I’ve never felt betrayed by Kawhi Leonard. I’m not a full-time San Antonio Spurs fan, but even if I were, I’d like to think I wouldn’t cling to resentment of the star who forced his way out last year, eventually receiving his wish through a trade to the Toronto Raptors. Leonard is an unconventional NBA superstar, and I like my sports stars best when they’re kind of weird.
As the Raptors have built a 3–2 lead over the feared Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals, Leonard’s relative weirdness has become a meme online. The best known example of this comes from New York comedy writer Mike Camerlengo, who last weekend posted a screenshot of a made-up excerpt from a fake story about Leonard for an imaginary publication that spread virally (to the tune of 43,000 retweets as of press time):
damn Kawhi really is a different dude pic.twitter.com/bLTBSDZQy2— Mike Camerlengo (@MCamerlengo) June 8, 2019
Some people shared it because they believed Camerlengo’s tweet was from an actual profile of the superstar. Some shared it because it was too funny not to, and having to say “This is fake” takes some of the fun out of a good joke. Either way, “Apple time, apple time” is now a rallying cry for Kawhi, one he never asked for.
Even though the story in the gag is absurd, there’s something about Kawhi’s unusual personality, at least as compared to other NBA greats, that led even the less credulous among us to want to believe it was true. Is he so strange that he eats his own bag of apples at a restaurant? Probably not, but who knows?
I wanted to understand Kawhi better, but I knew I wasn’t going to land an interview with the reticent star. So, I figured, why not try eating twelve apples for dinner and see if it gets me anywhere?
I bought a bag of apples at H-E-B. Little Gala apples, a three-pound bag with a dozen inside. “Got big plans tonight?” the guy at the register, an old-timer wearing a cowboy hat, asked me. “I’m going to eat all of those apples,” I replied. “With a knife and a fork.” He didn’t ask a follow-up question, just told me the total.
We treat Kawhi like the sort of person who might dine on a bag of apples because he’s not like other NBA superstars. He doesn’t spend time building his personal brand. He has endorsements, but in his latest ad for his shoe sponsor, New Balance, he didn’t even talk. There are no Foot Locker ads with him goofing off with his fellow stars. It’s not really weird to not want to be on TV or be the center of attention, but we act like it is when the guy who avoids those things is an elite athlete. We treat Kawhi like there’s something wrong with him. That’s silly, of course. There’s nothing about being great at basketball that suggests you’d also be comfortable trying to be an actor or talking to reporters or cutting a rap record or whatever.
Eating apples with a knife and fork is surprisingly hard. Stick the fork in too deep, and it’s tough to get out. And what’s the right kind of knife? I started with a steak knife, which isn’t particularly efficient. If I’m slicing an apple for lunch, I use a chef’s knife, but eating with a chef’s knife at your table feels ridiculous. And twelve apples? The apples I bought are relatively small, weighing about four ounces each, but that’s still a lot of fruit.
As I cut into my second apple, I wonder what it is about Kawhi that led so many people to recognize some truth in the peculiar specificity of Camerlengo’s joke. Why twelve apples? Why a knife and a fork? I decide to email the comedian to see if he has any insight into why “Apple time, apple time” resonated.
One element that rang true about the apple joke is that it put Kawhi in opposition to his Spurs teammates. When he was happy in San Antonio, as in the 2014 championship run, he looked like the next link in an unbroken chain of quiet superstars, from David Robinson to Tim Duncan and on to Kawhi. We understood his stoic personality to mean that he was like them, someone we knew what to do with. We’d be happy he was happy in San Antonio, watch him succeed, let him win a few championships, and then celebrate him when he quietly retired in fifteen or twenty years. But those were all expectations we projected onto Kawhi, based on nothing but the team that drafted him.
