Originally published in SLAM 174

by Brad Graham

When Kevin Durant was 19 years old, he was flown to Las Vegas to try his luck with the United States Senior Men’s Basketball program. Although they were already hardwood friends, it was during that summer in Sin City that Kevin and LeBron formed a life-long bond. Having just completed his rookie season, Durant nearly forced his way onto the 2008 Beijing Olympic qualifying tournament team but fell just short. Despite missing the cut, that Team USA experience played out like an invitation to the White House—once you’re on the guest list, people start to pay extra attention to your name. Durant noticed, stating at the time how he felt validated when “guys like Carmelo, Kobe and LeBron say ‘What’s up?’ to me.” As for his blossoming relationship with LeBron, Durant told the Associated Press how LeBron has “been like a big brother to me. I’m very fortunate to have a relationship with probably the best player in the world and I’m going to take advantage of it.”

Just 12 months earlier, Time asked Kevin who his “NBA role model” was. “LeBron James, by far,” replied the long-limbed teenager.

NBA history is peppered with heavyweight bouts with the decade long arm-wrestle between Larry Bird and Earvin Johnson bringing the sport into maturity. Their epic ’80s confrontation set the stage for Michael Jordan to line up and shoot down a decade’s worth of foes, from Isiah Thomas’ Bad Boy Detroit Pistons to Clyde Drexler’s Portland Trail Blazers; from Charles Barkley’s Phoenix Suns to Karl Malone’s Utah Jazz. Yet the game has not seen anything close to the momentary jostling (while MJ was busy playing catch) between David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon in the mid-’90s before the ’00s gave us Kevin Garnett versus Tim Duncan.

An attractive (and steadfast) counterpoint to James, who is four years his senior, Kevin’s stock skyrocketed with fans after he was seen walking around inside air conditioned malls—wearing a t-shirt, game shorts, long white socks and slides, just like them—while LeBron was busy chasing billion-dollar dreams and dinner plans with Jay Z. Kevin quickly became the Yin to LeBron’s Yang. Together, they provide oodles of power to the NBA dream machine.

Then came the summer of 2010. While everyone fussed about James’ televised, unrestricted free-agent Decision, Durant handled his restricted free agency much differently. According to Kevin’s former agent, Aaron Goodwin, Thunder GM Sam Presti showed up at the Durant family home with an $85 million, maximum extension offer. Kevin made it clear from the outset that he wished to remain in Thunder colors. Soon after that meeting, KD tweeted, “Extension for 5 more years wit the #thunder… God is Great, me and my family came a long way… I love yall man forreal, this is a blessing!” That was it. No TV special. No drawn-out melodrama. In fact, KD spent the next day watching his Thunder cohorts play a somewhat meaningless Summer League game in Orlando.

At the time, that short message appeared to have reshaped our collective view on both Kevin and LeBron. As Goodwin noted, “I think that Kevin Durant is just cut from a different cloth than some of the other guys in the League.”

Because of his contrived and mismanaged telecast, LeBron was torn down. Fans outside Miami turned on him because he presented himself as arrogant, out-of-touch and elitist. For his modest tweet, Kevin was extolled and considered a new-age hoops saint. As a byproduct of The Decision, certain members of the media announced they’d rather have KD as their first choice in an alternate universe where everyone was available and contracts were not a factor, the rationale being that Kevin wouldn’t abandon his team while LeBron may.

ESPN’s Mark Stein once explained the deliberation between Durant and James is built from, “the simple fact he possesses the most attractive quality you can find in a top-10 superstar when you’re building a team: willingness to commit to the program long-term, regardless of market size, if he believes in the program.”

Precipitately but predictably, fans lassoed KD as an insurance policy in the event LeBron James’ relocation to Miami never quenched the collective thirst. However, to sell KD as “Plan B” is to drastically undervalue his journey and offerings. Their simpatico may have led to a relationship at odds with the Kevin Garnett and Tim Duncan dynamic but the competitive spirit within each of them burns all the same.

In the dark, drab days of the 2011 Lockout, Kevin and LeBron crossed paths many times but it was their shared September workouts that received the most press. Invited by LeBron to his hometown, Akron, OH, Kevin trained with Mike Mancias and James for four straight days.

