Challenge Mode

by May 15, 2013
kevin durant


Originally published in SLAM 169

by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker

Kevin Durant is sitting in a seat along the baseline at Madison Square Garden. It’s a few minutes before noon, a few minutes after the Thunder finished their pre-game walkthrough. Durant is wearing Oklahoma City Thunder-branded sweats, white socks and flip-flops. Just next to his feet is a pair of Nike KD Vs—black, trimmed with blue and orange—which he wore moments earlier during the Thunder’s practice, and which he plans to wear tonight against the Knicks. But now: practice over, shoes off.

Durant is holding a stack of papers, glancing at them occasionally, but mostly he’s listening to a member of the New York media talk about the renovations impending at Madison Square Garden. When it is explained that a skywalk will be inserted into the Garden, hanging over the court, from basket to basket, allowing fans to have a drink or bite to eat while staring down at the action below, Durant joins the conversation, making several salient points related to patron safety. He is asked if he plans on wearing the shoes at his feet late tonight in the game at MSG because the shoes are Knicks colors. “Man, these are Thunder colors!” Durant laughs.

A few minutes earlier, Durant spent nine minutes and 28 seconds talking with the media. The key word in that sentence is “with,” because, even if he doesn’t mean to do this, Durant is really good at making people feel included, as if he’s not just talking at you but talking with you. NBA players frequently do this thing where they manage to avoid looking you in the eyes. When I say “you,” I mean you, the regular person, the fan. I also mean me, the media member, the interloper who has stumbled my way into their path. I don’t know if it’s because they are mostly so tall that they’re used to seeing over the top or what, but consciously or unconsciously, this seems to be a universal safety mechanism for NBA players to avoid getting trapped too deep into a conversation. Take notice during halftime/post-game interviews of how often you see players stare right over the heads of Sager or Salters. They gaze into nothingness, and perhaps in return they retain some small shred of privacy.

But not Durant. He looks people in the eyes. And in a way, maybe that’s how we should have known all along that there was going to be something special about this dude. In the spring of 2007, while we were working on SLAM 110, I wrote the cover story, comparing and contrasting the two players who were at the time being debated as possible number one overall choices: Kevin Durant and Greg Oden.

To try and find where Durant and Oden differed off the court, I asked each of them the same set of 20 questions. For the most part they answered similarly, but Kevin Durant gave me one answer that I’ve never forgetten. The question I asked was this: Why should an NBA team make you the first overall pick in the NBA Draft?

Greg Oden said, “Because I’m going to be a hard worker. I’m going to come in and I’m going to contribute. I’m going to play my game and I’m not going to try to take over and mess up the atmosphere. I’m going to be a good person, I’ll do   my part, work hard and do what’s best for my team to win.”

This was a perfectly fine and respectable answer. Until Kevin Durant looked me in the eyes and answered the same question in a completely different way. “I think I have a winning mentality,” Durant said. “Even though I’m young, I can bring leadership to an organization. I’m just cold-blooded. I really don’t care. Whoever’s in front of me, I’m going to do my best to destroy them. Younger people might back down sometimes, but I think I’m a tough player and I don’t back down from anything—I accept challenges. I know it’s going to be hard, but everything you have to face is hard. I’ll be young, and I’m sure people will write me off and say I’m too small or not ready, but I’ve been going through that my whole life.”

As those words came out of Durant’s mouth, they might as well have been spoken in blinking neon, the way they jumped out at me. They weren’t aggressive, they were just…assured. I couldn’t shake them. Still haven’t. And so on July 2, 2007, a week after Oden was selected first overall, I wrote this on SLAMonline:

If I had the first pick in the Draft, I’d take…Kevin Durant. Look, both of these guys are going to be awesome NBA players—that’s basically a given. But if I had the first pick, I’d want the guy who’s going to be a legend, or at least give everything he has while trying to become a legend. I’m not saying Greg won’t be a legend, but I can’t get this one quote from Kevin out of my head: “I’m just cold-blooded. I really don’t care. Whoever’s in front of me, I’m going to do my best to destroy them.” He didn’t sound arrogant when he said it, he just kind of threw it out there casually, but you could tell he meant it. And that’s the mindset I’d want to build my franchise around.

I still think if injuries hadn’t played a part, Oden would have been a tremendous NBA player, but all that stuff Durant said? It actually came true. Not even six years later, not even 25 years old, and Durant is already pretty much universally recognized as not only one of the best players in the NBA today, with the potential to be one of the greatest of all time. In six seasons, he’s won three scoring titles, one Gold medal, is about to be named First-Team All-NBA for the fourth time and made his first NBA Finals appearance a year ago.

