Despite a world filled with murderers, terrorists and diabolical politicians, Kevin Durant has found himself cast in the role of Public Enemy No. 1.
Like many citizens do every single day, Durant accepted a job in a different city with a different company. Unlike the average citizen, he faced the type of backlash from Oklahoma City Thunder faithful that rivals the wrath LeBron James experienced when made The Decision to abandon the Cleveland cold for the Heat of South Beach.
After Durant announced his decision to pack his bags for the Bay, a disgruntled OKC fan went so far as to create a Change.org petition demanding that the Oklahoma town of Durant be renamed Westbrook. It is hard to imagine Durant shedding any tears over this petty and desperate proposition because he saw this coming.
All of the fans who signed the petition simply confirmed the insights that empowered him to leave in the first place.
Durant, the man, takes a stand
In a recent feature spread in Rolling Stone magazine, Durant stated that being forced to sit for months while recovering from his March 2015 foot surgery gave him time to think about the conditions of his life, and that it was during this time he began to give quiet consideration to leaving Oklahoma City for a team with viable championship possibilities. But hints of Durant’s transformation from lanky nice guy eager to please everyone – to outspoken adult at the end of his patience with living for everyone but himself – were apparent even before his recovery-inspired ruminations.
Months before former Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch gave an interview for the ages at the 2015 NFL Media Day, Durant – irritated by relentless questions regarding the job security of beloved head coach Scott Brooks – told members of the media scrum, “Y’all don’t know shit.” He then launched into a tirade that put an end to any ideas about him being a naïve kid rather than a shrewd man:
"To be honest, man, I'm only here talking to y'all because I have to. So I really don't care. Y'all not my friends. You're going to write what you want to write. You're going to love us one day and hate us the next. That's a part of it. So I just learn how to deal with y'all."
It is hard not to intuit that this message was directed at the fans, too. Durant clearly valued the loyal Thunder fan base. But he’s not a dummy and he had not been living under a rock. He saw the vitriol heaped at James after he left Cleveland and, therefore, knew that the love of OKC fans was contingent on his staying with the team – no matter the professional or personal cost to him for doing so.
Had Durant’s acid words been spewed through the lips and spittle of a known basketball bad boy, like Kobe Bryant, or someone known to say whatever he thinks whenever he thinks it, like Kevin Garnett, this would have been no big deal. But from the lanky star of a Midwestern team who was as beloved for his otherworldly hoops abilities as his nice-guy image and community involvement, people lost their minds.
While journalists in the scrum picked their chins up off the floor, Durant continued:
"My first few years in the league, I was just finding myself. I think most of the time, I reacted based off of what everybody else wanted and how they viewed me as a person. I am just learning to be myself, not worrying about what everybody else says … I just want to show kids out here that athletes, entertainers, whoever, so-called celebrities, we aren't robots. We go through emotions and go through feelings and I am just trying to express mine and try to help people along the way. I am not going to sit here and tell you that I am just this guy that is programmed to say the right stuff all the time … I am done with that. I am just trying to be me and continue to grow as a man.”
After a media cycle focused on a “What’s wrong with Kevin Durant?” narrative, Durant quieted things down by apologizing for his outburst, attributing it to a bad day. He pointed to an eight-year track record of positive interactions with media as evidence that he is not a villain and everyone is overreacting to his one-time mistake. But Durant made clear that he would not engage the negative talk about Scott Brooks, stating, “It’s not going to fly with me.”
By October of 2015, Kevin Durant was in a full-blown media war with ESPN’s Steven A. Smith, whom Durant had accused of “making up stories” about him and the Thunder team. Durant asserted that the people he knows would never divulge to the media the type of personal information and team business that ended up in Smith’s reports.
In his retort on ESPN’s First Take, Smith expressed outrage that Durant had questioned his credibility and character. He went on to say, in a typical case of he said-he said, “Kevin Durant is the one that’s lying.”
Knowing Smith’s reputation as a loud mouth with a wide viewing audience, Durant had to know he was playing with fire. Yet, he did it anyway – called Steven A. Smith a liar, consequences be damned.
However, one statement towards the end of Smith’s riposte, aimed directly at Durant, would become prophetic: “If nobody speaks with me, then maybe you need to check with folks in your inner circle.”
In July 2016, after signing with the Warriors, Durant not only “checked with folks” in his inner circle, he did a belated Spring cleaning – kicking many hangers-on out of his Oklahoma City home before moving to the Bay Area with only his brother and a longtime friend.
Those who were pushed out the window of the free ride undoubtedly have as much scorn for Durant as the so-called Thunder fans who had claimed to love him.
