The Stoicism of Kawhi Leonard
What might Stoic Philosophy say about the Raptors Star?
Despite his claim to be a “fun guy”, Kawhi doesn’t usually talk much and his poker-face doesn’t give much away either. He seldom gives interviews and he has no social media presence. His celebrations during and after games are muted. He’s been described as “the most modest, non-confrontational superstar in a league full of attention-seekers”.
Some people trace this sober demeanour back to his way of coping with adversity during childhood. When Kawhi was sixteen years old and still in high school, his father was shot and killed at the car wash he owned in Compton, where they had worked together. Kawhi nevertheless got on the basketball court and played the following evening, although he reputedly broke down afterwards. His father’s killer was never found.
Whatever the influences were that forged his personality, the media have settled on dubbing him a stoic. The word “stoic” (lower case) has come to denote someone who is, like Kawhi, generally unemotional and calm in the face of adversity. Curiously, the word “philosophical” is often used to mean virtually the same thing. For instance, someone facing hardship or misfortune is described as “maintaining a philosophical attitude toward events”. Kawhi certainly appears “stoic”, and even “philosophical”, in the sense that his trademark characteristic has become his impassive and unemotional way of coping with events. On the other hand, though, the word “Stoic” (capitalized) refers to an ancient Greek school of philosophy, from which the adjective “stoic” and our notion of a “philosophical attitude” are only rather loosely derived. There’s a lot more to being a Stoic philosopher, in other words, than just having a stoic personality.
Nevertheless, the Greek philosophy of Stoicism has experienced a resurgence of popularity in recent decades. That’s partly because it provided the philosophical inspiration for cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), the leading evidence-based approach to modern psychotherapy. Both Stoicism and CBT share the premise that our emotions are largely (if not exclusively) determined by certain underlying beliefs. Perhaps the most famous Stoic quotation of all, from Epictetus, states “It’s not events that upset us but our judgements about them” — and those precise words have been taught by CBT practitioners to countless thousands of clients since the 1950s. By identifying, evaluating, and changing relevant irrational beliefs we can change the way we feel and improve our mental health. The large volumes of scientific research that now support CBT’s therapeutic benefits for common problems like anxiety and depression have lent indirect support to some of the ideas and practices of Stoicism. There’s therefore been renewed interest in the philosophy as a way of life, which promises to help us build emotional resilience.
Often the distinction between “stoic” and “Stoic” gets blurred. Kawhi has never mentioned “Stoicism” or given any indication of having read the classic texts of the philosophy: the letters of Seneca, The Discourses of Epictetus, or The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. However, it wasn’t unusual for the Stoics to praise as role-models other non-Stoic individuals who happened to embody the virtues their philosophy praised. Indeed, some people have already drawn parallels between Kawhi’s mindset and the ancient Greek philosophy. For example, Avel Ivanov, over at The Bench, wrote of Kawhi: “If the ancient Stoics were tasked with creating a model of what the Stoic basketball player would look like he would look an awful lot like #2 on the Toronto Raptors.” So to what extent does Kawhi actually exhibit the sort of attitudes taught in Stoic philosophy?
First of all, we shouldn’t be surprised to find a player’s character being interpreted in terms of Stoic principles. Stoic philosophy has influenced players in other sports. The NFL exec and former New England Patriots coach, Michael Lombardi, began to draw on Stoicism after reading The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. One of the main things Lombardi takes from Stoicism is a psychological principle that modern Stoics tend to refer to as the “Dichotomy of Control”. This entails making a clear distinction between things that are up to you and things that are not. “In a profession that has many outside influences,” he says, “it is always good to remind yourself each day to worry and work on only that you can control.” Lombardi names several basketball players and coaches who particularly exemplify Stoic qualities, including Tim Duncan, who played for the San Antonio Spurs, and Gregg Popovich, their head coach and president. Kawhi’s naturally Stoic qualities were perhaps reinforced when he played for the Spurs and he clearly brought those traits with him when he was transferred to the Toronto Raptors.
Lombardi’s Stoic advice applies to life in general but also seems consistent with Kawhi’s approach to playing basketball:
Control the things you can control and only worry about them. Stay in the moment, don’t listen to the negative or the positive, be grounded and most of all keep striving for improvement.
