OAKLAND, Calif. -- The teardrops that moistened his mother’s soft shoulder five years ago have long since disappeared but the reason they fell in the first place has not. Kevin Durant doesn’t easily forget the landmark moments in his NBA career and that inability to let go has both motivated and tortured him.
He lost to the starry Miami Heat in the 2012 NBA Finals and was so choked up when he walked off the floor that he reached for her, almost by reflex, as he has many times since she delivered him, as any loving son would.
“He was hurt,” said Wanda Durant. “It was painful, losing that championship.”
And then there was another pivotal moment, last summer actually, when he left the Oklahoma City Thunder to further fortify the loaded Golden State Warriors. The backlash he feared was realized when some folks took offense to it, took it personally, for goodness’ sake, and it rattled him. All his life, he was approached and constantly complimented for the professional way he conducted himself, how grounded he was for a superstar, how his supreme basketball skills brought happiness to the lives of total strangers. And now, this ... hate? For Durant?
There would be no sobbing in public on her shoulder for that, although mothers do know best and there’s strong suspicion that Durant, here on the eve of his basketball redemption attempt against LeBron James, was all welled up on the inside.
“He was hurt,” she repeated, voice rising. “That hurt him, too.”
To be rather blunt, Durant doesn’t believe he deserves your blowback anymore, and at the same time, is rejecting your pity as well. As a basketball player who stands 6-foot-9 with a seven-footer’s limbs and blessed with a golden jumper, he matured long ago. As a sensitive man who got sucked in all those years by the conditional love, like many stars who live a public life, he is learning to deal with the other side of fame in a social media world -- and becoming hardened from it.
“I’m moving on,” he said, dismissively. “I’m done with that nonsense. I’m in a new place, a great place with a great team.”
He’s with the Warriors, which instantly makes them a team of the 1980s. As in, the Philadelphia 76ers with Julius Erving, Moses Malone, Mo Cheeks and Bobby Jones. As in the Boston Celtics with Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parish and Dennis Johnson. And the Los Angeles Lakers with Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Michael Cooper, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Byron Scott. As in, teams with multiple All-Stars and and a few lock Hall of Famers, a rare species today in a more watered-down league.
While the Warriors haven’t done anything yet to become coated in the immortality those legendary teams can boast of, they understand that they’re just getting started. Their great players are still in their prime and they just ran the table in the playoffs.
“We’re on a mission,” said Warriors owner Joe Lacob.
They won 73 games in 2015-16 and a title in 2015, all before Durant signed up. They blew a chance for another title last year when Draymond Green couldn’t control his right foot or his mouth. Immediately after that, they upgraded from Harrison Barnes, who shot 5-for-32 as the Cavaliers staged a historic rally in the final three games last June, to Durant, a freakish forward and certified star. Of course, when that happened, a segment of the basketball community lost their lunch.
This was a typical case of the rich getting richer, Bill Gates splurging $1 on the winning Mega Millions ticket. It's like Wilt Chamberlain once famously said: Nobody roots for Goliath.
"Durant took the easy way out." This was a rather common refrain spit out by his detractors who felt Durant would rather join-‘em than beat-’em. "And he’s a traitor." This was pushed by some fans in Oklahoma City, the same people who hugged Durant tightly when he walked the debris-strewn streets with them following a deadly tornado that devastated thousands. Back then, they wanted to bake him cupcakes; last season when he returned for the first time wearing the enemy’s uniform, they threw “cupcake” in his face.
For those hoping the Durant-fueled Warriors would crumble, though, better luck in the upcoming NBA Finals with LeBron on your side. Sorry to disappoint, but with the Warriors, Durant has fit better than Adriana Lima in Versace. In a playing rotation loaded with lead singers, there are indeed enough microphones to go around, and smiles, too, judging by the way the Warriors embrace an unselfish style and a willingness to feed the hot hand. They assisted on 70 percent of their baskets during the season, the highest rate in the NBA in 13 years.
Stephen Curry is in the best postseason of his career, yet has essentially cleared out his guest room for Durant, taking a back seat whenever his new teammate is rolling. This is because Curry’s personality, by superstar standards, is mild, and besides, there’s no reason for Curry to be jealous of Durant being this team’s leading scorer. Curry already has won back-to-back Kia MVPs. He’ll get his money this summer. And if anything, Durant is getting him more open looks than ever.
Likewise, Durant hasn’t placed himself above his new teammates in terms of ego or status, although with regard to the latter, he’s perhaps the biggest nightmare for the Cavaliers in this series. His size makes for a tough matchup, and his efficiency for a high-volume shooter is off the charts (he's shooting 55.6 percent overall and 41.7 percent on 3-pointers in the playoffs).
Durant’s understated defense is a bonus in the system carved out by assistant coach Ron Adams. Durant had a career high in blocks this season and can guard multiple positions, too.
“I wanted to fit in, most of all, by being the best player I could be, every single day,” he said. “That was my concern, to be the player that my teammates thought I could be, and most of all, to have fun doing it. I enjoy this culture, this atmosphere, everything we have here. It’s special.”
The Warriors are 27-1 since March 14 and only three of their 12 playoff games have been within five points with five minutes left. In short, they’re crushing it. But of course, this all turns to vapor -- like a 3-1 lead in The Finals -- if Durant and the Warriors aren’t popping bottles in a few weeks.
Because isn’t this why he came here, and put up with all the crap?
He came to win his first title and remove the memory of his only professional failure: Coming up short to LeBron in ’12.