Boys don’t cry
Most NBA fans are aware that Durant wears number 35 on his jersey as a reminder of the age at which his beloved childhood coach, Charles “Chucky” Craig, was murdered while trying to break up a street fight, during Durant’s junior year at Oak Hill Academy. Durant credits Craig with envisioning the superstar, MVP, All-Star basketball life he currently leads. And it is for this reason he carries sadness that Craig could not experience this journey with him.
Craig may be gone but he certainly is not forgotten. “Sometimes he comes back in my dreams while I’m asleep,” Durant said.
Many whose lives are permeated by the misfortune of tragedy become hardened from their experiences and shut down emotionally, while others become imprisoned to the effects of trauma. Perhaps, due to the love and direction of his mother, Wanda, Durant seems to have followed neither path. Even when locking horns with the media, his demeanor could not be described has “hard,” and Durant could not have appeared more tender (a fact rather than an insult, a statement of humanity), than after the death of Ingrid Williams.
It was heartbreaking, but it was not a surprise that Durant did not hide his emotions after learning that the wife of then-assistant coach Monty Williams had been killed in a car accident:
In a culture that still imposes antiquated ideals onto men about masculinity and what it means to be a man, Durant’s reaction is rare in its sincerity and honesty – especially in the sports world.
The same year, Dwyane Wade claimed that he was sweating, not crying, during the National Anthem before a playoff game — when video evidence shows tears, not sweat.
If society had a more forgiving outlook on men who show emotion, perhaps Wade would not have been so ashamed about his tears that he felt a need to lie about them. But this is the society we currently live in, which is why Durant’s willingness to be interviewed while grieving Ingrid Williams’ death, and his show of raw emotion, epitomize brave masculinity.
A tipping point in Durant’s development was arguable his decision to ink a deal with Jay-Z’s Roc Nation Sports in 2013. Although Creative Artists Agency maintains control of his NBA contract negotiations, Roc Nation is now responsible for the handling Durant’s off-the-court affairs – which, so far, has been a lucrative partnership.
In 2014, Durant inked a 10-year deal with Nike reportedly worth $300 million. That same year, Durant signed an endorsement agreement with Sparkling Ice (the terms of which have not been disclosed) – a beverage he claims to “drink every day that [he] love[s] and wanted to be a part of…”
At the time of signing, Durant stated: “I’ve always challenged myself on the basketball court, but this offseason is really the first year I'm challenging myself off of it – on the business side."
A sign of maturity, indeed.
Thanks to Roc Nation, Durant is also representing Kind bars and NBA 2K, as well as Beats by Dre, American Family Insurance, BBVA, Sonic and Panini.
But another kind of ink has been integral in Durant’s maturation, too: tattoos.
In 2011, an image of a shirtless Durant on a trip to China – betraying a heavily tattooed chest and torso – caught the attention of media members and fans. This was problematic because it disrupted the media’s narrative of him as a kind giant – as if a person can’t be both kind and covered in ink. But given the stigma that still casts people with tattoos into a negative light – and that tattooing was not legal in the state of Oklahoma until 2006 – Durant played coy, maintaining what a Deadspin article referred to as “an entire secret reserve of tattoos under his jersey,” in the interest of maintaining a non-controversial public image for the sake of keeping his Gatorade endorsement.
Inking the Roc Nation deal apparently freed Durant from those chains. Now, he represents a brand like Nike, which has a longstanding history of embracing and marketing diversity, and he gets to be himself – ink and all. His newfound freedom was on full display in a recent Rolling Stone feature spread.
(Durant no longer represents Gatorade, but it’s hard to imagine that he is in any way busted up over it.)
A childhood deferred
From an early age, Durant was exposed to the worst things in life: poverty, an absentee father and the effects of gun violence. He sacrificed his childhood for a shot at a dream of playing professional basketball – an opportunity that was not guaranteed and that few people realize.
After signing with the Warriors and enduring months of hate from fans, players and sports-television talking heads, Durant was due a vacation. But instead of taking one, he did what he has done his whole life: work.
He worked on his shot and conditioning to get ready for the season. So, if anyone deserves to have years of endless fun, it is Kevin Durant – which is why it is so rewarding to witness him enjoying his new city like a kid in a candy shop.
Durant has made sacrifices, endured hardships and maintained an extreme work ethic. He has battled the media and broken free of corporate chains — all in an effort to be his best, authentic self and to be respected for the man that he is. Thus, embracing a belated childhood now, and allowing himself some fun, is the most mature thing Kevin Durant could ever do.
In his postgame press conference following his dominant performance against his former team on November 3rd at Oracle, Durant – when asked about his production – said: “I missed nine shots, missed a free throw, had some turnovers. I feel like I should have made five more shots — I rushed a few. It was alright. I could have done better.”
Be reminded that Durant racked up an impressive 39 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block and 1 steal … in 31 minutes of playing time. That his summary highlights the few missed free-throws and turnovers of the night (mistakes rather than successes) shows Durant’s desire to always improve and his mind of a champion.