San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard joined Twitter in June of 2014. Almost four years later, he’s verified (shockingly), followed six people (including the Spurs, Jordan Brand and Jamal Crawford), sent out his first tweet half a year after creating the account, and tweeted a whopping three times since.
We know it to be true that athletes are busy people, but that’s one tweet per 45,360 of his 181,440 total followers.
Leonard’s third tweet promoted the soon-to-be-released KL2 hoverboard. The hoverboard is plastered with his hand-print logo, inspired from Leonard’s nickname ‘The Claw’. It’s the same image we see on his avatar, and perfect for Leonard’s response to most things: ‘Talk to the hand ‘cos the face don’t wanna hear it.’
Leonard has always been quiet, but with him missing the bulk of this season in mysterious circumstances, that silence is more palpable. Active for just nine games this season and only once logging more than 30 minutes, pro-Kawhians must be finding it hard to ignore the copious reports of in-squabbling, deal-denying and second opinions that have been his season thus far in the absence of any significant playing time.
According to ESPN reports, Leonard and his representatives are in disagreement with the Spurs when it comes to the diagnosis of and ever-changing return date from the tendinopathy in his right quadriceps. On First Take, Jalen Rose further reported that Leonard ‘wants out’ of San Antonio and, although not confirmed, says the injury may have been misdiagnosed.
Concurrently, Leonard turned down a shoe deal offer from Jordan Brand worth $20m over four years, a markedly improved contract on what he’s currently on but not enough to reward what Leonard knows is a brilliant six-year career so far. And all of this is happening under the shadow of a potential supermax extension this summer, or, worse for San Antonio, him being a free agent in 2019.
The fascinating layer to it all is that Kawhi doesn’t do social media.
The audience - better put, his audience - is big, but it could be bigger, could be enormous. Leonard has won a Finals MVP award, is coming off his best season last year, and yet that history is fading fast in the face of his mysterious ways. The man doesn’t speak, doesn’t shout, doesn’t show outward joy for the majority even when he’s playing. He has a nickname but doesn’t talk about it, has a Twitter account but doesn’t tweet, doesn’t use Instagram, and it seems couldn’t care less about self-promotion.
Brand awareness shouldn’t be an automatic demand for successful athletes. But if Kawhi doesn't care for brand awareness as others do, then he doesn't deserve equal compensation. Similarly, his silence only adds to the intrigue of the stories surrounding him this year. The ESPN train is gathering steam, and if Leonard could do something right, it would be to speak.
The NBA, as a whole, champions individual freedom.
It didn’t used to be this way. Michael Jordan didn’t have social media platforms during his era, and he was in a foul mood throughout different parts of his career, and although Kobe Bryant did (and we let him off for a lot), it was only at the tail end of his. But the pair had a flair to their game, a confidence that more than bordered on arrogance. The swagger they bestowed on their audience alone was enough to be a brand the old fashioned way. Kawhi does not have that swagger or that flair, and while he does (or could) have the social media platforms, he chooses not to engage with them. It makes you wonder where Leonard should and will be.
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Two All-Star appearances, two Defensive Player of the Year awards and a championship prove Leonard is already a great player, but there is perhaps a naivety to the way he behaves and conducts his business. Trusting in his game alone as the reason he should get more from the most celebrated brand in sports is old school, but outmoded.
As Bryant and his Oscar win proved, basketball ability alone is not necessarily enough. Clues come from Adam Silver’s All-Star presser, where he announced proudly that the league has 1.6 billion fans of some form on social media.
Taking advantage of that global audience, and the nuance and impact an athlete has by opening the blinds to his or hers personal life, can be observed when comparing Leonard to Klay Thompson. To be sure, the latter is playing on one of the best teams ever assembled, but Leonard is a hand-me-down of the David Robinson/Tim Duncan Spurs, one of the most successful franchises over the last two decades. Thompson is as chilled as ice, carefree and like Leonard doesn’t do a whole lot of talking. But, crucially, we know the three-point whiz has a dog named Rocco, and he once said the following:
I never tried Pokemon Go. I figured I’d get too addicted to it. I did play Pokemon Snap on Nintendo 64, so that window is closed for me.
It’s quirky, funny, and it goes a long way - along with being a basketball genius - to this reality: The introverted Thompson has a 10-year deal with footwear company Anta, which could net him up to $80m if he meets certain incentives. The current advertising campaign makes gentle fun of Thompson's relative awkwardness. And this is only possible because he wants to engage.
In contrast, Leonard, in his current deal with Jordan Brand, earns less than $500,000 a year. Although the company historically pays less to athletes than its big brother Nike because of the prestige it bestows on its clients, Leonard turned down the bigger offer of around $5 million per year and sought more. Jordan Brand’s exclusive negotiating period ends in July and despite them being able to match any offer following that, Leonard will likely listen intently to others.
