by Ryne Nelson / portraits by Atiba Jefferson

KD pulled up his silver Jeep Wrangler Unlimited and parked it outside the Thunder Community Events Center in Edmond, OK.

He opened the car door, unfurled his legs and walked into the events center—originally the Thunder’s first practice facility—and on to the set of the SLAM 178 cover shoot.

A light-drenched studio probably wasn’t what Durant was expecting when he turned a familiar corner into a formerly familiar training room to get a fresh cut prior to the shoot.

He also probably didn’t expect to see me there, either. Kevin and I met in 2008 when the then-lowly Thunder were visiting Stephon Marbury’s New York Knicks. He was just a former Rookie of the Year at the point. A hungry one at that, but still a 20-year-old kid. Today, well…just 43 hours earlier, the man hit possibly the sickest shot of the season. That is, of course, unless you’re a Raptors fan. Specifically, one of four Raptors fans who were sitting to the right of the Thunder bench.

“It was four guys just screaming my name all game,” said KD, “especially in that second overtime when we were down. Just screaming my name. It was really annoying.

“I looked over and say, Grow up. I told them all to grow up. It was four guys, grown men.”

Durant glanced up, a smile crossed his left cheek.

“Then I hit the backboard three. I looked over, and they just kept saying it. Then Fish hit the three. I looked over, it got quieter. Then they missed the two free throws, I looked over there.

“I told Mustafa Shakur on our team, I said, I’m going for the win. He shook his head. Then I came down, shot it, and I looked over and started walking out. That was the best part of the night. Just to shut them up.”

It was the beginning of a conversation full of candid responses as KD got touched up. We spoke about how, as a kid, he trained so much that he wasn’t having fun with the game, and how falling in love with progress has since defined him as a player. We spoke about missing three starters for a good portion of the year, and how some fans have wondered if the team is better without Russ (they’re not).

KD’s head was tilted down the whole time, but he would peer up periodically out of the corner of his eye at me as he spoke. It seemed uncomfortable as his barber Larry circled around his chair, trimmer in hand. But the man was relaxed, chill as gazpacho and genuine as his Olympic Gold medals.

We spoke until he was ready to throw on a uniform and snap an instant-classic cover. (KD joins MJ, Kobe and LeBron as the only players to grace the cover with a close head shot.)

The results of the shoot, orchestrated by the inimitable Atiba Jefferson, can be seen in the gallery above. Atiba maestroed SLAM’s previous cover shoot with Durant (alongside Thunder teammates Westbrook and Jeff Green) in 2010, so the two immediately had a good rapport, chopping it up the entire time.

Here’s a snippet of our conversation:

SLAM: What advice would you give your high school self when you weren’t having fun with the game?

Kevin Durant: I always loved the game. But I was working out as a kid so much that I started to become a robot. Just always worried about working out, and the fun started to soak out of the game with me. It was just like, if I ain’t having fun, then why am I playing? But that’s before I really knew how important working hard is and how much better you can get. And I could start to see the progress. That’s when it started to become more and more fun, just knowing that I can always get better if I just go ahead and put some time in. I always loved playing, but I would say I didn’t know the significance of hard work. Now that I know that, it’s just me playing the game on another level because every time I have a bad game, or I mess up, or have a play I wish I could take back, I just learn from it. That’s been the most fun part: Find out things that you can get better at, pointing them out, and getting better from them.

SLAM: What are your thoughts on Greivis’ comment about you being “like Jesus in this League”?

KD: Man, if I’m going to be like Jesus, I going to fail miserably at everything [laughs]. I wouldn’t call it that. I had Jesus on my side, I can say that. But anything close to that, it won’t happen. But to hear my peers speak about me that way, that respect factor, as a competitor, that’s one of the best things you can get. I feel as though I have a long ways to go, and I’m not where I want to be. That’s the best part about it. Knowing that I can keep growing and keep getting better from where I am now.

SLAM: Where does your humility come from?

