Durant takes golden path to stardom

ISTANBUL – They tried to cut Kevin Durant(notes) a path in the corridor, the mass of FIBA officials and credentialed clowns pawing on the world championships’ MVP to pose for pictures destined for Facebook pages. The USA Basketball official tried to urge him out of the pack and into the locker room, but Durant couldn’t bring himself to blow past them. These weren’t fans, but the riffraff FIBA that never polices and never stops clinging to the players.

No one else would’ve suffered these fools, but Durant kept slowing down, leaning into posed shots and smiling. “Come on, Kevin,” the American official urged, and yet Durant’s ebullient face bobbed above a scene that should’ve embarrassed this global governing body of basketball.

Kevin Durant's 205 points in the world championships set a U.S. record.
(AP photo)

“I’ve got to go see my family,” Durant finally said. “Excuse me. … Please.”

Durant is polite, cordial and ultimately eager to please people. That’s always been his way, but a different side of him began to percolate in these world championships, a colder, cutting instinct coming out of this gold-medal run. This isn’t considered great form at an international event, but that pop of his jersey – flashing the USA insignia – at the Lithuania fans in the semifinal victory made some basketball people stand straight. This is seldom seen out of Durant, and still Sunday – in the 81-64 gold-medal victory over Turkey – he responded to a raucous Turkish crowd with an unmistakable stream of venom directed into the stands. No, it wasn’t ideal at the worlds, but it spoke to the ruthlessness now running through him. Nothing wrong with a little nastiness at a basketball moment of truth, a rage washing over even the gentlest of souls.

[Photos: More images of Team USA’s star, Kevin Durant]

“Just emotional,” Durant said sheepishly. “I was lost in the moment.”

Nothing was lost in translation, because the message was unmistakable: Bring me more. Bigger games, bigger stakes, bigger basketball prizes. Yes, this was the biggest of his life at the worlds, and Durant’s genius kept rising with each game’s relevance. His final three performances were staggering, including 33, 38 and 28 points against Russia, Lithuania and Turkey, respectively.

Whatever remarkable momentum Turkey brought into Sunday night, Durant obliterated it with a tournament-record seven 3-pointers. Turkey treated this gold-medal game like a national happening, pouring into the arena with flags and song and a blanket of Turkish red. These streets were alive, a festival born out of the national team’s improbable run to the final. When the rest of the NBA wanted its players to stay home, rest, and reduce the risk of injury and tired legs, the Oklahoma City Thunder sent Durant and point guard Russell Westbrook(notes) to a summer graduate seminar on global basketball conflict. Durant was historic, and Westbrook was polished and poised with 14 points in the gold-medal game.

“We’re proud of both,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti said Sunday night. “Both guys will benefit from the experience and mental endurance required to help win an event of this level. This kind of international experience holds value in terms of the opportunity to compete under different and unique circumstances while still remaining committed to the core principle of team.”

As franchise development goes, this has been a GM’s dream. Presti embraced the Los Angeles Lakers series, because it would immerse the young Thunder into the harshest and cruelest realities of playoff basketball. From Kobe Bryant’s(notes) greatness to Phil Jackson’s media mind games to the celebrity sideshow, that series was a crash course. Before Game 1 at the Staples Center, Presti was standing courtside beneath all those Lakers championship banners and promising: “Whatever happens, this is going to be really, really good for us.”

Here’s what will be interesting for the Thunder: How long does Durant stay the naïve, humble, understated star? In a perfect world, he’d never change. Yet, life doesn’t work that way. He has such a strong support system with his mother, but Durant’s standing in the sport has rapidly changed. He’s no longer working his way into the class of the twentysomething stars, LeBron James(notes) and Dwyane Wade(notes) and Carmelo Anthony(notes). He’s there, and the endorsements, the adulation – and, yes, the pressure to stay on a rapid climb – will come fast and furious now.

Winning the world title figures to make Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook hungrier when they return to the Thunder.
(AP photo)

“I’m not nearly the player that I want to be,” he said Sunday night. “I’ve got so much more work to do.”

Before he returns to Oklahoma City and the gym again, Durant had to declare some kind of I-told-you-so on his Twitter page: “B-team? Haaaa…”

Yes, it was a B-team and what the United States learned was this: It can beat the rest of the world’s B-teams, too. Durant started on the “proving-the-doubters-wrong” kick in his news conference, but that’s foolery sold to him by his coach. Sorry, K.D., there were no doubters. Truth be told, no one much cared about the worlds. The doubters? They were watching football.

“Most people didn’t think we could win,” Team USA coach Mike Krzyzewski said.

Most people where? On the Tar Heel fan boards? Here’s what Krzyzewski means: What a great, great job I did coaching them. And, yes, he did do a terrific job. Yet, Krzyzewski ultimately won because he had Durant. And because he did, everyone expected Team USA to win the worlds. Everyone. No one considered it a stone-cold guarantee, but that’s a long, long way from, “Most people didn’t think we could win.”

Truth be told, this is classic Jerry Colangelo and Krzyzewski. Had the Americans lost, they would’ve pushed the blame onto the fact that this team was so young, so untested and how the American public just doesn’t respect how good the rest of the world plays the game. Without Pau Gasol(notes) playing for Spain, the U.S. was the faraway favorite. Most people didn’t think they could win? Translated: Where’s my credit?

Whatever. Durant should be wiser, understand the self-promoting agenda of a college coach and leave this sophomoric motivation at Turkish customs. This won’t work for Durant now. He was expected to win this gold medal, and he did. That’s the burden of greatness, and he rose to it. He’s no underdog anymore. He’s an Alpha Dog. He’s such a nice kid, and everyone wants a part of him. They crushed close, hung on his arms and convinced him to lean into them for photos.

At the end, this was some scene. FIBA couldn’t control its credentialed people from mauling its MVP, and Krzyzewski couldn’t simply say that he had Kevin Durant while most of the world’s best players stayed home and that, together, they completed the responsibilities expected of them. Kevin Durant needed to get on the plane, get out of here, and remember come playoff time that he’s now armed with a championship that belongs to him. His genius, his work. No underdog anymore. He’s Alpha, all the way.

Adrian Wojnarowski is the NBA columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Adrian a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Sep 12, 2010