By Evan Hall
In any game featuring Kawhi Leonard playing well, and in some games featuring Kawhi Leonard not playing particularly well, you inevitably hear talk from the announcers about the legendary size of his hands. Maybe you hear the word "mitts," and maybe you even see a sideline reporter measure hands against Leonard's. I'm not sure there's anything wrong with this besides the sheer lazy repetition of it. After all, the size of Leonard's hands is a relevant consideration when you're trying to comprehend the physics of his impossible block on Russell Westbrook in the deciding game of the Western Conference Finals.
There is a challenger now to Leonard's place as the owner of the largest hands in the NBA: Noah Vonleh, a forward out of Indiana University with a legitimate shot at being picked in the top five of this year's draft. Vonleh had his hands measured at the combine at just under 10 inches in width and 11 inches in length. That might be hard to compute, but fortunately, we can see those hands at work in one of his pre-draft workout drills in which, with one hand, he grabs a ball off the floor and palms it all the way into a dunk before switching hands and doing it all over again. Despite its suspect applicability to a real-time game of five-on-five basketball, it's an impressive display of a human body doing things very few human bodies are capable of, which is at least one of the reasons we watch sports at all.
Still, there's a persistent, gnawing creepiness in the way in which we talk about athletes bodies that is especially evident come draft time. Vonleh's athleticism, his skills with his massive hands, the wingspan of his arms and the length of his body are all tools of his trade. He will make no small amount of money with those tools, and in the weeks leading up to the draft, he has a vested interest in showing them off. If he needs to run where scouts tell him to, and jump when they tell him to and offer his hands when they pull out a tape measure, to earn a place in the lottery, he has every right and reason to do so.
So then, this is less about what Vonleh can and should be able to do with his body on a basketball court, and more about the way we talk about how he does it. Vonleh could be effectively and accurately described as a tremendous athlete with strength, height and speed, or he could be described in the dehumanizing language of the draft pundit, as a "physical specimen." If nothing else, the image of 15 white men, crowded around a shirtless, young, black basketball player as he lifts weights or shoots jump shots is haunting.
There's an undeniably racial component to all of this. As the Donald Sterling story developed, an anecdote from the Elgin Baylor lawsuit resurfaced with the added significance of context. Sterling would bring women to the locker room so that they could, in Sterling's words, "look at those beautiful black bodies." It might be easy to comfort ourselves that Sterling was the radical exception, but that kind of language is pervasive in NBA analysis, most frequently about draft prospects. Prospects like Vonleh are commodified, transformed into brand-name products.
Maybe this is a necessary evil of the draft -- one that could be mitigated and curbed by more careful and considerate language but never wholly eliminated. Certainly it's a thing someone like Noah Vonleh will have to live with, after every game, in every interview, in every meeting with his agent and team executives. He will never be free of the limiting discussion of him as a person that allows only for a body and perhaps a basketball portion of the mind, much less a complex personality. Basketball speak leaves very little room for a soul "grown deep like the rivers," more especially a black one.
But OK: Vonleh, like many athletes before him, has chosen to live with that, to enter the draft and play for a team, and I am, if anything, grateful he's decided to put up with a demeaning environment. He is likely to be a fantastic player, with a smooth, range-y jump shot and a raw but liquid exhilaration to his offensive game. Vonleh will keep doing amazing things with his body, and anyone paying attention will admire him for it.
Unfortunately, there are more harrowing, dangerous instances of the objectification of the athlete's body. The most recent of these have claimed LeBron James and Tony Parker as victims of a certain kind of fan who hopes, by reason of some twisted psychology, that a player suffer through an injury for the spectacle of it. When LeBron James cramps, the immediate voice of the loud-mouthed Jordan-truther demands he play on. This kind of request -- "you do this thing with your body because I want you to" -- smacks of some combination of the power-and-privilege dynamics of the 18th century French aristocracy and the 2nd century Roman gladiators and it reeks suspiciously of the plantation. There was clearly some degree of LeBron-specific vitriol that contributed to the reaction, but as the #Parkering meme proved, the reappropriation of the athlete's body, from the player to basically everyone else, is no respecter of players.
The reactions to those injuries were only more evidence for a case that doesn't need proving anymore. It's fairly well established that fans, owners and team executives feel varying degrees of ownership over the players they root for, pay or pursue in free agency. There is the possibility, of course, that a draft prospect, like Vonleh, who suffers at the hands of that capitalist hunger to look at everything as an investment may be so far in it that he doesn't realize it. Maybe, because he's been playing basketball for years now, he's so far into it, he no longer notices. And maybe this is actually better for him, given how unlikely it is that anything about this will ever change.
If he did fall in love with the game, if it was ever more than a future vocation for him, I imagine it must have happened before any of this co-opting of his identity. Not that it matters for him either way. He has every right to play a game he doesn't love and to get paid for doing awe-inspiring things with his body. It is his body, after all.
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Evan Hall is a freelance writer from Boise, Idaho, who has written for the Classical and Salt City Hoops of the ESPN TrueHoop Network. You can find him on Twitter @the20thmaine.