For me, the most impressive thing about Durant and the Thunder has been the way they adjust and learn on the fly. It was just four years ago that they finished 26 games under .500. The next year they made the Playoffs and lost in the first round. The next year they won in the first round and lost in the Western Conference Finals. The next year they won in the Western Conference Finals and lost in the NBA Finals. That was last year. What happens now?

“We’re a different team,” Durant says. “We’ve just got to learn from our past experiences and continue to keep getting better at the small things, detail things: setting screens, setting our man up on plays, running all our plays hard, getting in the stance on the defensive end. I think those are the small things that separate good teams from great teams. If we do those, we’ll be fine.”

The big difference, of course, is that the Thunder will have to survive and advance without James Harden, their long-time third option. OKC’s big three became a big two—and then, as we were going to press and learned that Russell Westbrook was lost for the season—a big one. Still, while Harden has shined in Houston, Durant says losing him hasn’t clouded their outlook.

“We’re confident. Of course, people are gonna say we lost James Harden. The way he’s playing now, of course they’re going to say we’re not going to be as good, since he’s an All-Star, averaging 26 a game. But if he was still here, he’d still be around 18, 17 points a game. So it’s kind of unfair for people to say that about how James would play with us, because he has his own team; he doesn’t have me and Russell on his team controlling the ball. A player like that is going to flourish. With us he would have been the same type of player he was last year.”

Does such a big trade mean the Finals are a referendum on the deal?

“Nah. I don’t think so. We’re still a good team. If that was the case we wouldn’t have this good of a record, we wouldn’t be fighting for a No. 1 seed. With James last year, we had the same record, we were a 2 seed, but we happened to have a good run in the Playoffs. So I wouldn’t say that we’re hurting without James. Of course he’s having a great season, but any team would love to have him.”

Serving as OKC’s undeniable leader throughout a 60-22 regular season, KD shot 51 percent from the field, 42 percent from the three-point line and 91 percent from the free-throw line. The 50/40/90 club is elite enough, but KD came within a few late-season Carmelo Anthony buckets of being the first shooter of that caliber to lead the League in scoring while doing it.

All of which is why it’s both charming and alarming to hear Durant’s response when I asked him about the season he’s had.

“I could be a lot better,” he says, showing genuine disapproval on his face. “I’m not pleased with the way I’m playing at all.”

I want to yell at him: ARE YOU SERIOUS? Instead I say, “Well, that 50/40/90 thing is pretty impressive.”

“Yeah, but I could be a lot better,” Durant responds. He is not kidding. “I’ve been missing some shots that I feel like I normally hit. I’m not pleased with the way I’m playing. Well, I wouldn’t say I’m not pleased. The way I’m shooting the ball, it could be better. I think I’m rebounding the ball pretty well, I’m passing pretty well, I’m playing defense, but I could be a lot better. I want to shoot the ball a lot better in these next upcoming games. Hopefully I do so. I’ve just got to keep believing in myself, and have faith in hard work. And hopefully I start to make them.”

He’s already proven that hard work pays off—as a rookie, he shot 29 percent on threes. But his statement to me came after two games in which Durant had shot 40 and 41 percent from the floor. (After saying he wanted to shoot better in his upcoming games, he shot 45, 50, 38, 54, 54 and 53 percent, respectively, in  his next six games.)

Listen to Kevin Durant talk about Kevin Durant, and you might think you’re listening to high school junior varsity player sucking up to the coach. This is no breaking news, but at this point Kevin Durant is so self-effacing, he’s made humility seem macho. Still, he’s proudly a mother’s boy—he recently showed his mother how to use FaceTime, increasing their already strong connection. Just minutes after he posted 34, 8 and 6 on the Knicks in the World’s Most Famous Arena, Durant posted a photo on Instagram that became one of the service’s trending pictures. What did he call “the highlight of my night”? Getting to meet a New York-based preacher.

As the Thunder head out of the arena, Durant stands, rising a bit above his listed height of 6-9 and ambles toward the freight elevator. As much as he stood out a few minutes earlier, standing with his teammates, he easily blends in, a tall guy lost in a forest of tall guys. He cracks a joke and Russell Westbrook smiles, and then everyone slips on oversized headphones and disappears into wordless worlds of their own making.