words Lang Whitaker | images Atiba Jefferson
As the machine-generated fog pushed in, and as the ambient light in the cavernous Studio C faded to black, a single, solitary voice rang out: “Grew up in a town that is famous as the place of movie scenes…” Several members of the Boys and Girls Club of Harlem joined in and took to the stage singing “Empire State of Mind,” letting us hear it for New York, New York, New York. Later there would be breakdancers, drummers, even a psychedelic light show to make Roger Waters envious.
It was mid-June, and the eyes of the basketball world were focused on the NBA Finals, where the Lakers were sitting on a 2-1 lead over the Boston Celtics. But here at Pier 59 Studios at Chelsea Piers in Manhattan, a multi-media explosion was being staged by Nike and USA Basketball to momentarily fast-forward the focus to later this summer. After the Finals and the impending free agent rodeo, basketball would return with a bang, beginning with the World Basketball Festival and continuing through the World Championships in Turkey. And on this day, Kevin Durant and Yi Jianlian had been invited to the summer kickoff event to rep for the USA and China.
For Durant, the biggest moment of the day wasn’t the lights or the smoke or the music; instead, it was something Colangelo said almost in passing. When pressed about who would be on the USA Basketball roster this summer, Colangelo demurred, noting that it was too early to bank on anyone. Except, he noted, for Kevin Durant. Kevin Durant would definitely be on the team.
“I was surprised,” KD said later. “When [Colangelo] said it I was like, What?! I knew I had a chance to make it, with all the work I’d put in the last three years, and playing with USA Basketball. But for them to say that was kind of like icing on the cake.”
At just 21 years old, Kevin Durant has already been Rookie of the Year, an All-Star, averaged over 30 ppg for a season, won an NBA scoring title, and most importantly to Durant, he’s made the Oklahoma City Thunder a team to be reckoned with in the West. With a newly signed contract extension worth a reported $85 million, next up for KD is his chance to rock the red, white and blue this summer during the World Basketball Festival and the World Championships. And it’s safe to say Kevin Durant is ready to go.
SLAM: How excited were you to see that USA uniform with DURANT on the back?
KD: I was very excited. I wanted to take it home but they told me I had to leave it here. It’s a dream come true for me to be a part of something like this. I’m so blessed, and I have to continue to be thankful for it and continue to keep working.
SLAM: Are you looking forward to playing the exhibition game outside in the middle of Times Square?
KD: That’s the craziest part. I grew up playing outside, but to play outside in one of the most famous places in the world, that’s going to be big time. I think playing outside made me into the fierce competitor I am today. Because you never want to fall on the ground, of course, because that hurts. And you never want to lose because you have to leave the court. You never want to be the guy who brings his basketball and has them say, ‘Let me use your basketball and you go sit on the side.’ So I didn’t want to be one of those guys. I always worked at my game, and when I got out there I started to get mean. That’s how I developed into the player I am today. That’s why I always go back in the summer, to hone that mean streak that I have. I think tomorrow I’m going to play outside as well. I’m just trying to work on my game.
SLAM: Is there anything specifically you’ve been working on?
KD: Every day I work on my jump shot, that’s one thing that gets me through this League. I’ve been in the weight room, getting stronger. You may not see it, but I’m getting stronger. My overall game, I don’t just work on one thing. I try to get better at everything, try to improve my overall game.
SLAM: What sort of ball did you mostly play when growing up?
KD: A lot of one-on-one, full-court, one-on-one, simulating. I was Michael Jordan a couple of times, Vince Carter. I think that really did help. Because I would go back and watch what those guys do, and try to do it the next day when I played one-on-one with my friends. Basically I was watching film and I was learning. Slowly but surely, each player I was watching, I was taking pieces from their game.
SLAM: What did you learn from losing in the Playoffs this season?
KD: No matter what—how bad you’re shooting, how many turnovers you have—you just have to keep playing because every possession counts. Down 20 or 10 or 5, you have to keep playing, you have to play through it and do whatever it takes for your team to win. Trying to get stats, all that stuff is out the door. It’s all about winning basketball games, ugly or pretty, it doesn’t matter.
SLAM: You went to camp with USA Basketball before, right?
KD: It was three years ago, right before my rookie season. I got cut from the team out in Vegas, me and Nick Collison actually. It was tough to watch them play after I got cut. Maybe I could’ve done a little more to convince them I should’ve been on the team, but I had to wait my turn. I was cool with that.
SLAM: Could you accept that the guys who made the team were better than you?
KD: No. I’m so competitive, I was upset. Watching the Olympics, I was upset, because I wanted to be there. But that fueled me. I got upset watching the Finals. I got upset watching the Olympics in ‘08. I don’t know why.
SLAM: Because you felt like you belonged there?
KD: Yeah, I think I should be there. I’m selfish, I guess. I want to be the guy that’s helping my team win a championship or helping my team win a gold medal. But sometimes it doesn’t work like that.
SLAM: What did they ask you to improve upon when they cut you?
KD: They just told me to get older. They thought I had a good camp, but seniority is…those guys made the team, and I was OK with that. I knew I had to wait my turn, and it’s been like that for a while. Ever since I was growing up I had to wait my turn, and there’s no difference here. The time has come, I guess.