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The Daily Thunder team is working through how (or whether) we cover the players from what is now a closed chapter, the run of superstar talent that coalesced faster than anyone expected but came to an end through a prolonged series of abrupt departures. James Harden. Paul George. Russell Westbrook. Kevin Durant.
We’ll get there. But Durant beat us to the punch this summer, espousing some blunt thoughts on an Oklahoma City fanbase and organization that is now three years and two stops removed from his playing career.
Let’s talk about it.
Across the rubicon?
Even if you’re locked behind The Wall Street Journal’s paywall, you’ve probably peeked over to see plenty of excerpts from his interview with J.R. Moehringer. It’s a lot. The biggest reveal (if you believe him): Durant desired an eventual reunion with the Thunder, but the unceremonious welcome he received when he first played in Oklahoma City wearing Warriors blue spoiled that notion.
“I’ll never be attached to that city again because of that,” Durant says. “I eventually wanted to come back to that city and be part of that community and organization, but I don’t trust nobody there. That shit must have been fake, what they was doing. The organization, the GM, I ain’t talked to none of those people, even had a nice exchange with those people, since I left.”
He’s getting pretty uniformly roasted for his sentiment, which is also informed by the outlier behavior of a few idiots who shot up his jersey and defaced his yard signs with spray paint. It’s convenient at best and disingenuous at worst. Could Thunder fans really have burned the bridge he lit up himself while crossing over to the Bay?
In his words, those fans got deeply personal—vile—just because he went to “another team”. The Oklahoma City faithful dressed as cupcakes and hailing boos crossed a line untouched by a Raptors arena celebrating his torn Achilles.
“(The injury applause) tickled him. Torontonians knew he was playing the best basketball of his life. “They was terrified that I was on the floor,” he says, suppressing a smile. “You could feel it the second I walked out there.”
I won’t be the first to tell you that what we have here is a lack of perspective, or perhaps a rejection of the perspective of others. Durant didn’t just leave the Thunder for another team, but a rival. And not just a rival, but the one he and the Thunder had just come as excruciatingly close as possible to dethroning. The guy competing for the Poorest Taste, Gun Plus Camera Award doesn’t speak for Thunder fans as a whole, not even at their angriest on July 4, 2016.
A city that self-censored its stray criticism of Durant was not faking their enjoyment of his presence all those years. Their visceral reaction to his departure didn’t undermine that, but proved it. He didn’t have a relationship like that with Raptors fans to get upset over. The same nerve that led the Oklahoma City crowd to ruthlessly heckle Durant is the same one that made him more sensitive to their hissing than he was to people pleased with his actual bodily harm.
Everyone agrees on the facts, but Durant insists on stressing or de-emphasizing those that put himself in the best light and render his critics at their worst.
These are some explosive quotes, but not much has changed. The knee-jerk consensus that Durant skipped ahead to the ring-chasing phase of his career remains intact. (It isn’t only scorned Thunder fans who have refused to let success retrofit Durant’s reputation like stars before him—even after time, after titles, and after Durant jeopardized his peak years by playing hurt for a team that needed him in the Finals.) And common defenses of his decision as anything more savvy than an unconventional shortcut to conventional myth-building hold up less and less under the weight of Durant’s own words and subsequent decisions.
He’s been called a snake, a liar, and worse. He won’t slide out of those designations anytime soon. He’s joined the world’s most famous flat-earther in Brooklyn (Kyrie Irving) who shares a knack for holding to the most self-serving explanation of his own play and legacy.
No one is unattached to their own web of lies, but which lies we believe and for how long can get us in trouble. The Warriors Family itself was a lie from the start. The hunky-dory relationships from the 73-9 brotherhood that so impressed Durant in the Hamptons only held at the top. The Andrew Boguts and Harrison Barneses of the world—integral role players for the big fun, death machine—were quickly discarded to make room for someone better (Durant).
“I came (to Golden State) wanting to be part of a group, wanting to be part of a family, and definitely felt accepted,” he says. “But I’ll never be one of those guys.”
It’s fitting that Andre Iguodala, the platonic Glue Guy and Durant’s most vocal defender amid the intense scrutiny of his injury-checkered 2019 playoffs, was dumped onto a rebuilding team when the Warriors had to pivot away from the Durant era this summer.
Durant clearly believed things would be different, and I’m not sure that was limited to his reception as a champion on the Warriors.
An older lie we were all in on: that OKC fans ever made him happy. They didn’t; he left. And despite calls to the contrary, they couldn’t have. He might’ve had an easier time pretending to find fulfillment as a Thunder lifer, but it would’ve been just that: pretense. Even had he stuck around to get a long-suffering title a la Dirk Nowitzki in Dallas. Even if things broke much differently and he strung together a dynasty a la Tim Duncan in San Antonio. That deep satisfaction he’s chasing isn’t found in megafame or series-clinching shots. Look no further than Michael Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech to see how full the belly gets at the highest of heights.
In reaction to Durant’s cold shoulder, a lot of Thunder fans dove into a new unreality. KD wasn’t truly loyal, but Russell Westbrook would be. $200 million carrot aside, he was here for the long run, through thick and thin, pick your cliche. It was supremely reasonable, but Westbrook
requested “welcomed the idea of” a trade not 13 months into his three-year extension signed in Durant’s wake. Things change; loyalty has its limits.
Will it ever end?
The departure of Harden, Westbrook, and George had a level of closure and finality that Durant’s doesn’t. Why does he keep dragging us back? And as “over it” as a newly-erupted Thunder contingent claims to have been before this, are they really? The refrain of jeers online now and, likely, in-arena at his next jumbotron appearance, might betray lingering hurt feelings not so far beneath the surface. The two-way dance of temporary dismissals feels like a game of “u mad?” chicken. Or a “sting who?” contest, if you’d like.
Did Durant really want to come back to OKC? I don’t know, but for better or worse he hasn’t let OKC go. We do know that he has always been acutely aware of the shape LeBron James’ shadow cast over his own place in the league: a villain forgiven—lauded, even—for his superteam exploits upon returning to his home team on the other side of some “easy” titles. I’m not convinced that’s what he wanted from Oklahoma City specifically, but maybe the Thunder are at minimum a stand-in for the acclaim and peace of mind he found to be so elusive.
As long as the old haunt dots his schedule and his Twitter mentions, it might not let him go for a while yet.
Phoenix Mercury center Brittney Griner, Connecticut Sun forward/center Jonquel Jones and Chicago Sky guard Courtney Vandersloot won the 2019 WNBA Peak Performer Awards in scoring,