Before he played a minute in the NBA, Kevin Durant was part of the future of USA Basketball, added to the Men’s Senior National Team Roster and joining the team in training camp in the summer of 2007 before the FIBA Americas Championship in which a team featuring Carmelo Anthony, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, and Jason Kidd rolled to a gold medal. It was part of a path back to the top of the Olympic medal podium for Team USA in Beijing in 2008, and Durant has been an integral part of the journey ever since.
Now at 31, Durant is headed to his third Olympics as one of the most accomplished players in the history of USA Basketball.
“I committed to USA Basketball when I was coming out of college and every chance that I can get that I'm healthy and my mind’s in the right place to play basketball I'm going to go out there and play,” said Durant after Friday’s practice session. “Finished the year off healthy, the regular season and the playoffs, so I felt it would be cool to get, I guess a kickstart on next season by getting in shape a little earlier in the summer with Team USA. Fortunate to be around the best players in the world and around the best athletes as well so I just wanted to take in the experience.”
"This guy is a very, very special individual in my opinion,” said USA Basketball managing director Jerry Colangelo. “I met him when he was a freshman at Texas and thinking about leaving school and going into the draft and I remember meeting him at the Final Four and invited him to come to our training camp and his eyes were as big as you could imagine. He was so excited. He said, 'I'll be there.' He's always had this great enthusiasm for playing USA Basketball, for playing the game of basketball. He's been a real, in my opinion, a real warrior. I love the guy as a player, love him as a person, and the fact that he stepped up as he did to commit himself didn't surprise me. I was very, very pleased, because he's a very, very important part of our potential success."
Team USA began training camp this past Tuesday, less than three weeks after Brooklyn’s season ended in an Eastern Conference semifinals Game 7 loss to the Milwaukee Bucks. The COVID pandemic turned scheduling upside down, with the games themselves being postponed a year and the late-starting 2020-21 NBA season winding down just as preparations for the Olympics were warming up.
It’s a quick turnaround for many. While coach Gregg Popovich had some fun with the idea of how we would have handled Durant opting out, Durant said he appreciated the room Colangelo and Popovich gave him to make the right decision for himself.
“They also respected my time and space if I didn't want to come they wouldn't have pressured me,” said Durant, “so I felt like they helped me make this decision by letting me be me and let me make that decision on my time but it's been on my radar for a second.”
"First of all, if he said no, I would have begged, cried, done anything I could to change his mind,” said Popovich. “That's pretty obvious. What it says about him, No. 1 is, that he loves the game. He really loves to play basketball. He loves to win. He loves the camaraderie. He wants to be part of this all the time as we all know and that's his motivation. At the core, that's what he loves to do. Luckily for all of us, that's who he is. So it's a testament to his character and just desire to be part of a team and have a challenge and seek the success."
Three years after that 2007 training camp, Durant made his international debut for the senior national team at the 2010 FIBA World Cup, where he was named MVP. It was the first of two years in which Durant was named USA Basketball’s Male Athlete of the Year. He went on to lead Team USA in scoring in both the 2012 and 2016 Olympics and is 39-0 in FIBA events. If he stays undefeated this summer, he’ll join Carmelo Anthony as the only men to win three Olympic basketball gold medals.
“We know who he is,” said Bradley Beal. “We know what he's capable of doing and he's doing the same thing in practice. He's aggressive. He's a 7-foot scorer, elite scorer at all three levels. And his leadership is terrific. I think I've seen he's like 39-0 in USA Basketball. That's crazy. We want to keep that going. It speaks volumes for him to be 10-plus years in the league and still wanting to come back and be a part of this prestigious fraternity. We definitely look up to him to push us and lead us, but at the same time he's very unselfish. He's very encouraging. He wants everybody to do well. He said something very unique today, he's like, 'Be special. That's why we're here.' That stuck home with me. Hopefully we can all keep that mentality and understand that we're here for a reason."
After missing all of the 2019-20 season, Durant made a brilliant return in averaging 26.9 points this past season, matching his career high with a 53.7 shooting percentage and putting up the best 3-point shooting season of his career, with a 45.0 percent rate that was seventh in the NBA.
With the Nets hobbled by injuries against Milwaukee, Durant was transcendent, playing 141 of 149 minutes over the final three games, including every minute of Game 5 and Game 7, scoring 49 and 48 points.
USA teammate Draymond Green had his own up-close view of Durant’s greatness through their three seasons together in Golden State.
“There’s this very cliché line that everyone uses in basketball when you’re working out — ‘Go game speed every rep.’ Quite frankly, I’ve never seen anyone do it — except him — that I have seen, had an opportunity to really watch work out,” said Green. “That’s how he plays the game. That’s how he works. You’re talking a guy who will sit at home, sit in his house and watch an elementary school basketball game just to watch basketball. Really, really love the game. Love watching the game, a student of the game, obviously love hooping. It’s an incredible thing. I had no doubt in my mind that he was playing and I’m sure everyone tried to talk him out of it. Coming off an Achilles’ injury, all the minutes he just played in the playoffs, had some injuries throughout the year. What I knew, knowing Kevin, that you’re going to have to talk him out of playing as opposed to talking him into playing because he just loves hooping. That’s what he lives for. He just wants to play basketball. You give him an opportunity to play basketball on this stage he’s never turning it down ‘cause he just loves playing.”
Along with Green and Beal, Durant is joined on Team USA by Portland’s Damian Lillard, Miami’s Bam Adebayo, Boston’s Jayson Tatum, and Chicago’s Zach LaVine among others. The group will have five exhibition games in Las Vegas, beginning Saturday night against Nigeria. They’ll tip off the Olympics against France on Saturday, July 25.
“We know each other's games inside and out, got nothing but respect for every player and what they've been through in their journey to this point,” said Durant. “But it's on Pop to establish roles and sets and defensive schemes and we got to abide by it and I think everybody here is bought in to what we're trying to do and we're going to go out there and capture this gold. So whatever he needs us to do we're all adaptable players that can pretty much play multiple positions so looking forward to the challenge of figuring out this chemistry and keep rolling from here.”