Do do doo, do do doo. The ESPN alert rings to the right of my bed. It’s seven ‘o’ clock in the morning and I don’t have to be at work until 9:30. It better be some Kawhi news I think to myself as I lean over, eyes filled with sleep boogers. As I grab my phone and bring it closer to my face, my heart drops. I hate when I’m right.
Throughout the season as more and more Spurs fans turned their back on Kawhi Leonard, I stood defiant. Kawhi had become my favorite current player to watch and seeing how easily so many fellow Spurs fans dismissed him as selfish or even worse, a quitter broke my heart as much as it annoyed me. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t upset with Kawhi, but to portray him as anything else but somebody who just wanted to play basketball at his highest level was not only daunting, it was enraging. Every day, I read another tweet from somebody regurgitating some burning pizza on the roof of your mouth hot take from Skip Bayless, I felt my eye twitch and my blood pressure raise. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
I wanted so badly for the Spurs to reconcile with Kawhi. For him to comeback, sign an extension, ball out and shut up all the fickle Spurs fans that said he was selfish. I wanted this more than anything. Reading that ESPN alert that Kawhi had been traded to the Raptors, and realizing that this was the end of his career in San Antonio was disappointing. At the same time, I was relieved to find out that the whole debacle was over.
Things could have been different. The Spurs organization could have handled it differently, and Kawhi’s camp could have handled it differently. Regardless of what happened, Kawhi didn’t quit on the team. I honestly believe he was injured and didn’t feel 100%. The quadriceps contusions he suffered were ongoing and while I know the Spurs are one of the more cautious teams in the league, it should go without saying that players know their bodies. In the seven years Kawhi was a Spur, he never gave any indication that he was the type of guy to sit out just for the sake of sitting out. I believe with all my heart, he wanted to be out on the floor as much as we wanted him to be out on the floor. Anybody who thinks otherwise has been drinking the Skip Bayless Kool-Aid, which is never a good look if you want to be taken seriously about your sports opinions.
There are three observations to be noted about Spurs fans in the wake of the Kawhi fiasco:
- A large population of Spurs fans are not basketball or maybe even sports fans. They just love the Spurs.
This is not necessarily a bad thing by any means. I’ve written in the past about how much I love supporting a team that transcends fandom. The Spurs are a San Antonio institution and the players are everybody’s mijos. It’s beautiful. The only downside to that is that there are a lot of misconceptions of “Spurs culture” as something more than what it actually is: it’s difficult to explain the NBA landscape to Spurs fans because we’ve been encapsulated in this bubble during the Pop/Duncan regime.
- Spurs fans are spoiled.
It’s not that we’ve never reached this kind of off-season drama before, it’s that we’ve never known about it. Buford and Popovich are very tight lipped about everything, and details have emerged recently that had it not been for Doc Rivers telling Tim Duncan he couldn’t have his family on the plane for away games, Timmy would have left the Spurs for the Magic in 2000. There was little to no mention of this for 17 years! I love Tim Duncan, he’s been my favorite NBA player since I found out Michael Jordan was kind of a jerk, and while he is and will always be the face of the Spurs, it’s crazy to think about the fact that he almost wasn’t. As far as we knew back then, Timmy took some time and held meetings before ultimately calling Pop and telling him he was staying.
- Spurs fans are fickle.
It’s hard to believe that there was a time when Spurs fans chanted “Fire Pop” in the Alamodome, but it happened. In the aftermath of firing fan-favorite Bob Hill and taking the reigns as Head Coach, Gregg Popovich had his work cut out for him to become the all-knowing basketball wise man that Spurs fans perceive of him today. He was almost ousted in favor of Doc Rivers in ’99 and would have had it not been for those meddling Spurs players who turned on the jets and went on a winning streak in the shortened lockout season that later delivered their first championship. I’ll admit, I was upset with Pop and probably called for him to be fired too, but in all fairness to me, I was a dumb fifth grader who thought Sean Elliott was the third best player in the league, behind Timmy and David. Spurs fans hating on Kawhi just reinforced this fickleness.
In a league of sparrows, Kawhi is an albatross. His defensive dexterity is unlike no other and his offensive capabilities were just reaching his full potential before his injury. He was my favorite player to watch because of how he operated on the court. Many analysts compared watching him play defense to how you watch a defensive back eye the quarterback and jump the route for an interception, his basketball IQ is on a whole other level. Don’t even get me started on how he finishes the fastbreak. The dude is a machine. He is unlike any other player the Spurs have ever had and it has been such an amazing experience to watch and root for him these past seven years.
I had a boss I used to talk basketball with at my old job in Austin. He used to come by my desk and tell me to go into meeting and go to his office. He’d tell me to close the door and as soon as the door was shut, we’d just talk basketball for 30 minutes. He was a Lakers fan but appreciated the Spurs. After the draft 2011 draft, I told him I was bummed we gave up George Hill. He said not to worry about it because the kid the Spurs got is going to be an all star in a few years and it will all be worth it. He was right tenfold.
