi better. We want to know what he likes to do off the court, who his favourite players are, what he thinks about the player empowerment era or any other number of political issues, what he wants his legacy to be, and on and on. But aside from a few press conference hints here and there, Kawhi rarely obliges when it comes to letting anyone outside of his inner circle into his mind or private life.
One thing Kawhi seemed to like about Toronto was how tight the Raptors organization was when it came to not leaking private information. He reportedly asked free agent destinations to not let any information about their meetings get out, and was reportedly upset when information leaked from his conversation with Magic Johnson, possibly affecting his decision not to sign with the Lakers. The Clippers did a great job keeping things on lock, as nobody knew they were attempting to deal for Paul George or Leonard until all was said and done.
Furthermore, nobody knew where Kawhi was or where he was holding his free agency meetings. Nobody knows what he wanted out of his destination other than a place he could win. Nobody knows why he flew to Toronto midway through the free agency period, though #kawhiwatch proved how creepy the internet can be (more on that tomorrow). We still don’t know why he chose the Clippers over the Raptors, though we assume it’s because of the proximity to his home, but he is yet to say anything to the Raptors or their fans like George already did to Thunder fans on social media.
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Thank you Oklahoma for 2 great years, you took me in as one of your own from the day I touched down. Thank you to the fans who make representing those 3 letters mean something. Thank you to Sam and Clay for being the best management a franchise and player could ask for. Thank you to the friends within the organization that took care of my family and I whenever we needed help. The picture shown is a bond that can’t be broken I truly loved and enjoyed the race from start to finish. Thank you OKLAHOMA! You already know what it is @russwest44! Love brodie!
But Kawhi’s privacy is something that a lot of us admire and envy. No sports star is as private or unknown as Kawhi, and in an era where cell phones and social media track everything we do (even listening to us on some occasions), most of us have even less privacy than Kawhi Leonard. I think Kawhi’s free agency forced a lot of us to look in the mirror and ask ourselves: If one of the best and most famous basketball players on Earth can prioritize privacy, why can’t I? Over the past decade, with the increasing use of cell phones and social media (and Siri and Alexa), a lot of us have sacrificed privacy in exchange for the ability to stay connected or to change the song without getting off the couch. But Kawhi proved throughout his prolonged free agency that privacy is actually achievable, for if a famous athlete like himself can achieve it under the most adverse circumstances, why can’t everybody else?
For fans of the Raptors and Lakers, it’s frustrating to still not know why Kawhi decided to sign with the Clippers. But even if you don’t like how quiet and unknown Kawhi is, you have to respect it. He made a lifelong commitment to making privacy a priority, and though sometimes it sucks for fans, it’s what makes Kawhi happy that matters.
In order to achieve something as powerful as privacy, though, one needs to sacrifice. In Kawhi’s case, being the high-profile athlete that he is, his privacy has forced him to sacrifice money in endorsement deals and sometimes even league-wide respect for him as a basketball player and person. For the rest of us, the main roadblock to achieving privacy is much less extreme but nonetheless difficult to give up: social media and connectivity. Social media comes with its advantages and disadvantages, and one of those disadvantages that is it forces us to always be available, and therefore deprives us of our privacy.
Kawhi Leonard’s free agency taught us that privacy is still achievable in the Twenty-First century. How much you are willing to sacrifice for it is really up to you.
Read the second part of this series by Oren Weisfeld, “What Kawhi Leonard’s Free Agency Taught Us About Truth,” here.