No one knows what the future holds for Kevin Durant or the Oklahoma City Thunder, but the present is pretty damn clear: KD is pissed off.
He and a dude sitting courtside at the Time Warner Cable Arena in Charlotte are going back and forth about something. We’ve all seen little spats between fans and athletes before. This time is different, though; instead of the usual sideline drama lasting a few seconds, this odd encounter goes on so long that officials stop the action and ask the head of security to intervene. It’s a crazy moment that’s atypical for the usually placid Durant.
After the game, when members of the media approach the nine-year Oklahoma City Thunder forward about specifics of the incident, a hoodie- and sweats-covered Durant shrugs his lanky shoulders and only offers, “I don’t even know. I wish I could tell ya.”
We don’t want to speculate too much here, but we could totally envision the guy being a Hornets fan who was simply voicing his disdain for KD’s unapologetic 29-point performance against his squad. Hell, he might have been a drunk wise-ass who was asking if Thunderstruck 2 was ever going to happen. We don’t know for certain, but if KD says it was nothing, we have to take the homie’s word for it.
One thing we know for sure: however boisterous the Charlotte heckler was for three minutes, it’s nothing compared to the noise that has surrounded KD the past 18 months.
We might see the patented fadeaways and freakish contortions in the paint today, but back in the fall of 2014, things weren’t looking so hot for the kid. Durant was down and out with a fracture in his right foot. He came back a few months later. But he fell again, this time with a right ankle sprain in December. Some big toe discomfort followed that next January. Needless to say, there was no tiptoeing around the fact that KD’s health was becoming an issue.
By the time the Thunder released a formal press release on Durant’s season-ending situation on March 27, 2015—the note was littered with troubling verbiage like “continued inflammation,” “cuboid bone” and “signs of regression”—those rumbles were turning into roars.
Even though the ’14-15 season was the first real injury-plagued campaign of KD’s career, you couldn’t help but wonder if his body had already endured enough of the NBA grind. It’s plausible that all the jostling down low, incessant travel and Russell Westbrook-sparked fast breaks had taken their toll on the young man. Besides, the dude was just 240 pounds—and that was after some serious Coney dog-and-onion-rings binging at Sonic.
Kevin didn’t really have time to address any of the chatter. If he was going to get back out there for the start of the ’15-16 tilt, he needed to focus and endure a summer of hellish rehab from three surgeries. But you probably didn’t hear about the long sessions on the treatment table or see video of the countless ball drills, did you? Trust us—the OKC medical staff and trainers putting in the long hours with KD in June and July were the real MVPs.
“It was tough, it was tough,” Durant told ESPN during the grueling stretch. “But it’s all part of the journey I’m on, man. I’m just going to continue to stay positive and keep working hard, and everything will work out.”
When late October ’15 came around, KD’s hard work had paid off and he felt ready to get back on the court. We wanted to believe him, but at the same time, we couldn’t shake the memories of Penny Hardaway and Grant Hill, either. Still, SLAM collectively selected Durant No. 3 on the #SLAMTop50 list for 2015-16, right between Anthony Davis and Steph Curry. Our logic was that the 6-9 match-up nightmare we’ve come to admire over the past eight years would return bigger and stronger than ever.
After the second game of the season, when he and Westbrook combined for 91 points against Orlando, we figured we had our answer. Well, that was until Durant’s damn hamstring started acting up in mid-November. Yet more noise. Durant faced the music, though.
“Man, when I look at it in the grand scheme of things,” he told ESPN, “I’m breathing, my mom is alright, my family is good. Hamstring strain—as long as I don’t have to get surgery again, I don’t have to go through that process again—it’s just a minor bump in the road. Unfortunate for me, but it’s nothing to hang my head over.”
And sure enough, No. 35 was right back out there on November 23, giving the Utah Jazz 27 after sitting out for six games. Things kept rolling along in December (24.9 points a night; co-Western Conference Player of the Month with Westbrook) and January (five games over 30 points; another Player of the Month honor).
By the time February came around, he was not only torching the League for 27/8/4 every night—in case your Golden State Warriors-induced coma has caused amnesia, Durant’s MVP season of ’13-14 produced only a slighter better stat line of 32/7/5—but he was reppin’ the West for a seventh time in the NBA All-Star Game.