KD: That’s just self-evaluation. There’s always going to be someone quicker than me, somebody that can shoot better, somebody that’s taller, somebody that’s stronger, somebody that’s faster, somebody that’s a better ball-handler, somebody that’s a better rebounder, somebody better at something in this game than me. I don’t do everything great. There’s somebody better than me at one part of the game, no matter what it is. Just knowing that there’s somebody better has always kept me levelheaded, knowing that I have a lot of work to do. That’s how I look at it. I try to stay focused on being the best player I can be, and not putting too many big expectations on myself or let anybody put [expectations] on me. Also just knowing that at any time this game can be taken away from you, so not taking it for granted as well.

SLAM: How much have things changed when you look back at Year 1 and 2 for you in the NBA?

KD: It feels like that was 10 years ago. But it was much needed. Every team has to go through that tough stretch in order for you to grow. The best part about this organization is the continuity we have with everything. We have the same coach. We have the same players, same core group of guys. Same trainers. Same everything.

I see a lot of teams that have a lot of moving pieces. I think with us, everything stayed the same, except for our PR guy. Changed that up a few times [laughs]. For the most part, everything stayed the same. We took lumps together. We didn’t make drastic changes when things weren’t going well. That kept the character, the perseverance of the group, the endurance of the group together and strong. We moved forward from it and never want to go back there again. Going through that, we’ve lived through every situation, this group, this organization. And that makes everything work for us.

SLAM: Will there ever be another player like you?

KD: Yeah, no doubt. I think so. I tell people all the time, YouTube and Twitter, that’s helping basketball players because you get to see who you want to be like. When I was a kid, I was like, I want to be like Tracy McGrady. But I never really seen him unless he came on a national TV game. I didn’t have a [League Pass] package. So I never really got to see him. If I was watching a YouTube clip of what he did, I could go right on the court and try to do the same things. I couldn’t do that. So now these players are seeing all their favorite players and who they want to be like, and they watching them. And they working on the same moves those guys are working on. So it’s definitely helping the game. And that’s why I say it’s going to be a lot more players like you know, Carmelo. You see Jabari Parker is just like Carmelo. A lot of guys are going to be like that. It’s going to be hard for somebody to be a LeBron because he’s a different type of guy physically. As far as skill-wise, there’s going to be a lot of duplicates in this next 10, 15 years.

SLAM: Do you have a motto or mantra?

KD: I don’t think I have a motto, to be honest, that I tell myself. I don’t have a mantra that I repeat over and over. To be honest, I don’t really think about anything. I just go out there and play. I know that I have to work hard, and I know that I have to continue to lead and be the best teammate that I can be. But I just go out there and play and let the chips fall where they may.

But I always think the game, though. I always know what I have to do from a mental standpoint in order for us to be a good team. That’s encouraging my teammates, playing as hard as I can and everything else falls after that.

SLAM: What would an MVP mean to you?

KD: If you ask any player in this League if they had an opportunity to get an individual award, if they care about it, they would say, Yeah. Just because at one point, every player in this League was the best player on their team. So you care about those individual accolades, and your peers telling you you’re a good player and being recognized as a good player. A lot of guys love winning too, but those individual accolades is kind of like a cherry on the top. And that would definitely be it for me.

I love everything about the team concept. I love cheering for my teammates. I love sacrificing my body for them, playing hard for them. If you win basketball games, that stuff comes with it—the accolades. It would definitely feel great to win my first MVP, but if I think about it every single day, then that takes my focus off the group. If you win, then all that stuff comes with it. And for us to win, I have to be the best teammate I can be and come to work every single day and play as hard as I can. Everything else is going to happen. I can live with whatever happens after that.

***

KD finished the shoot by following @SLAMonline on Instagram, changed back into his street clothes and got back into his Jeep in reverse fashion from how he came.

Larry told me that he thinks Kevin purposely lets his hair grow, get a bit nappy, before he sees him. It’s his way of remembering those days of sleeping in the rec center as a kid, when he discovered the addictive nature of progress.

Whatever he’s doing, it’s working. Kevin Durant has raised his game to new heights every season, to the point where he’s scoring with proficiency akin to the GOAT. He’s all but a lock for his first MVP award. His Thunder are the odds-on favorite to come out of the West. And he’s once again blessed this magazine with access and time.

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