The exclusive club of the modern day athlete, obsessed with their personal statistics, and their contract, and their money has no room for Kevin Durant. In the words of Charles Barkley, most are not role models. Kevin Durant is one of the rare exceptions. In an age of basketball filled with proclamations of championships and then shying away from the spotlight when the game is on the line, no one speaks softer but plays louder in crunch time than Kevin Durant.
The story of the Oklahoma City Thunder’s journey to the NBA Finals began five years ago. Then the Seattle Supersonics, they were the lucky losers of the NBA Draft Lottery, when they were saddled with the second pick in the 2007 Draft. Instead of being forced to rely on conventional wisdom and select Greg Oden, like their next door neighbors (the Portland Trailblazers) were, the Supersonics selected Kevin Durant, a small forward from the University of Texas that was the Naismith Player of the Year in his first and only year in college. But the Sonics were in a situation doomed to fail. Negotiations with the city to renovate their stadium led to Howard Schultz to sell the team to a businessman from Oklahoma City, Clayton Bennett. Bennett half-heartedly tried to keep the team in Seattle, but as Durant’s rookie of the year campaign wore on, it became apparent that the team would be moving to Oklahoma City. A court ruling in July 2008 allowed the relocation to happen, and the clouds began to gather.
A week before they were granted permission to move to Oklahoma City, the Supersonics made good use out of their sixth and fifth to last draft picks under that moniker. The team drafted play-making guard Russell Westbrook out of UCLA, who had appeared in the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament in both of his collegiate years, and Serge Ibaka, a 6’10” product from the Republic of Congo in the first round of the 2008 NBA Draft. But even in OKC, the team saw little success in its first year and fairing no better than the Supersonics from the previous season. They started out 1-13, which forced head coach P.J. Carlesimo to seek another form of employment. Enter Scott Brooks, who had his first taste of being the head coach of an NBA team. The team saw very little success the rest of the season, only winning 20 games, but the team improved under Brooks’ leadership. The Thunder would trade for Thabo Sefolosha, a defensive minded shooting guard in the middle of the season, who would become a cog for the team down the road.
The team continued to be finely crafted. With its first round pick in the 2009 Draft, the Thunder selected James Harden, who impressed many during his three years of collegiate ball at Arizona State University. That was the only loud noise the Thunder made in the off-season, but they would make plenty more during the season. The Thunder won thirty more games in 2009 than they did in 2008. The Thunder entered their first playoff series as the eight seed and facing the defending champions, the Los Angeles Lakers. What was supposed to be an easy series for Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson ended up being a dog fight, with the series being tied at two games. The Lakers took Game 5 at home, and with time running out in Game 6, scored a buzzer beater tip in from Pao Gasol to win the series. Most notably, the intensity of the Thunder fan base was seen for the first time. If you were going to win a road game in OKC, you were not going to get it easily. The Ford Arena (now known as the Chesapeake Energy Arena) would be decked out in baby blue. Fans were given tee shirts at the beginning of every game, and the crowd was louder than most. It seemed like a crowd for a college game. It did not have the ghosts that the Boston Garden had, but it had its own distinct form of home court advantage: raw emotion.
Kevin Durant put all of his superstar talent together to become one of the most feared players in the NBA. Durant led the NBA in scoring, finished second in the MVP voting, and was selected to the All-NBA First Team.
The next year, the Thunder continued to improve, with Durant again leading the league in scoring and again leading the team to the playoffs. Yet this time, they would run into a buzzsaw in the form of Dirk Nowitzki, who would not be denied in his quest for a title. By then, the Thunder had gone from underdogs to title contenders, surprising no one with their play. Durant had become a top tier player, Russel Westbrook had become an aggressive, albeit ambitious scoring guard, and James Harden provided scoring from the bench. Serge Ibaka materialized into an above average center, and the mid-season acquisition of Kendrick Perkins solidified their front court.