The Spurs are famously close-knit. Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker are still playing tennis together in retirement. Pop and Manu are concert buddies. The way that Kawhi forced himself out of San Antonio—weird silences, absences, and accusations from his camp as his relationship with the team deteriorated—suggests that he probably wasn’t going to be super comfortable hanging out with the rest of the boys at the Lady Gaga concert. So when you see the apple tweet, you can easily imagine Kawhi being an outsider—even if we don’t actually know how he felt about his teammates.
Fans are unfair to athletes all the time, of course. We use the fact that they’re well paid as an excuse to treat them like they’re somehow not worthy of the respect we expect from others in our own lives. Just days after Game 5 of this year’s NBA Finals—during which Golden State star Kevin Durant ruptured his Achilles tendon a few weeks after a leg injury that initially looked like it might end his season—a columnist writing on the website of San Antonio TV station KSAT declared, “It’s my belief that whatever occurred between the Spurs and Leonard had less to do with injury concerns than just the fact that Kawhi wanted out.” Which, I mean, maybe? But that’s a lot of assumptions we’re bringing to the situation.
Which brings us back to the apples. As silly as the tweet was, an awful lot of what we think we know about Kawhi is made up too. We made up that he had the same personality as Duncan because neither of them were flashy. We made up that he was trying to get out of San Antonio during his last season, rather than coping with a legitimate injury concern. Spurs fans feel betrayed by him because of a bunch of things that they decided were true—and also because he’s on the verge of winning his second championship in Toronto instead of San Antonio.
That’s normal sports fan resentment—people have similar feelings toward Wade Boggs or Brett Favre—but we live in an era in which we expect unprecedented access to an athlete. We follow their tweets, watch their Instagram stories, read their essays on the Players’ Tribune, etc., etc., and so we pretend we know them. When it’s someone like LeBron James or Serena Williams or another athlete who’s embraced the faux intimacy that technology can foster, that makes some sense. When LeBron left Cleveland the first time, he did it on a one-hour TV special explaining his plan. When he returned to the Cavaliers a few years later, he wrote a heartfelt essay about his hometown. We don’t know a fraction as much about why Kawhi wanted out of San Antonio. We just act like we do.
It’s possible, I guess, that Kawhi is indeed the biggest NBA oddball ever—that Dennis Rodman and Russell Westbrook are straitlaced next to him. There’s no shortage of Kawhi memes—whether they’re true ones like “board man gets paid” or totally fabricated ones like a tweet about a Truman Show–esque setup the Spurs created to convince Kawhi that San Antonio was on the ocean.
It’s also possible, though, that he’s just a dude who’s good at basketball and doesn’t like the rest of what comes with it. America (and probably Canada too) loves a quiet, humble superstar. I think—and maybe it’s just the apples talking—the reason that fans don’t line up behind Kawhi is that he’s a naturally quiet guy who’s also keenly aware of what someone in his position is supposed to be like, leading him to sometimes act in ways that are counter to who he is inside. Hence the awkward “Board man gets paid” trash talk or the odd flashes of arrogance.
We put a lot of pressure on athletes to be a certain kind of person, in other words, and it’s probably true that Kawhi feels some of that pressure. For whatever reason, he reacts to that pressure differently than a lot of other guys do—embracing it, faking it till they make it, hating themselves every day but pretending anyway—and it makes us think that he’s weird. Yeah, Kawhi, different sort of dude. Maybe he really did eat all those apples? But that’s not fair to him.
Eating twelve apples with a knife and a fork is ridiculous. The bag of apples I bought was three pounds. The internet says that amounts to a little more than seven hundred calories’ worth—as much as, say, a bacon-and-cheese Whataburger. By this point, I’m pretty sick of apples. How weird do we think Kawhi is, anyway, that anyone could think this was true?
Maybe it’s just that we don’t have a conception of what it’s like to consume twelve apples in a single sitting. Competitive eaters don’t even attempt apples (apple pie, sure)—Major League Eating has records for asparagus, cabbage, and cranberry sauce, but not one for apples.
