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Thunder fans filled with mixed emotions as Kevin Durant returns

Former franchise player makes first appearance at Chesapeake Energy Arena as visiting player on Saturday night

Fran Blinebury

OKLAHOMA CITY — It was a simple question: How do you feel about Kevin Durant?

Not so simple answers. Not here at ground zero.

When Kevin Durant trots out onto the Chesapeake Energy Arena court as a member of the opposition for the first time Saturday night (8:30 ET, ABC), the atmosphere will be conflicted.

Cheer the ex-local hero who gave them so many magic moments over eight seasons in Oklahoma City?

Or ride Durant with derision for throwing them over to join up with the Warriors?

“I don’t hate him,” said Kristi Garr, a server at Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar and Grill in the heart of the Bricktown entertainment district. “But I don’t want to see him score a single point.”

Spend a day or two wandering the streets and hallways of OKC and it’s a familiar response, where fans feel strongly both ways and often from within the same passionate rooting heart. They respect the class and humility that Durant displayed while wearing a Thunder jersey all those seasons and can’t quite grasp why he would ever have wanted to swap it out.

Her face practically twists itself into pretzel knots as Garr holds both sides of a debate with herself.

“I didn’t want him to leave and now I’m not sure I want him to come back,” she said. “He left. He’s gone.Stay away. But yeah, we love him.

“I understand that it’s professional sports and sometimes players leave to win championships. But you and Russell Westbrook were special. Why go out there to play with all those guys and become background noise?”

‘He’ll always be my man’

It was a jarring emotional event when Oklahomans woke up on July 4 with the cold slap of Durant’s online farewell. And eight months later, some haven’t yet cut the cord.

“He’ll always be my man,” said 15-year-old Julian Johnson, who was shooting baskets by himself on a windy afternoon at Lake Overholser’s Route 66 Park. “All those games that he won for us with that sweet jumper. I been trying to shoot like that since I was little.”

What used to be K.D.’s, a signature restaurant with Durant as a financial backer, closed down soon after his decision to leave OKC. It re-opened in September as Legacy Grill. The decor and menu have been tweaked, though some of the old favorites — fried chicken, country fried steak and pan-seared lemon tilapia with shrimp — remain.

“There will be two kinds of people here Saturday night. The people who appreciate the special talent that Kevin has and all of the things he did for us over eight years. And there will be those those who, oh, won’t be so understanding.”

Oklahoma City Thunder season-ticket holder Jeremy Price

Managing partner Nathan Couch has been turning down requests for interviews for the past several weeks as Durant’s return has drawn near.

“Local TV stations, ESPN, everybody wants to set up here and go live for the game,” Couch said. “But we don’t want to do anything that could be misinterpreted. Kevin and his partners were great to work with. They made things easy at the end and I wish them well. But we’ll get killed in here on Saturday night. So you know, in the restaurant business ‘getting killed’ is a good thing.”

Jeremy Price has been a Thunder season ticket holder since the team relocated from Seattle in 2008, steadily upgrading his seats. Now he sits second row courtside wearing a Westbrook jersey. Thursday night with the defending champion Cavaliers in town, the villain was clear and, with exception of Cleveland jersey sprinkled here and there, the crowd was united in its disdain for LeBron James.

“There will be two kinds of people here Saturday night,” Price said. “The people who appreciate the special talent that Kevin has and all of the things he did for us over eight years. And there will be those those who, oh, won’t be so understanding.

“I’m more with the first group. I would never boo Kevin. But when you ask me if I’ll cheer, hey, I’m in Chesapeake Arena and this is the Thunder’s house. Let’s just say I hope his shooting touch is a little bit off.”

His son, Jeremy Jr., is a bit less forgiving of Durant.

“I’m with my dad in appreciating all that Kevin did here,” he said. “He said he wanted to win a championship. He probably will get one this year with those guys. But will it mean the same to be just going up with all those guys? I guess we can be happy for him, but it will be bittersweet.”

No easy way to face KD’s comeback

Brian Davis, the play-by-play man for Thunder Broadcasting, shakes his head at the dichotomy of reactions and isn’t quite sure what kind of greeting Durant will receive when the starting lineups are announced.

“I met a woman the other day at the health club who told me she will be there for the Golden State game because a friend of hers, season ticket holder gave her the tickets,” Davis said. “The friend said she just was so torn emotionally that she couldn’t bear to be inside the arena. Just gave her tickets away. Can you believe that?”

Brad Copeland, an announcer on KATT, a rock ’n roll station in OKC, told listeners that if he were going to the game, he would just sit on his hands. No boos, no cheers; just silence.

Up and down every sidewalk and in the aisles of supermarkets, they are split, torn, turned upside down and inside out. They remember 2010 when James left Cleveland with the fanfare of a national television show and “taking his talents to South Beach” and the rest of the hullabaloo. Barely a week later, Durant had quietly signed a contract extension to remain with them as part of the only professional sports franchise in the state and they believed back then that the bond was different. That’s why a few felt especially betrayed last summer and reacted to the news by taping over Durant’s name on the back of their replica jerseys and writing in ‘Westbrook’ or ‘Oladipo’ or ‘Traitor’ and, in some cases, even burning them.

Go ahead, try to buy a Durant jersey or t-shirt in OKC today.

“I might be able to dig the last one up way in the back,” said Jon Grimes, the manager at Dick’s Sporting Goods on Interstate 40. “It’ll cost you a dollar.”

That was the price that all Durant merchandise were eventually dropped to following his announcement.

“Biggest one-day sale in our history,” Grimes said. “We sold out of everything in four or five hours. I guess some people bought them to save, some to wash the car. Heck, I bought one. For a dollar, I’ll wear it to mow the lawn.”

It was a familiar scene to Grimes, an Ohio native and James fan.

“Oh yeah, I lived through LeBron leaving us,” he said. “I know what that feels like. He didn’t leave as gracefully.”

Westbrook jerseys and t-shirts have taken over as the No. 1 seller. But Grimes said the sale of all Thunder gear is down across the board.

Back behind the bar, Garr is still filling up different opinions as easily as the glasses of draught beer.

“He gave us everything he had when he was here and he always did it with class,” she said. “But to leave a team that was up 3-1 on Golden State. Just stay and close the deal.

“It was kind of cowardly, I think. Look, I would never boo Kevin. But I wouldn’t cheer him either.”

Fran Blinebury has covered the NBA since 1977. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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