“He just wanted that ring,” recalled Wanda Durant. “And after he lost it, he just figured he had to dig deep, work hard and do whatever he had to do to get back there. He’ll do whatever he’s needed. We assumed they would get there again but it didn’t happen.”
"He saw their camaraderie and wanted to be with a team like that, and that’s what resonated. He wanted the 'one-ness’ of the Warriors. Also, it’s not just about basketball all the time. In some situations away from basketball, change is good."
Yes, Durant thought he and OKC were a dynasty in the making, and who didn’t? He, Russell Westbrook and James Harden were 22 and under. And then, after The Finals loss, the Thunder refused to pay the luxury tax. They opted instead to trade Harden to the Houston Rockets rather than face that steep tax bill.
Then the raw-deal injuries to Durant and Westbrook robbed them of Finals trips in subsequent years. Then came OKC blowing a 3-1 lead in the Western Conference finals to Golden State. First, Klay Thompson burned them in Game 6 and then, Curry closed them out in Game 7, all of which opened the door for Durant to switch teams.
This is where it gets sticky. As he weighed his options as a free agent, Durant did not, by all accounts, keep Westbrook in the loop, therefore feeding the discord (mainly from Russ) between them this season. He left a team that was on the verge of beating Golden State last summer, and thus weakened a title contender in the process. And his explanation lacked the reasoning that LeBron gave for leaving Miami and going home to Ohio three summers ago.
Durant left OKC to help his “evolution as a man: moving out of my comfort zone to a new city and community which offers the greatest potential for my contribution and personal growth,” as he wrote in a first-person account for The Players Tribune.
Others would simply cut to the chase and say: I’d rather live in the Bay Area and hook up with three other All-Stars.
His mother said: “No matter what, we all have to do what’s best for us. He’s very happy. Because he had such a great feeling coming in, it just resonated more and more as the season went on. He saw their camaraderie and wanted to be with a team like that, and that’s what resonated. He wanted the 'one-ness’ of the Warriors. Also, it’s not just about basketball all the time. In some situations away from basketball, change is good.”
She added: “As for the reaction by those who didn’t like it, look, he has a heart and emotions. He felt it.”
In interviews since then, and when speaking for this story, Durant still seems bugged by it all and the assertion he’s the poster child for the problematic lack of parity at the top of the NBA.
To USA Today: “Like I'm the reason why (expletive) Orlando couldn't make the playoffs for five, six years in a row?” he said. “Am I the reason that Brooklyn gave all their picks to Boston? Like, am I the reason that they're not that good (laughs)? I can't play for every team, so the truth of the matter is I left one team. It's one more team that you probably would've thought would've been a contender. One more team. I couldn't have made the (entire) East better. I couldn't have made everybody (else) in the West better.”
To The Vertical: “I knew the backlash was coming. I knew how many people would `hate’ me. People would `hate’ me for ... I don’t even know. People that would be upset for no reason. Because I’m sure none of this affected their life in any way. It’s real for me but it’s like a game for everyone else. You’re not affected at all by this. I’m the one who had to go through this decision — me, my closest friends, family … for everybody else, it’s just barbershop talk.”
And finally, this very recently: “You know, look. I can’t control what people think. I’ve loved the journey to this point. Everyone around me, my teammates and the staff, are making it worthwhile. Now it’s just a matter of going the extra step and getting the championship.”
The reason this cuts deep is that Durant is easygoing, relaxed and refreshingly personable, and this curveball from the public (and media, to an extent) turned him resentful and defensive, foreign emotions for him until now.
“Kevin is a kind, loving, gentle, warm-hearted man who loves basketball,” said his mom. “What you see from him is who he is. There’s no other person to look for. You found him. That’s him. Now you have to accept him for who he is.”
In due time, that will happen. The circus will move on, to some other athlete who does something to rub someone the wrong way. Yet, some perspective is due for Durant, the same as it was for LeBron during the immediate aftermath of "The Decision".
A player who has done nothing but entertain and carry himself with respect and dignity was treated harshly for simply exercising his right to free agency. (There’s a double standard for less talented players, who can move freely and receive no public punishment.) What crime was committed by the stroke of a pen? Sometimes, the selective outrage from folks, which also is their right, seems misplaced if not over-the-top.
Draymond Green said: “You know, to go to The Finals, I feel joy for him. Everything he had to go through. For him to be able to celebrate taking this next step with us and combat all that talk, it just shows how we have a brotherhood.”
As we’ve learned so many times in sports, winning erases all. Athletes who held out for more money, or were arrested, or said something dumb were ultimately and in some cases quickly forgiven when they won big. Durant therefore knows what’s at stake the next few weeks. Yes, should he beat LeBron and the Cavs, it will be pooh-poohed by those who maintain he cut corners and joined a superteam to accomplish it. Durant’s ears, though, will be too clogged with bubbly champagne to hear that noise.
Champions are champions. History never cheapens them. History gives them their proper respect.
Besides, Durant is beloved in the only place that really matters right now.
“This was born on the day we all met in Long Island last summer to recruit him," Lacob said. "Our other players are tremendous stars in their own right and made a pitch to him that he would be totally integrated and accepted, and they did what it took to do that. Our players told Kevin exactly how it has turned out to be.”
The owner then clarified: “The goal was always to go one step beyond where we are now.”
That’s a step Durant is only too anxious to take, to evolve and live in a new comfort zone. He already has one foot in, the other to follow soon enough, depending which way the championship trophy tilts.
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