Mike Camerlengo answers a few of my questions via email. He doesn’t have big, angsty feelings about Kawhi—which makes sense for a guy from New York. “Kawhi is obviously a very private guy, and I think that intrigues people,” Camerlengo says. “I personally think Kawhi is just a private dude who loves to ball and has a pretty dry sense of humor.” He didn’t spend much time on the tweet—about five minutes, after an iced coffee—and he thinks it resonated with people because everyone wanted more Kawhi stories after “Board Man Gets Paid” ran in the Athletic. “We were starting to hear more real stories about him that we’d never heard before,” he says. “And they were hilarious. They were filled with vivid details but left you with so many questions.”
Outside San Antonio, Kawhi’s just a great player who makes for weird memes. (Slate published a fun article about how to make up your own Kawhi story. Sample: “Kawhi pulled the redwood from the ground and gazed upon its fully intact root system. ‘Tree toes,’ he said. ‘Tree toes.’ ”) But San Antonio is loyal to its stars, and it takes rejection hard. Houston and Dallas both have major pro sports teams coming out their ears, while San Antonio has only the Spurs. But we don’t need to cry for Alamo City, because they have the Spurs, the finest sports dynasty of the twenty-first century. Since 1999, the Spurs have won more championships (five) than the Mavericks (one), Rockets, Cowboys, Texans, Rangers, Astros (one), and Stars (one) combined. The other cities may have more teams to care about, but San Antonio has the only team that’s been worth caring about, if you like championships.
If Kawhi had played for the Mavs or Rockets, fans in those cities still would have been upset. But they wouldn’t have felt rejected the way that people in San Antonio did. Talking to a Spurs fan about Kawhi is like talking to someone who got dumped for their younger, better-looking best friend.
If Kawhi and the Raptors had completed their Game 5 comeback on Monday night, we might be talking about Michael Jordan like he was just the Kawhi Leonard of the nineties. He was that dominant in the final minutes, as good in the clutch as anyone has ever been. But it wasn’t quite enough, so we get Game 6 instead. During tonight’s game, people will undoubtedly tweet about “apple time,” and some Spurs fans will reluctantly cheer for Golden State (at least Warriors head coach Steve Kerr played in San Antonio and is tight with Pop). Kawhi will presumably do Kawhi things, by which we mean things on a basketball court that almost no human being can do. If they win, he’s almost certain to be crowned Finals MVP for the second time. And we’ll still be trying to get inside the guy’s head, because there just aren’t many sports stars like him.
There are other weirdos, certainly—but they’re usually weird in ways we know what to do with. Russell Westbrook tells colorful lies to reporters and dresses like a cartoon character. Joe Namath wore a fur coat on the sidelines. Chad Ochocinco changed his last name to a mistranslation of his uniform number in Spanish. Dennis Rodman was, well, Dennis Rodman. Guys who are weird in flashy ways are easy: you just let them be the center of attention for a while and give them what they crave.
We struggle with athletes who are weird and introverted, though. It took a long time for the sports world to figure out what to do with Ricky Williams, for example, and the ways that Kawhi diverges from the expectations of a generic professional athlete are more like Williams than Rodman. If he’d stayed in San Antonio his whole career, we’d have assumed he was quiet and humble. Instead, he left, and the trickle of stories we get about him from people who’ve played with him in the past tell us that he’s not what we thought he was the last time he was in the NBA Finals—even if we still don’t know exactly who he is.
You don’t have to eat a dozen apples with a knife and a fork to accept that we don’t really need to know, and that having a world-beating superstar who isn’t concerned with what we think about him is kind of refreshing. Kawhi is fascinating to watch, a rare enigma in an era when seemingly every successful athlete needs a robust social media presence. Plenty of reporters have dug deep to try to get at the core of who he is, and almost all of them have been able only to harvest the barest, most-surface-level anecdotes. “Apple time, apple time” might be as true as any of them.