Beyond those brilliant numbers at the break, the most impressive stat may have been the Thunder’s 50-22 record. Of course, there’s been so much fuss surrounding the Splash Brothers and San Antonio Spurs that few people outside of Oklahoma have even bothered to notice the Thunder’s tremendous work. Three years ago, a .694 winning percentage was worth talking about; these days, if it doesn’t have “Curry” or “Kawhi” in the headline, it doesn’t get a mention.
Not that KD is really stressed about anything the talking heads have to say. On February 3, he showed just how unbothered he was about the slights by working the Warriors for 40 points and 14 rebounds. Golden State earned the 8-point win, but the Thunder let it be known that any future Dubs or Spurs Finals invitations would need to go through OKC before they could be mailed out.
“We’re not scared of either one of these teams,” Durant said after the tough Golden State battle. “We’re going to play our game. Nobody in this locker room is scared. We got to play them. If we want to get to where we want to get to, we got to play them. We’re not ducking nobody.”
In order to keep pace with those two teams this spring, that’s precisely the kind of energy Durant and Co. must bring every night. Luckily, KD’s got a motor that won’t quit. When he isn’t killing guys from beyond the arc, he’s changing lives through his Kevin Durant Charity Foundation; helping to redefine the Oklahoma City culinary scene with his restaurant, KD’s; or busy honing one of his other crafts (when you get a sec, peep the part-time photographer’s dope Players’ Tribune pics from Super Bowl 50). Russ isn’t the only one with an Energizer battery under his Thunder jersey.
OKC recognizes the spark that KD brings to the hardwood, so the city returns the love as much as possible. Win or lose, fans pack his Bricktown eatery every night. Yes, the chicken and waffles are crazy good, but the feelings run much deeper than anything coming from the kitchen. Durant’s jersey, the fifth-best-selling one in the NBA, can be seen everywhere from Riverwind Casino in Norman to Central State Park in Edmond. They just want to be near the guy, however they can.
More times than we’d like to count, KD has said that feelings for the community were mutual. But we don’t care how many Skullcandy headphones Durant’s endorsed over his career—there’s no way for his fans to cancel out the free-agency noise. People around Oklahoma visit the same sports sites and listen to the same podcasts you do. They know their guy is being mentioned in conversations with Golden State, the L.A. Lakers and Washington every week.
Bloggers are gonna blog. Stephen A. is gonna Stephen A. The OKC faithful know they can’t do anything about that. But fans also realize that, after all the Chris Broussards have shut up about what their sources have told them, the Thunder have something no other organization in the League could dream of offering: Russell Westbrook.
As our previous issue’s cover story noted, the human turbo button is fast maturing into one of the game’s most consistent forces. It would be almost criminal for Durant to leave him now. The duo has been sensational this season, averaging a combined 51.9 points, 15.4 boards and 14.6 assists nightly, as of this writing. The terrifying twosome put up 67 points versus the Warriors on February 6. If those jaw-dropping numbers are indicative of what can happen when the two are healthy and on the court at the same time, the team ain’t far from the mountaintop.
“Offensively, we’ve been in every single game just by scoring a lot of points,” Durant says after the aforementioned Charlotte game. “But our formula since Thanksgiving has just been defense. For some reason, we feel like we’re more together on the road. We know it’s going to be runs. We know the crowd is going to get into the game and energize their team. Us knowing that keeps us calm and we just go out there and play.”
All the great ones have an innate ability to block out the commotion. KD’s no exception. Be it a road game in a hostile setting in March or deciding which direction to go with his career in June, Durant’s got a lot to contend with. We just hope he’s got the right people in his ear.
“I’ll sit down and talk to my closest friends and family and figure it out,” KD told the San Francisco Chronicle in early February. “But right now, I’m just trying to be the best basketball player I can be every single day.”
Did you hear that? You can worry about free agency or the Warriors’ push for a 73-9 finish all you want. KD will be over here, quietly putting together another stellar regular season before making as much noise as he possibly can in the Playoffs.
Images via Getty