The maxim “never too low, never too high” has likewise become part of the Raptors’ winning formula. Kawhi’s own level-headed approach to the game particularly exemplifies this philosophy. “I don’t like to bring attention to myself,” he has said. “I don’t like to make a scene.”
Teammates and coaches have also noted Kawhi’s habit of speaking to the point in short phrases. When playing defense and blocking another player, for instance, he’d just firmly say the word “No.” We traditionally describe this terse way of speaking as being “laconic”, after Laconia the region of Greece in which the city of Sparta is located. The Stoics admired certain aspects of Spartan society and they were also known for speaking laconically. The philosopher Cicero even described the Spartans as “the originators of that [Stoic] way of living and that sort of language”. Zeno of Citium, the founder of Stoicism, was particularly known for his personal economy of speech. Moreover, the Stoic theories of rhetoric he taught praised “conciseness” as a virtue, “a style that employs no more words than are necessary for setting forth the subject in hand.” Stoic language also sticks to the facts rather than speculating or embellishing things — it makes a virtue out of simplicity. When asked by a reporter if he could describe his favourite Christmas moment, perhaps a silly question, Kawhi merely replied “Not right now.” When asked how he coped with the change in climate following his transfer from San Antonio to Toronto he patiently explained to reporters, with a straight face, that it wasn’t a big deal because: “I just wear a jacket. We’re in buildings a lot. We’re not outside playing in the snow.”
Kawhi’s relative indifference toward the external trappings of fame and success echo a fundamental distinction made two and a half thousand years ago by Socrates. The previous generation of intellectuals in Athens had focused mainly on oratory, or public speaking, and the use of sophisticated rhetoric designed to fire up emotions and win praise and applause from large audiences. The Sophists, as these teachers were known, often became greedy for wealth and fame. Socrates argued that they had fallen into one of the most common and fundamental traps in life by confusing appearance and reality. They’d been lured away from the pursuit of real wisdom by the promise of achieving the mere appearance of wisdom, in the eyes of others.
Socrates turned this on its head and repeatedly encouraged his young students to become in reality as they wished to appear — to try actually to become wise rather than merely appear so. Kawhi likewise shows no interest in cultivating his public image in order to try to appear important and successful. He just seems to be focusing on his game, and actually “striving for improvement”, to the best of his ability, rather than troubling himself over what the public might think of him. Whereas so many people care about being popular, a childhood friend confirms that Kawhi never did. He’s more interested in his own performance than other people’s opinions. He once said in an interview “I’m just going out there and playing as hard as I can… As long as you give your best effort, I feel like that’s all you can do.” He is also reported as saying:
You know, I’ll never try to win an award. I’m out there just playing for my team. If I get noticed for my individual performance, that’s what happens. Other than that, I’m just trying to win the game.
The Stoics believed that because the wise man is relatively indifferent to either praise or criticism, especially from the masses, and he even views success and failure with equal detachment. He therefore exhibits a more stable and consistent frame of mind across whatever situations he encounters. He won’t allow his mood to be lifted and then cast down, blown one way and then another by the winds of fortune. Kawhi likewise told an interviewer that “My mindset is the same every game.” He explained this mindset to reporters as follows:
I’m not describing my game; I’m just trying to win. That’s for you guys to do. I’m living in the moment.
The Stoic wise man (or woman) likewise lives grounded in the present moment. Like Kawhi, Stoics were taught to be relatively indifferent to either success or failure, focusing instead on doing the best they can in any given situation. We are to take more responsibility for what is up to us, from moment to moment, i.e., our own actions, and we’re to calmly accepts the fact that other things are not entirely under our control.
Cicero described the Stoic attitude as being like that of an archer who carefully draws his bow and takes aim at a target — doing what is up to him well. Ultimately, however, once the arrow has flown, he’s indifferent to whether it hits the target or not because it’s no longer under his control. He just does his best and lets happen what may. He may prefer to hit the target but if he misses that’s not worth getting upset about. That focus on his own performance and relative indifference to the outcome allows him to remain grounded in the present moment, unswayed by either external success or failure. As Kipling said “If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster and treat those two impostors just the same”, the earth will be yours. No mortal provides a perfect role model. However, I think the ancient Stoics would probably have been able to use Kawhi’s “stoic” demeanour as a (workable if imperfect) example of this inner calm and the sort of “constancy” or steadiness of character that they associated with moral wisdom.