Everyone was quick to paint their “workouts” as “hanging out” yet it was a sweat-filled, muscle-burning and largely avoidable affair. The mere fact LeBron and Kevin could be found together, pushing each other, was unto itself a major story because opposing boxers would never dare spar in the same gym, let alone use the same trainer. Likewise, NFL foes Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would never dare trade secrets. Yet as LeBron notes, “Everyone wants us to hate each other… We don’t like each other on the floor but after the game, it’s all good.” ESPN’s Michael Wallace agreed, writing, “James considers Durant his toughest defensive assignment…but when it comes to defending his relationship [with Durant], well, that comes quite easily.”

In the summer of ’86, just months after Larry Bird’s team finished off their 67-win season with a Championship, he and Magic Johnson met at the Bird family ranch in Indiana, only it wasn’t to lift weights but to shoot new Weapon ads for Converse. While Kevin and LeBron posted short videos of their training sessions, it was never a publicity stunt, rather, just two guys using a Midwest gym as a base to springboard toward their title aspirations.

Yet it mattered to those on the outside because the public wanted primetime jousting almost as much as the purists pine for the day when Kevin and King James cancel their camaraderie.

Only problem: today’s elite have been forced to form a circle of trust that excludes the Fourth Estate. James would later tell the microphone mob how “we pushed each other every day. At the time I envisioned us getting to the [2012] Finals against each other.” They did just that, colliding for the first time on that ultimate stage in a memorable five-game series that saw LeBron and the Heat gain the upper hand.

A natural floor leader with uncanny set-up skills, James incorporated playmaking into his game from an early age. That investment continues to pay dividends. Durant, by contrast, is a natural scorer. He possesses a clean shooting stroke and has learned to exploit every inch of his freakish frame. Just like Rafael Nadal long chased Roger Federer, Kevin Durant is hot on LeBron James’ heels. Likeable antagonist rather than emulator, Kevin, like LeBron before him, is part Hattori Honzo blade, part Stan Lee creation. Both have carried entire States on their back—LeBron as the best prep-to-pro ever (before joining Cleveland), Kevin as the finest one-and-done to date (before calling Seattle home). Both know the whole world is watching. Or found out it was soon after arriving.

Named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year in ’12 (a title which could’ve landed with KD had he claimed the Larry O’Brien), Bron admitted that, “Someone, somewhere, is trying to take my spot and I know where he is, too. He’s in Oklahoma.” Kevin’s advancement has LeBron continually looking over his shoulder.

In the past 15 years, only Tim Duncan enjoyed a deep talent pool of positional challengers during his prime and most of those were in his conference, meaning he had to overcome them to reach the Finals but rarely did he face them on the largest stage. The same can’t be said for Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, Allen Iverson and Kobe Bryant, who were all threatened by various adversaries but rarely were they undone by a singular foil. Bryant once complained that he never had an adversary during his prime. Kevin Durant will never share that same fate because of LeBron.

Meanwhile, the proposition shouldn’t be “how much distance is there between LeBron and Kevin?” but, after just five pro seasons, “how has Kevin managed to further separate himself from the rest of the NBA?” There’s little argument LeBron continues to be other-worldly but the comparison (of his dime to Kevin’s nickel) demonstrates just how quickly and authentically Durant has advanced. In other words, it’s the measurement which matters, not the distance.

As SB Nation’s Paul Flannery reminds, “Years from now this era will hold its own in history. It may never be Larry vs Magic—that was a specific time and place—but it’s the closest we’ve seen since those halcyon days.” And we’ll have the Kevin versus LeBron fairytale match-up to thank. Using Kevin’s birth year—1988—as the starting point, the title of ‘Best NBA Player’ has rarely been up for debate with the athlete who sits atop the totem pole enjoying mass appeal en route to dual identities: holy figure and heartbreaker.

The game’s most prestigious invisible accolade is within Kevin’s reach. All he has to do is topple James. Bill Russell, an 11-time NBA Champion, believes they’re both “first and foremost team guys” and thus their individual exploits are beneficial to success rather than detrimental…but fans don’t care. When it comes to the topic of Kevin or LeBron, all they see is two electric talents, a pair of highlight creators and a couple of enchanting princes who seek an audience with Sleeping Beauty.

As the Editor and Publisher of the Australian hoops mag, BUCKETS, Brad Graham has covered many faces of international basketball—but no one has captured his attention quite like Kevin Durant. The two first crossed paths at the ’06 Coaches vs Cancer Classic at Madison Square Garden and Brad has closely tracked the now-superstar’s career ever since. The pursuit has led Brad to pen The Backpack Baller: The Fantastical Basketball Voyage of Kevin Durant, which projects as a 250-page, hard-cover book about Kevin. To learn more about Brad’s project, and help it come to life, visit backpackballerbook.tumblr.com and his Kickstarter.