In San Antonio, Leonard’s traits have been accepted. Popovich has said the most important thing is to let Kawhi be Kawhi. It is wasted effort trying to change somebody, as Pop found out with LaMarcus Aldridge, but the one component that needed to change was communication on the court, a skill that goes a long way in building a successful team and ultimately winning. Popovich says Leonard has gotten better at it every year.
Leonard, in turn, has accepted his team’s ways. He averaged 25.5 points a game last season in a system where Popovich tells players to pass up a good shot for a great one.
As this burgeoning partnership between team and player progresses - and has now been suddenly paused - why not plunge into the uncomfortable world of social media? Even if afraid of criticism, it can’t be more than he’d get from his own coach and he could go down the route of The Players Tribune, where Matt Bonner wrote in 2017 an MVP case for his former teammate:
“The first thing I want to say is that Kawhi would obviously never ask me to write this. There’s no ego about him — seriously, none. And I can tell you, right now, with all of the confidence in the world: There is a 0 percent chance that he is paying attention to anything anyone is saying about the 2017 MVP race.”
What does that tell you about Leonard? Great teammate. Great player. Loved by his peers. But, crucially, he barely pays attention to a world in which he needs to exist for him to get more money from Jordan Brand, attract more free agents to San Antonio, get more help and buy-in if the Spurs want to make another serious run while Popovich is in charge.
There really is nothing wrong with not wanting a brand, and it’s an odd situation whereby just being good at a sport automatically demands wanting to be one. After all, it doesn't suit everyone. But by not playing the brand game, you get nowt. Nada.
But if you do, there is money to be made.
James Harden stirs the pot after scoring, has a monstrous beard and an even bigger $200m deal with Adidas, rivalling his Rockets contract. LeBron James is The King, The Chosen One, admittedly The One Who Needn’t Partake In Extracurricular Activity but continues to pound to the sound of his favourite hip hop tracks in the back of his car or at a New Year’s party on Instagram. Not stopping there, James has 23 million followers on Facebook.
Kevin Durant’s media company has partnered with YouTube to help athletes create their own channels on the platform. Kyrie Irving’s ‘Uncle Drew’ skit has developed from a web series into a feature film starring Shaquille O’Neal, Nate Robinson and not Kawhi Leonard. Others do commercials, post pictures with family and pull out quirky celebrations on the court.
Whether you do a little or a lot, it always carries over to the brand. We know that Damian Lillard raps, that Dwyane Wade loves red wine, that Blake Griffin does stand-up comedy. But about Kawhi Leonard, we know extremely little. He has a Facebook page with over half a million ‘likes’, and yet last had his staff post on it in 2012. He’s probably forgotten the log-in details.
What if he were to update us on his injury? We’ve had to rely on Popovich saying he will be out for the season, which we can’t given the new timetable is the middle of or late March, depending on who you believe. (The latest report from ESPN's Lisa Salters now says Kawhi might return on Thursday.) Could Kawhi not cut through the confusion by controlling the narrative himself?
General Manager R.C. Buford is on record as saying of Leonard’s absence: ‘From day one all parties have worked together to find the best solutions to his injury’. One would think it therefore wouldn’t hurt Leonard to throw injury updates alongside the odd post of him riding the aforementioned hoverboard across Hays Street Bridge or explaining alongside Jamal Crawford on video why he has enough admiration for the veteran sixth man for him to be the only player he follows on Twitter, enhancing the business of Kawhi the Brand while protecting the reputation of Kawhi the Player.
Leonard is perhaps in the very early stages of challenging the whole idea of being a Spur. Is Leonard selling his team short by saying he’s not comfortable managing the pain of his injury, despite being medically cleared? Are the Spurs happy with him pursuing a bigger shoe deal than the one Jordan Brand offered up?
Leonard mustn’t wait until his return to kick-start his standing onto the NBA All-Bro team, and mustn’t sell himself short. Watching a usually dour person show his funny side is strangely warming, as Klay Thompson is showing, and you’d think would be received well.
An athlete’s life stretches further than just playing well and it leads you into the next one. Steph Curry doesn’t just shoot threes; he and Ayesha Curry are the watered-down Instagram version of the Kardashians; she cooks him peanut butter and jelly french toast while he smashes hotel tables with golf clubs.
The alternative, of course, is to stay in the status quo and focus on basketball, which is absolutely his one mandate. Just don’t be asking for more money or wondering why free agents aren’t coming.
These San Antonio Spurs could, bizarrely, finish anywhere between third in the West or out of the playoffs. They need their superstar back on the court, and they may soon have him. But just as crucially, Kawhi Leonard might find it useful to act like one, too.