In the lockout-shortened 2011-12 NBA season, OKC was one of the favorites to win the Western Conference. Derek Fisher added a veteran presence and a clutch shooter to the team when he was claimed off of waivers in March. They finished with the second best record in the West behind the Spurs, but their stellar play throughout the season made them a popular pick when the playoffs started. With minimal resistance, they breezed through the Mavericks and the Lakers in the first two rounds of the playoffs. Standing in their way were the Spurs, who carried a 20 game win streak and a 2-0 series lead with them when they arrived at Chesapeake Energy Arena on May 31st. Then, the fine collection of puzzle pieces started fitting their groves.
Thabo Sefalosha’s defense sparked the Thunder to a blowout win in Game Three. Two nights later, Serge Ibaka shot a perfect 11 for 11 from the field and Kevin Durant closed out Game Four by scoring half of his 36 points in the final quarter en route to a six point victory. Back in San Antonio for Game 5, Russell Westbrook’s jumper was true when it mattered the most, and James Harden’s three point dagger gave the Thunder their third straight game.
And just this past night, a complete team effort from the Thunder erased a 15 point halftime deficit. Russell Westbrook finally learned to control his scoring aggression – shooting 9-17 from the field. Ibaka and Perkins held Tim Duncan to 25 points and less than 50 percent shooting percentage from the field. James Harden, the young sniper, and Derek Fisher, the deadeye veteran both hit critical three pointers in the fourth quarter.
But through it all, it was Kevin Durant’s game, just as it was Kevin Durant’s team. Before Derek Fisher’s arrival, the Thunder had always lacked a veteran presence on the court. Yet in a sense, Kevin Durant has been that veteran ever since he arrived in the NBA. Durant has always been the one to take the clutch shots in the fourth quarter, to be the scorer when the Thunder need points, to be the guy to step up and make a defensive play to swing momentum. Whatever the Thunder need him to do, Kevin Durant shines on a nightly basis. With all due respect to Derek Rose, Kevin Durant is the most complete player in basketball. Durant hit half of his three pointers in Game 6, picked up 14 rebounds, added in five assists, led all scorers with 34 points and never took a backseat to the pressure of the moment. He was not phased when the Spurs jumped out to an 18 point lead in the second quarter. He was not phased in the dogfight that was the third quarter. He was not phased when the game was in the balance in the fourth quarter of a nip and tuck elimination game. Calmly, quietly and without fanfare, Durant has been the closest thing to Michael Jordan since Kobe Bryant was in his prime.
What makes it special is that Kevin Durant has never sought the spotlight. He never plays the game with a one-on-one mentality. He never guarantees championships or boasts about his performance. His reputation as one of the league’s most sincere gentlemen is spotless. Durant is a superstar, perhaps the game’s brightest, but with the mindset that he is no better than any other person regardless of whether they are a teammate, or just a simple fan. His maturity and basketball IQ is frighteningly advanced for the age of 23. When the media used Russell Westbrook’s shot selection as reason for OKC’s loss to the Mavericks in 2011, Durant refused to add fuel to the fire. He never seemed irritated by Westbrook trying to do too much. If there was any discontent between the two, Durant refused to show it. Durant opted not to pursue a gargantuan contract when he became a free agent in 2010, the most prolific year for basketball free agency in recent memory. He did not make an announcement on prime time television, he did not lead a bunch of teams through a three-ring circus. Instead, he re-signed with the Thunder for a 5 year, 86 million dollar contract, which is quite a large sum, but less than what Chris Bosh and LeBron James took when they signed with the Heat (both players also hoped for more money, and would gladly have taken it from elsewhere, but had to sacrifice their pay to fit the league salary cap restrictions and play together).
With Durant leading the way, the Thunder will undoubtedly be the favorites to win the Finals regardless of whether the Celtics or Heat represent the Eastern Conference. Should Durant lead the Thunder to victory, it would cement his status as the game’s best player. He would win the championship that has eluded LeBron James, and have just as many championships as Dwyane Wade. If he should win the championship, he will have done it against either Miami, the greatest collection of raw talent in the game, or against Boston, a legendary franchise led by a great coach and a team playing great team basketball in its own right. What will not change is Kevin Durant’s outlook on his place in life. He will continue to greet employees at Chesapeake Energy Arena as if they were his teammates. He won’t let his scoring titles or his championships get to his head. He will continue to play the game as if he had the passion of a young boy with the mental capacity of a wizened man.
That makes for one hell of a guy to root for.
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