Note: Changes were made on November 23, 2019 to reflect that we cannot pathologize Kawhi Leonard based on the information in this post.
On November 20, 2019, the Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics played an epic regular-season game with an intense playoff atmosphere.
Some awesome highlights resulted, none bigger than the game-sealing block by Kawhi “The Klaw” Leonard, the Clippers' newly acquired mega-star. It was a great play made by an all-world talent.
Remarkably, as great as that play was, all everyone seems to want to talk about is his instant reaction.
Or more accurately, the lack thereof.
As you can see in the clip above, Leonard barely reacts after making the game-saving play. He calmly walks off the court, barely looking anyone in the eye. In his post-game interview, Kawhi remains monotone. You can’t tell if he just won a playoff atmosphere battle or just ate a decent bowl of cereal.
Media members gave a soft chuckle at his response, but this is an opportunity to look at something deeper. Let’s ask why Kawhi might have a problem emoting. To do so, let’s talk about a formative event in his teenage years.
Kawhi’s father, Mark, used to own a Compton car wash. Kawhi would work there on weekends and during the summer. On January 18, 2008, Mark was shot and murdered on those very same business grounds. Kawhi was only 16 years old at the time.
NBA.com recently put out an article specifying the details of the crime. Police still haven’t solved the case. And while Kawhi decided to play basketball in a high school game barely a day after his father’s death, he’s likely still dealing with the after-effects of that trauma now.
Trauma and Emotional Processing
Research shows that childhood trauma has a lasting impact on an adult’s life. That impact can include changes to someone's ability to process emotions. A study by Marusak, Martin, Etkin, and Thomason provided evidence that trauma-exposed youth were less able to regulate emotional conflict. They found evidence that:
"Aberrant amygdala response to emotional conflict was related to diminished reward sensitivity”
In other words, rewards drew less of a response.
Sound like someone you know?
Silence of the Klaw
I’m not saying this is the reason Kawhi Leonard reacts the way he does. Accounts from Leonard’s friends and family express he was always more reserved. As outsiders, we cannot pathologize Kawhi for events that have occurred in his life. It's simply one more data point to try and help us understand one of the NBA’s most mysterious megastars; it's to point out we don't know Kawhi Leonard as a human being, no matter how many times we see him perform on TV.
We expect NBA athletes to be showmen, especially those we recognize as perennial all-stars. Professional sports are an entertainment product, after all. That’s how endorsement deals are struck.
But this gives us reason to empathize and think twice before making fun of Kawhi for his lack of emotionality. We can use this as a reminder that even though a human can be resilient and thrive after trauma, they still went through that trauma. They still have to deal with the effects. Kawhi may not be less emotive because of his trauma, but there are others in the world who are.
Hopefully, we can all use this knowledge to be a little more understanding of others, not just superstar athletes, in the future.