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.