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Farewell, Kawhi: A Spurs Fan Reflects on a Star’s Inevitable Departure

With the Leonard saga finally coming to an end, a feeling of defiant hope—and relief—emerges for San Antonio

Kawhi Leonard Ryan Simpson

I’m not quite sure what I’m feeling right now, or what Spurs fans are supposed to be feeling right now. It became clear several weeks ago that the relationship between Kawhi and the Spurs had become too severed, too coated with muck, too packed with animus and onions and glass, to ever go back to what it was (or what we all on the outside thought it to be, anyway). And so this moment — the Kawhi-leaving moment — was inevitable, and felt inevitable, so we all prepared for it in our own ways, at whatever speed felt the most right for each of us.

As such: I’m not mad or angry or sad or dejected or confused or surprised. All of those feelings, over the course of all of everything, have come and gone. It’s this new thing. It’s hope, I think. And if it’s not true hope and pure hope and clean hope — like the kind of hope that was born of Kawhi’s performance in the 2014 Finals when it truly and really felt like the Spurs had delivered us a new basketball lighthouse to eventually serve in Tim Duncan’s place — then it’s at the very least a defiant hope, or a selfish hope.

Have you seen the movie The Beach? It came out in 2000. It starred Leonardo DiCaprio. He played a character named Richard, a young American kid out exploring culture in Bangkok. One day, he hears a tale of some pristine beach on some pristine island and so, using a rough map given to him by someone who says he’s been there, he heads out after it, eventually finding not only the beach but also a colony of people living there as a mostly self-sufficient community of beach bums.

The movie ends up being something like 85 percent fun and 15 percent terrible. (It was one of those movies where it felt like they got to where the end was supposed to be and just went, “Umm … what the fuck do we do now?”) But there’s this part in it that serves as a good analogy for this whole Spurs-Kawhi debacle.

While spearfishing one day, two people get attacked by a shark. The shark bites a large chunk out of one of the guys’ thighs and also bites him across his torso, killing him. The second guy lives but is severely wounded (he was bitten on his shin). And so now he’s there at the beach, screaming and miserable and in an unfathomable amount of pain. And he refuses to leave by boat to get medical help because he’s too afraid of the water now, but the leader of the beach community (a woman named Sal) (played by Tilda Swinton) won’t allow for anybody to come to the beach to help him for fear of the beach eventually getting turned into a tourist trap. So the guy, that poor bastard, suffers through it for a few days, just lying there with his leg bitten too far open to ever heal. And after a bit, everyone else on the island gets fed up with him, and the sadness they felt for him turns to frustration and anger.

Leo, narrating the scene, explains the setting, saying, “You see, in a shark attack — or any other major tragedy, I guess — the important thing is to get eaten and die, in which case there’s a funeral and somebody makes a speech and everybody says what a good guy you were. Or get better, in which case everybody can forget about it.”

Then the scene cuts away and we see a group of the people carrying the guy on a gurney into the forest.

“Get better or die,” says Leo, narrating again. “It’s the hanging around in between that really pisses people off.”

Then we see them set the gurney down on the ground, and the guy has a blanket and a tent they’ve set up for him, plus a few supplies. Then they turn around and leave him there to die. The camera cuts away again and we see everyone on the beach playing volleyball and smiling and laughing and having a very good time, same as they were before the shark attack. And that’s where I think we are on this Kawhi trade.

We all knew that the beautiful bubble the Spurs had built for their fan base to live in all these years wasn’t going to last forever, same as the beach community knew that the utopia they’d built for themselves wasn’t going to last forever. And we all knew that the Spurs and Kawhi weren’t going to reconcile, same as the beach community knew the guy’s injury wasn’t ever going to heal. And we all knew that the only way past it was for Kawhi to not be on the Spurs anymore, same as the beach community knew the only way past it was for the guy not to be on their beach anymore. And today we all feel, among other things, a very clear sense of relief that this whole thing is over, same as the beach community did once the guy was all the way out of their sight. (There’s probably also a comparison to be made about how even the most beautiful of settings — the guy in an untouched forest on a gorgeous island; Kawhi in Toronto, regularly mentioned as one of the most stunning cities in the world — are beautiful only if you want to be there.)

More conversations will come out of the Kawhi trade, for sure — how will Kawhi fit alongside Kyle Lowry? Can the Raptors convince Kawhi to stay longer than just the year he’s under contract? Does Kawhi even own a jacket? Will DeMar and LaMarcus get along? Did the Spurs somehow win a trade that included shipping off the player they were supposed to build their franchise around for the next decade? Has DeMar all of this time been the most Spursy player who’s never played for the Spurs? How much did Gregg Popovich laugh at the idea of sending Kawhi to one of the coldest cities in the league knowing that Kawhi wanted nothing more than to be back home in Los Angeles? How crazy is it that the one player everybody knew was so exactly perfect to be a career Spur ended up being the one to try to Mr. Orange the franchise? Has there ever been a situation as opposite of the way that the Raptors fans are going to treat DeMar during his first game back to Toronto in comparison to the way the Spurs fans are going to treat Kawhi during his first game back in San Antonio? Will Spurs fans ever be able to step back and thank Kawhi for the 2014 championship? etc. — but today, that’s the feeling: relief.

It’s over. It’s done. Kawhi is gone.

We can all move on now.