Kawhi Leonard’s hands are abnormally large, even for a basketball player. At the time of the draft, some people thought it was ridiculous to focus on his hands so much because it feels superficial or silly. Watching him play, though, convinces the honest observer of just how unsilly his handsize is. Leonard invariably makes at least a play a game that looks different, almost mutant, as a result of those hands—one handed rebounds, one-handed catch-and-controls, one-handed catches of poor passes. Early in the playoffs he made a one-handed out-of-bounds save where, after controlling the ball, the orange seemed glued to his hand as he contorted his body, looked up court, and threw an off-balance, on-point pass with serious velocity. He make plays that make the fact that he has huge hands obvious.
There exists a classic silly argument for high school students. Of course, scientists and psychologists also grapple with the nature v. nurture debate and its implications. I know a musician who swears that musical talent, a natural musical ear, doesn’t exist. I know an engineer who swears that facility with numbers has nothing to do with effective engineering. In relation to his notably crappy Across the River and into the Trees, Hemingway said the book was not an artistic creation but a matter of calculus, meaning calculation. What exactly lies beneath that claim (his ego and self-aggrandizement) is up for debate, but it’s at least true enough to say that Hemingway meant that art was not a matter of natural gifts but of careful deliberation, experience, and practice.
Obviously, the three claims above are up for debate. What is not up for debate: Kawhi Leonard is better at basketball because of his large hands, and he had no control over the length of his fingers. Athletics are different from non-physical innovation and achievement because some number of the advantages are clearly out of the participants’ control.
This is not to say that a jumpshot, ridiculous crossovers, or hitting a screen at just the right angle are genetic advantages—far from it. Those things are practiced. Tony Parker’s drifting jumper off the dribble didn’t come coded into his DNA. Much of effective basketball is a credit to the hard work and ingenuity of the players.
But an argument cannot be made that all of basketball is a credit to hard work and ingenuity. War and Peace though—that big hunk of a thing can be credibly argued to be all Tolstoy.
Although, it’s also easy to diminish Tolstoy. He grew up rich and educated, while all his family’s serfs didn’t have access to education. Isn’t access to schooling in Tsarist Russia the equivalent of Leonard’s big hands? Tolstoy had no control over his economic status upon entering the world.
So a poor person, then. The recently deceased Levon Helm, for example, son of cotton farmers in a tiny place in Arkansas. But he too can be diminished—his parents loved music and they encouraged him to sing and play. Surely, if his parents didn’t care about music, he wouldn’t have been as good a musician as he was, or a musician at all.
The critic and theorist Roland Barthes argued for a reorientation in culture that privileged observers at the expense of “creators.” Barthes would argue that the important thing is not how Kawhi Leonard was created, but what he allows observers to do with him now that he exists. To Barthes, then, value should be placed on how many different ways a text can be interpreted, on how useful it is to observers. He argued that to count as fixed, immutable variables things like Tolstoy’s (or Levon Helm’s, or anyone’s) early life is to impose restrictions on the possible interpretations of any of Tolstoy’s work. And this was to impose a limit on a text that could be limitless.
Let’s leap from Leonard, then, to LeBron, Kobe, and basketball “narratives” in general. Bloggers often get angry when there exist “narratives” about LeBron James that seem contrary to actual facts. Like that he’s a choker. Often, people will argue that passing off to an open man is a character flaw. Then, some other blogger might argue that LeBron James passing off to an open man is a virtue. But in the end, perhaps what makes LeBron James valuable is not whether his passing to open men at the end of games is a flaw or virtue, but that his passing can spur multiple interpretations by observers.