The fact of the matter is that 2014 championship doesn’t happen without Kawhi. Sure Timmy, Tony and Manu were great and “the beautiful game” that Pop and company had manifested created a streamline to victory, but Kawhi turned it up and was the most important player that series. He pushed his body to the limit in that Game 4 against the Grizzlies in 2017 and was the only reason we were up 20 on the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals that year. These are just a few of his contributions that should erase any doubt that he was a selfish player or a quitter.
There’s the false notion that he was a bad teammate because he wasn’t a leader in the locker room or wasn’t on the bench during the playoffs. There was a great article by Ramona Shelburne and Michael Wright that details the last time he was on the bench, he was approached by one of them and the interview was immediately cut short by a Spurs staff member. What’s to say the Spurs staff didn’t tell him to go get healthy before coming back to the bench. Pop didn’t seem to have a problem with him not being on the bench. What difference would he have made had he been on the bench not able to play? Maybe him being on the bench was a distraction, the real story may be lost in retrospect and while its easy to fall victim to the rhetoric of being there for your team, it’s important to remember that had Pop coached following his wife’s death, Kawhi detailed he would have been there for support. And before you start to talk about being a good teammate, don’t forget that Tony Parker got caught sexting a teammate’s wife and still doesn’t get called a bad teammate, so clearly the ethic code of what makes a bad teammate is a little skewed.
I love the Spurs and have ever since I watched David Robinson and co get shaked and baked out of the Western Conference Finals in ’95 by the eventual champions. I will live and die by this team, but we’re living in a new era of the NBA. I actually rooted for the Mavericks in 2011 because I thought the Heatles winning the championship would ruin the NBA and become a player’s league. It didn’t matter that they lost, the NBA has clearly become a player’s league, but I realize now that that’s not a bad thing. Players should feel free to do what they want and take the power out of the owner’s hands; without the players there is no league why shouldn’t they have the power? It never fails whenever a player leaves a team they’ve been with for a long time someone’s washed uncle goes to Facebook with a meme about loyalty. There never seems to be an issue when a team ruthlessly trades a player who has taken pay cuts to extend their time with the team. The NBA is a business, don’t pretend like it’s not when players take control of where they’re going.
Demar DeRozan and Danny Green are the latest victims of this cold-hearted business. They made strides to be loyal to their teams and were traded anyway. If you give full blame to Kawhi for Green being traded too, remember that Kawhi wasn’t the one who proposed or pulled the trigger on the trade. The Spurs had other offers that didn’t involve Danny; those offers may not have been as good or great but there were still ways to reward his loyalty to the franchise. That said it’s just part of the business and I’m sure Danny doesn’t have any hard feelings, but I’ll be damned if I let somebody complain about loyalty the next time a player decides to venture elsewhere in free agency.
I’ve dreaded writing this. In the process of these 2000+ words I have taken several breaks to both gather my thoughts and not piss off any of my fellow Spurs fans. This is not a Derek Anderson situation. Kawhi did the opposite and in Kawhi fashion just kept quiet. I wish his camp would have handled it better. I also wish the Spurs would have taken more precautionary measures in addressing the situation. Despite all of this, I am not angry with Kawhi. I will not be burning the two jerseys or shirt jersey that I have obtained over the years. I will not be posting/retweeting any of the tired memes. Kawhi deserves better than that. Regardless of how you feel about him right now, just remember that there was a time when watching Kawhi intercept a pass for the steal and lead the fastbreak for a powerful dunk in the playoffs was all we needed to feel like this Spurs run would last forever. That sense of optimism that forces you to smile no matter how you’re feeling that day, he was responsible for that feeling and I don’t think I can ever forget that.
 Some may say delusional
 And maybe all of professional sports for that matter
 The local sports media was the worst about perpetuating these ideas turning Kawhi into a villain. Between this article and this one, where an LA fan catches video of Kawhi at a Dodgers game and then jokes about him maybe talking to Magic is taken as written in the context that the fan actually said he saw them talking despite obviously being a joke, were eaten up by Spurs fans who don’t know any better.
 I really liked Bob Hill… but probably because he looked like E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg, but more importantly the bandleader for Conan O’Brien.
 No, I did not realize this was a word until I typed it without getting an error popup.
 Though it’s clear that he would have loved to have him there healthy.
 And possibly more
 Don’t tell anybody
 Isaiah Thomas literally played his heart out for the Celtics in the playoffs. He played both injured and while mourning the death of his sister days after he found out. He was traded the following off-season for Kyrie Irving. Don’t ever complain about players not being loyal.
 If you don’t know who Derek Anderson is, watch this. Long story short he felt he was worth more money than the Spurs did, went to the media to literally air his grievances and was signed and traded for one of my favorite underrated Spurs.
 Granted, it sounds like they were kept out of the loop