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Kawhi Leonard, Bartleby the Scrivener, and the challenge of ambiguity

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As facts are outpaced by takes, the 2017-18 Spurs season continues to highlight the limits of the unreliable narrator.

NBA: Orlando Magic at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Following the Spurs’ Game 2 loss to the Warriors on Monday, Gregg Popovich sat before reporters and, in praising one star player, completely tore down another:

“[LaMarcus] doesn’t complain about a darn thing. ... He plays through everything. I can’t imagine being more proud of a player as far as playing through adversity and being there for his teammates night after night after night.”

Or maybe he didn’t. It’s possible, that the words were uttered candidly with only their most superficial meaning in mind.

Right now, everything is about Kawhi Leonard, unless it isn’t, and the fact that the general public can’t tell the difference is the result of an increasingly murky off-court situation that has, for the first time in the Popovich era, drowned out what is happening on the court. For months, fans and journalists alike have attempted to frame every sound byte within a wider context that we don’t fully understand. Even local reporters from other markets are getting in on the speculative fun. Amid the various leaks, ambiguous injury reports, and one players-only meeting of questionable tension, the organization and star player have appeared in step only in how furtively they engage with the media. With the star player’s official status remaining weirdly game to game, it’s no surprise that frustration throughout the fanbase has only grown.

This isn’t meant to happen in San Antonio, where the on-court product has always reigned. Through 21 playoff runs and five championships, the organization has been the gold standard for quelling off-court drama (yes, they’ve had their share over the years). Now the script has been flipped, thanks in no part to that very clandestine air of both player and team.

A season of covering the Spurs as a Credentialed Blog Boy has made me think about the team as a storyteller. Writers attempt to hone in on the characters and their arcs, but we can’t apply our own analysis or whimsy without the constant narrative output the team provides.

In this sense, the Spurs have been the league’s token unreliable narrator, insulating themselves under the mantra of “family business” and shooting down probing questions from reporters with sniper-like precision. Their patriarchal figure has been at the center of it all, but the circle-the-wagons approach pervades throughout the organization. It’s part of what made Kawhi Leonard seemingly such a good character fit in San Antonio, pairing an ego-less demeanor with a disinterest in addressing the media or feeding the hype machine, even as the approach proved to damage his long-term marketability.

And that’s been fine because of how great he and the Spurs have been on the court — the team’s incredible success trumps all, and makes it easy for fans to come back for more.

But sports also draw us in because they are so tangible. We relish narratives, entertain hypotheticals, and project careers out into infinity, but it’s the aesthetics and actual measurable results that we return to. When the results falter, we look for the next set of facts to parse so that we can draw new conclusions. Leonard is an enigma wrapped inside an organizational conundrum, and he has never had to communicate with fans any differently than how he is (or isn’t) right now — perhaps in part because of the organization he has comfortably been a part of the past six seasons.

At first blush, Leonard’s nature is not unlike that of the titular character of Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville. In it, Bartleby is hired to work at a small law office on Wall Street, owned by the narrator. Both his quiet, self-contained characterization and the promising start to his job serve as facile parallels:

“At first Bartleby did an extraordinary quantity of writing. As if long famishing for something to copy, he seemed to gorge himself on my documents. There was no pause for digestion. He ran a day and night line, copying by sun-light and by candle-light. I should have been quite delighted with his application, had be been cheerfully industrious. But he wrote on silently, palely, mechanically.”

But much to the growing bemusement of the narrator and boss, Bartleby begins declining every request for him to work, responding calmly with the same phrase: “I would prefer not to.” The refusal quickly becomes the core conflict that carries the story to its eventual, unfortunate conclusion.

It is, of course, just one way that the Kawhi Situation has been framed, and the actual nature of what is happening may have far more nuance than we’ll ever understand. (Melville’s story is, in fact, often viewed as more an analysis of the narrator and his state of mind as much as it is his employee’s.) But it also reasonable for some fans to put themselves in the place of Bartleby’s boss. Or to side with a player who they feel has been thrown under the bus by his peers. Or to prepare to accept the potential end of another era in San Antonio.

I, for one, still think everything — whatever it is — will be resolved. For some reason, the gaps have not been filled in. Not by the team, or by Leonard’s camp. In the meantime, the story of this San Antonio Spurs season will continue to spin off its axis, as if tilted by some invisible unreliable narrator, as the fans rail against the mounting ambiguities.