Feb. 6, 2019

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Kyle Lowry's Over Everything

Don't make Kyle Lowry a coming-of-age story. He's special because he's so much more

Everything comes full circle and Kyle Lowry cuts a lonely figure once again. On the second night of this NBA season, as the rest of his teammates jog onto the court, he separates himself and mimes a brief handshake with nobody. It’s for his departed teammate and best friend DeMar DeRozan, who was traded to San Antonio. It’s a brief moment, but it emphasizes Lowry’s isolation, and the forlorn bitterness that permeates his season even as the Raptors excel. After years of cruising if not exactly soaring, the folks who run the franchise are hopeful they’ve finally found the right mix of talent to get them to the NBA Finals. They might be correct, but for his part, Lowry has retreated into himself. He’s not checked out or playing poorly. The numbers are solid. An ailing back is a slight concern, and his shot isn’t falling like it should. Mostly he just seems sad.

Two months later Lowry, still upset about his traded friend, will tersely characterize his relationship with Raptors president Masai Ujiri as basically non-existent. When ESPN host Rachel Nichols mentions that Toronto advertises their “family atmosphere,” Lowry interrupts. "Yeah, you can have the pictures up there and say we’re family, but… family do things a little bit better sometimes.” This is Lowry at age thirty-two: inward and assertive, only ever as polite as necessary and sometimes not even that. It’s a pivot that many athletes make in their thirties, when they finally feel established enough to speak candidly. The difference between Lowry and most of his peers is that he’s nicer now than he used to be.

The early, ornery stages of Lowry’s career have been exhaustively documented. When he was at Villanova university, head coach Jay Wright admits he almost threw Lowry off the team before he played his first game. He was missing classes and, “he was just disruptive. He was a contrarian. He would purposely do things the opposite of the way you wanted them done, just to show you he had control and you didn’t.” Lowry came off the bench during his freshman year, but he was neither happy nor quiet about it. While a more influential role eventually calmed him, he still left as soon as he could, parlaying a March Madness run into a draft day call from the Memphis Grizzlies.

In Elvis’s hometown, saddled with a broken wrist, he struggled to find his role. He became more trouble than he was worth and was shipped to Houston where the front office had a taste for his decisive drives and broadening court vision. But things fell apart after the team fired coach Rick Adelman, whom Lowry liked, and replaced him with Kevin McHale, who was loquacious and overbearing. In the summer of 2012, as Lowry became openly hostile, Houston traded him to Toronto. There, Lowry was purposefully aloof, distant from coach Dwane Casey and his pal-to-be DeRozan, not even handing out his phone number. After all, he assumed, he wouldn’t be a Raptor for very long.

Lowry is now in his seventh season with the franchise, and while the marriage has not been uniformly smooth, it has been fruitful. Last week he was named to his fifth straight all-star team, a half-decade coinciding with the most successful era in Raptors’ history. He has also mellowed, his inferiority complex having developed into a more suitably adult self-confidence. He’s tamped down on his instinctive combativeness.

Perhaps even more improbably, he’s well-liked. His relationship with teammates seems as warm as his one with management is cold. He’s an admired leader, cracking folks up in practice, stewarding the development of younger players. That hasn’t changed this year, even with DeRozan replaced by the notoriously unknowable Kawhi Leonard. In this way, Lowry reveals his outward-facing victimhood as something of an act, if one rooted in genuine feeling. It’s melodrama, and as ever with Kyle, it’s hard to tell if he’s obliquely making a point or simply being difficult. He claims the ghost-handshake was just him keeping his pregame routine. Nobody believes this, but he doesn’t care. He knows what he’s doing, and he’s not going to tell you what it is.

Let’s not dwell too heavily on the definition of intelligence here, that’s a tedious exercise, but we have almost fifteen years of evidence that Kyle Lowry is a smidgen too smart for basketball. This isn’t the same as being above the game or resenting your privileged place within it, but playing sports for a living requires a patience Lowry doesn’t preternaturally possess. It’s a grinding routine: game, media, plane, hotel, walkthrough, shootaround, game. Your live-in co-workers have spent most of their lives in a gym and often aren’t that well-rounded or interesting. You have to field questions from a press that’s more concerned with filling out word counts than the substance of your answers. In post-game pressers and sometimes on the court, you can see that Lowry is bored or profoundly annoyed. What’s happening right now—this chore—isn’t sufficiently testing his intellect. So he plays like a kid taking out the garbage under protest, or he picks pointless fights. 

We understand this only from the stands, the other side of the television screen, the arm’s length away Lowry keeps us. It’s true that we can’t get to know athletes, not in the way we know our friends. But what would you say about a friend anyway? What would you emphasize? Insight, kindness, self-righteousness, a hot temper. You could describe them abstractly for hours, recall a dozen anecdotes, and in the end still feel like you’re missing something. Essence, is what you’re failing to describe, but essence is illusory, a useful device that makes sense of a person’s contradictions. Nobody’s any one thing all the way down, and there’s no perfect measuring of who they are. All we have is experience. You spend time with someone, and you see what you see.

