By Will Baldwin
As Stephen Curry brought the ball up with under a minute to go in game five of the 2017 NBA Finals, one player felt so much emotion he had to bend down to hold back tears. Kevin Durant had been through a lot in the past year.
Not only losing the chance to go to the NBA finals with his original team (the Oklahoma City Thunder) but then being the most sought after free agent since LeBron in 2010 had put a significant amount of emotional stress on the 29 year old.
Even after all of that, once he made his decision to join the Warriors, every where he looked he heard he was a snake who did not deserve what was happening and that he was weak for choosing to leave his teammates and fans in Oklahoma City. The thing is, Durant is a different kind of superstar, a symbol for the new age of professional basketball.
Kevin Durant grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C., for most of his childhood with his mother, grandmother and older brother. Their father deserted them just before Kevin’s first birthday so growing up was hard for a kid who was very self-conscious, especially without his father in the household. He was most embarrassed of his height. His grandmother would constantly tell Kevin that his height would come in useful someday soon and though he tried to believe his grandmother, life was still difficult for the quiet boy.
To combat this, his mother enrolled him in virtually all sports at the local boys and girls club. One sport of course stood out immediately as Kevin dominated the local youth basketball leagues. His AAU success would come almost immediately and with his father back into his life at thirteen, Durant was primed for success at the high school level.
His freshman and sophomore year at his local high school saw Kevin play extremely well. Although he almost quit due to his older teammates bullying him, Durant pushed through thinking of his mother, Wanda and all the extra work she had put in to help him pursue his dream. By the end of his freshman season he had grown to six foot eight and the drills he had been doing as a kid with the idea of him being a tall, dominant guard had now given him the skills to be a transcendent forward.
For his junior season, Durant transferred to famous high school powerhouse, Oak Hill to refine his skills and play against greater competition. The move worked tremendously as he was voted second team all-American. Still, he was not satisfied and transferred to another great program for his senior season, National Christian Academy. There, he showcased his skills even further as a now six foot nine forward who had all the skills of a guard and could score on anybody.
Durant would be named a McDonald’s all-American and would win co-MVP of the famous game with future NBA player, Chase Budinger (above). The next challenge for Durant would be college at the University of Texas.
Once again, Kevin decided to be different. Though he had friends attending other schools and had every reason to go to one of the big schools like North Carolina or Connecticut (the other two schools he visited), the idea to join head coach Rick Barnes and a building Texas program enticed him.
He would have the opportunity to be the first truly big star to choose Texas and he did not disappoint. Durant had arguably the greatest freshman season in college basketball history. He became the first freshman to win any of the player of the year awards as he took home many of them.
From the Wooden award to the Naismith award to the AP player of the year, Durant was the first freshman to earn these prestigious awards. Averaging almost twenty-six a night, scouts were amazed by his skill. No one had ever seen an almost seven-footer that was this skilled. All his traits translated into him being the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA Draft by the Seattle Supersonics.
Durant tore up the NBA virtually from day one averaging twenty a game despite playing for a terrible Sonics team. He would win rookie of the year in a run away and prove the hype was warranted. His second year he took a massive step as the dysfunctional franchise moved to Oklahoma City, Durant averaged an extra five points per game playing alongside rookie teammate Russell Westbrook. The two would go on to develop into great teammates and what seemed like even better friends.
Together, they each made the all-star game every year as teammates after 2011 (except 2014 due to a Westbrook injury) and would take the league by storm. The team became even more prolific when James Harden was drafted in 2009 and Serge Ibaka broke out as an all-star caliber player. The organization seemed poised to become a dynasty but the seeds began to unravel when they made their greatest accomplishment.
Following the 2010-11 season and a conference finals loss to eventual champion Dallas, the Thunder seemed poised to make another run. They did not disappoint as, lead by Durant who once again won the scoring title for third straight season, OKC made it all the way to the NBA Finals against LeBron James and the Miami Heat. In the series, James dominated finally earning his first ring but, another story emerged on the Thunder’s side. Westbrook seemed to struggle sharing the ball with Durant at times, especially down the stretch, costing them games.
Durant for his part was fantastic in the series but Westbrook’s decision making left many people wondering if they could win a championship together.
Heading into 2012-13, a contract dispute between the Thunder and James Harden was the biggest news around the league. Harden wanted a max deal but, the ownership group was unwilling to pay the extra four million dollars as they felt they could not afford a third max player. So, Harden was traded to Houston for a bunch of role players and a few draft picks. Although they lost their good friend and great teammate, Durant and Westbrook continued to prove how talented they were leading the Thunder to the number one seed where they would face Harden’s Rockets in the first round. OKC would win in six but the greater story was Westbrook tearing his knee in game two. That would end his season and the Thunder would get knocked out in the next round. All the questions heading into 2013-14 were how could KD make up for the loss of Westbrook and, he answered all of them.
