It’s been a few days since Toronto Raptor superstar Kawhi Leonard hit the dramatic buzzer beating last second shot to send his team to the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. Not only is this a display of athletic prowess, notice the off balance high arching shot needed in order to propel the ball over the outstretched hand of 7 + footer Joel Embid, but it symbolized and means much more than just a ball going through a hoop.
By dissecting the meaning of the shot, it’s possible to understand why many in the sports world are still talking about it days later, and why those who don’t usually watch sports may be moved and impacted in ways they’ve never felt.
Importantly, like any truly transcendent moment, there are layers of meaning. In pure basketball terms, we can analyze the game from the individual, to the current team, to the franchise, to even the national level. For Kawhi, the shot is a personal redemption. He sat out almost all last year with an injury, but worse, that injury disrupted the trust between himself and the team he played for, the San Antonio Spurs. Questions about his integrity, the seriousness of his injury, and dedication to winning amounted to a blockbuster trade that sent the “damaged” star to Toronto. Hitting that shot gave Kawhi a signature moment in his comeback year, on a new team, and will catapult him to even greater heights individually.
The team this year had perhaps the most expectations placed on it in its over two decade history. Armed with a top 5 player in Leonard and a strong supporting cast with all-stars Kyle Lowry and Pascal Siakam, the team expected to reach at least the third round of the playoffs, and have their eyes set on their first finals appearance. Winning on the buzzer beater keeps those dreams alive and fans can continue to hope for that first championship.
It’s also redemptive for the franchise. The poetry of that game 7 set the stage for Kawhi’s dramatics. 18 years ago, Toronto’s first superstar Vince Carter had a chance to send Toronto to the third round, similarly against Philadelphia, with a buzzer beater. Carter’s last second shot clanged the rim and bounced out. When Kawhi’s shot bounced off the rim four times and then fell through the hoop, those 18 years of demons and regrets vanished in a moment of euphoria.
It’s also symbolic for Canada. As a basketball country, Canada has come a long way since it was granted two NBA franchises in 1995. We have produced #1 overall picks Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins, and over a dozen NBA players currently. Basketball is also a grassroots success, with only Hockey and Soccer having more youth registrants than hoops.
The Raptors-Sixers game 7 was also the most watched basketball game in Canadian history, with over 3 million viewers watching at its peak. This is another breakthrough moment. It’s clear that the shot and the game have meaning beyond just the winning and losing of a playoff game and series. But there is more than that. At its heart, sport offers us a window into the transcendent, some would say to the divine. That moment of temporary perfection achieved through imperfect means, over obstacles, and through adversity, elevates sport. Philosopher Robert Novak goes even further “Sports are rituals concerning human survival on this planet: liturgical enactments of animal perfection and the struggles of the human spirit to prevail.” Sports relate the deepest meaning we can imagine.
You can see this through Kawhi’s shot and the way everyone who watched it reacted the same way. Had the ball gone in cleanly, we would remember it, but because of the drama and the suspense of the ball suspending in mid air, clanging for an eternity on the rim, that we collectively effused (except for Philadelphia players and fans) the same reaction. Listen to calls of the shot from around the world, in different languages, from those cheering for the Raptors to neutral observers:
It’s the same, the shot goes up, and then silence. Everyone watches the ball bounce. Time stands still. The still photos of the moment capture the same sentiment. The ball drops in and then everyone roars in amazement. Did we just witness that?
American national broadcaster on the TNT feed Kevin Harlan described the moment on Toronto Sports Radio as essentially a moment of collective prayer. For him, the two seconds of silence represented a collective moment of togetherness and related a spiritual dimension. In the arena, around 19,000 people fell silent at the same moment, holding their breaths, waiting to see the outcome. He described it as like church.
It’s at this deep level where we should look to find the most important meaning of the shot. It’s great that the Raptors are off to the next round and it’s maybe more likely that Kawhi will stay in Toronto, instead of bolting during free agency. But those meanings pale compared to symbolic extrapolation of what the shot tells us about our collective humanity. Struggle over adversity, doing the impossible, finding a miracle, executing in the moment, and reveling in momentary perfection.
As Novak suggests, these contests aren’t merely about who can score more points. They are about showing what humans are capable of, especially through our imperfectly designed bodies. The drama of the shot is matched by our potential to make our own meaning from it. Kids will be miming that shot in their driveways for years to come. People will talk about “The Shot” and we’ll know exactly what that means. We’ll relive the moment as many times as we can, because we feel it’s more important than just one basketball shot. That’s what great moments in sport do. They raise our eyes beyond our experience and connect us to a transcendent moment we will never forget.