Kyle Lowry is playing his thirteenth season in the NBA. The public record on him is long. He’s been a flop, a league-average but vexatious starter, then an All-Star. He wasted his talent until he didn’t. There’s a maturity narrative, when that sort of thing happens. If you read the glowing post-triumph stories, you would think an athlete never improves as a player without improving as a person. Jay Wright, Ujiri, even Lowry himself trace the same arc: Kyle grew up, became a father, and his newfound adulthood transferred to the basketball court by some pubescent osmosis.

The subtext of nearly every account of Lowry’s late-blooming success is that he was once an asshole, but is now a star, as if you can’t be both things at once. As soon as you put it in print, you’re in the reduction business, but this is all too pat even for the tidy world of sportswriting. 

You’ve walked around in the world; you know this isn’t true. It’s nice when people who do good work are balanced and treat everyone with respect, but that’s often not the case. The pantheons of sports, art, politics, and commerce are brimming with floridly and idiosyncratically damaged human beings who have inflicted stress and pain on others. Genius doesn’t go any way toward excusing this, but it’s a fact.

Taking into account the broad spectrum of assholery successful people are capable of, Lowry’s transgressions don’t amount to much, and they’re at least explicable. His leeriness informed by his upbringing in a North Philly neighbourhood where it didn’t pay to be trusting. His contentious relationship with coaches minimized when they accepted his more salient notes and put up with his nattering. There’s no defending his restive and selfish tendencies, nor his penchant for autonomy-underlying antagonism. Still, this scans a smart and strong-willed guy rebelling against the identity-quashing pressures of team sports—insisting, continually and a little too hard, on himself.

That last aspect of Lowry’s personality is inextricable from his success, which is why it won’t ever change. It also undermines the story in which, around the summer of 2013, Lowry undergoes an implausible personality renovation and comes out an All-Star. Here’s a realistic slant on it: Lowry became more coachable in Toronto because he found competent coaches. He assimilated into the locker room because, in DeRozan, he found a peer with whom he could connect. He got in proper shape, committing himself to basketball in a way he hadn’t before, because a franchise gave him reason to think it’d be worth his while.

The stuff that “used to” be a problem with Lowry—the petulance, the short fuse, his wandering mind—persists to this day. He’ll say he’s more agreeable now, because he is, but he’ll still roll his eyes at a reporter or drift frictionlessly through a few games because something he won’t articulate is bothering him. The difference between Lowry in Houston and Lowry now is greater self-knowledge. He knows he can be a jerk and usually makes an effort not to be. This is growing up, and it’s a continual, decidedly nonlinear process. Pulling shit that feels like five years ago you, and being embarrassed by it, is the human experience. Kyle Lowry has never stopped being aggravating and aggravated. The honest attempt to be something else is what we call growth.

And it has had something to do with his rise as a player, but you don’t ascend to the top of your field on mindfulness alone. The boring reality is that the reverse is at least as true: Lowry didn’t become good because he grew up, our perception of him changed because he got good.

This principle applies to every pro athlete. The attention we give them—the amount we care about who they are—is more or less exactly proportional to where they rank within their sport's hierarchy. We assign our sporting heroes personality traits they don’t actually have, receiving their jokes like an encouraging open mic audience and weeping with pride when they express a run-of-the-mill progressive political opinion. Craving positive reinforcement, they lean into this. As the process churns along over years, they become more attractive but less legible. The prototypical star athlete is not a human being so much as an assemblage of exhausting conscientiousness, minor quirks blown up and rendered subtle as seventies sitcom catchphrases, Instagram posts resembling commercials for greatness, or fulfillment, or Pepsi. Almost everything knotty—flaws, inconsistencies, flatly unmonetizable strangeness—gets shunted to the side.

Kyle Lowry is not an antidote to any of this. He doesn’t appear interested in being seen as one, and we’d be right to mistrust him if he was. But he has had a fascinatingly uneven career and seems at peace with it. In this way, he represents a model for living that’s more attainable, and thus more inspiring, than many of his fellow stars.

While we’re easy marks for athletes with even a speck of off-court charm, we’re also baroquely hypocritical in what we demand from them professionally. They’re to work hours we don’t keep, make friends with people we wouldn’t like, possess the kind of perspective you get only from the outside looking in. If other people tracked our lives the way we do Lowry’s, we would probably complain that they’re blowing our shortcomings out of proportion. We are not the worst things we do, not only lazy or blithe or hubristic or alienating. We are a lot of other redeemable things too, and we have the capacity to improve. Maybe we’re young, or maybe we haven’t yet learned something crucial. At any rate, we think we deserve the benefit of the doubt.

Not all of us do, but Lowry’s late beautiful prime proves that some people change in incremental yet spectacular ways. At thirty-two, he remains ornery and restless, but endeavors not to lay that burden on others. He seems to know himself better now than at twenty-five. He more thoroughly owns his actions. That’s an achievement by itself, hard-won but also impermanent. It needs to be looked after day-by-day, and occasionally slips out of sight. It’s not easy, and neither is he. If this isn’t an altogether positive thing for his coaches and teammates, it does render Lowry uniquely relatable. He’s complicated, not in the painlessly resolvable fashion that famous strangers typically are, but in specific and curious ways you might recognize in a friend, or in yourself. He’s impossible to summarize. This makes him a special kind of athlete. Of course, he’s always expected as much.

Colin McGowan is a writer and critic based in Chicago

Spencer Flock is a Burlington, ON-based conceptual illustrator

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