2013-14 was Kevin Durant’s best season as a pro. He carried a Thunder team who did not have Westbrook for half the year to the second seed in the west and set a career high in scoring with thirty-two points. As the playoffs rolled around, once again the Thunder were matched up with the Spurs in the conference finals, a rematch of 2012. With a healthy Westbrook, the series seemed poised for seven games until game six at Oklahoma City. Once again, the ball was primarily in Westbrook’s hands late and thanks to a throwback performance by Tim Duncan, the Thunder were eliminated. Another tough playoff loss and more questions surrounding why this team could not win close games late in the playoffs. The idea Durant was not getting the ball late and that it was often Westbrook baffled NBA aficionados and fans alike. Why did it appear Durant always deferred to Westbrook in the biggest moments?
2014-15 was a disaster for Durant and the Thunder. He would only play twenty-seven games and Westbrook would miss lots of time as well as they would miss the playoffs. Longtime head coach Scott Brooks was fired following the season and once again the Thunder were left with a series of questions. To try and answer them, general manager Sam Presti hired former Florida head coach Billy Donovan who preached he would use more ball movement than Brooks. With Durant’s free agency in the back of everyone’s mind, the Thunder entered the new season with the hope that this was finally the year.
The 2015-16 season opener was filled with questions as everyone in the basketball world wanted to know how Kevin Durant’s foot would hold up and the answer was it could not have gone any better. Durant returned to his form of before the injury and with the new coaching staff, he and Westbrook were able to lead the Thunder to the third seed despite injuries around them to key players like Ibaka. When the playoffs began, all fans wanted to know if anyone could stop the Warriors and many media members pegged the San Antonio Spurs as the team most capable due to them having a type of chemistry the Thunder could not match.
Though the Thunder would defeat the Spurs in the second round fairly convincingly, their chemistry issues would come out against the Warriors.
The Thunder would take a commanding three games to one lead following four games on the seventy-three-win Golden State Warriors and after inevitably losing game five in Oakland, headed home to close out the team everyone assumed would roll their way through the playoffs. Up eight heading into the fourth, Durant and Westbrook would shoot horribly down the stretch as Steph and Klay would take over winning the game in Oklahoma City. Game seven would also result in the Thunder struggling down the stretch of the fourth so, once again it would be a summer of people wondering if this would ever work.
It was finally time for the 2016 offseason and Thunder fans were nervous. Though Durant had made comments saying he would like to stay, he by no means was committed. The former MVP would receive visits and meetings from teams in the Hamptons with three teams impressing him the most:
The first was Boston who brought out all the stops bringing players, management and even local celebrities; the second was the Oklahoma City Thunder who did everything within their power to retain their franchise player; Third was the Golden State Warriors the team who knocked out the Thunder and were coming off a seventy-three-win season.
As soon as it was clear the Warriors had the cap space, everyone around the NBA was concerned. Their system was virtually tailor-made for Durant, an unselfish team first superstar. By the end of the week, Durant made his decision. He would be headed to the Bay Area to join the Warriors. It would be a season unlike any other in NBA history.
Many thought the most hated player in NBA history was LeBron James in 2010-11 back when he left the Cavaliers for South Beach. Little did anyone know was that a future Superstar would make a similar decision down the road. The creation of Super Teams in the NBA is always divisive among everyone around the game and this decision was no different.
For an entire season, Durant was ridiculed, mocked and insulted for making a decision he felt made not only the most basketball sense but life as well. Throughout the season he proved himself right, fighting perfectly into the machine that is the Golden State Warriors.
Throughout the season, KD was undoubtedly the best player on the floor for them and it was no different in the Finals as he dominated longtime rival LeBron James head-to-head. Closing out each of the four Warriors wins with unstoppable fourth quarter performances most notably drilling the winning three in LeBron’s face in Cleveland to give the Warriors a commanding three games to none lead. Without his performance in the finals, his team would not have been champions and for that, Kevin Durant was awarded the 2017 Finals MVP.
2016-17 symbolized Kevin Durant’s career in so many ways. His decision to move teams even when maybe it was not easy, much like high school, for the betterment of his career. Then, to step right into the Warriors and display the type of selflessness and team first mindset that is so uncommon among the NBA’s elite. Durant proved that you do not necessarily have to have the “alpha” personality to win a championship. All it takes is countless hours in the gym and the right situation, much like all other championships.
This season, Durant continued to display the reason he is the definition of the new age superstar. Possibly the most skilled player the NBA has ever seen, he also embodies a mindset of personal happiness over team loyalty. His move will likely be the first of many similar as it is after all a new generation. Kevin Durant may be a symbol to many of something negative but when you look deeper in his career and life, you see a man just trying to create his own path.