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RIO DE JANEIRO – A carefree Kevin Durant hoisted the American flag above his head and glided across the court, like a kid discovering the joy in flying a kite, after carrying the U.S. Olympic men’s basketball team to a rapturous romp of Serbia.
During an emotional summer in which he left behind his first professional franchise, was (mis)cast as a villain for siding with a former enemy and found himself having to defend his character, Team USA provided a much-needed sanctuary. For nearly a month, Durant got to play the game he loves, bond with some new and old friends – and win – without sweating any manufactured controversies or external second-guessing.
“It was therapy for me after making a big change in my life,” Durant told The Vertical in the bowels of Carioca Arena 1 about an hour after scoring 30 points in Sunday’s 96-66 victory. “It made my life easier … I knew [a backlash] was coming. It was definitely different for me, but to come here in an environment where people accepted me and didn’t care about anything except being my buddy, that’s what I needed.”
Durant won his second gold medal with a performance that removed any questions about who was the best player on this team, or in this tournament. Scorching the nets with his flame-throwing jumper, attacking the rim with his go-go-gadget arms, howling and chest thumping, Durant unleashed the kind of performance that hinted that he’ll have little trouble adjusting to an All-Star roster with the Golden State Warriors.
Midway in the second period, Durant had demoralized Serbia with heat-check three-pointers and dunks, so the rest of the game felt like a tune up for his eventual games of H-O-R-S-E with Stephen Curry. “It’s called the ultimate green light,” coach Mike Krzyzewski joked. “You didn’t hear me saying don’t shoot.”
Durant has now posted the two highest point totals in the Olympics for an American player: 156 in London in 2012 and 155 in Rio. He is also only 25 points behind Carmelo Anthony as the top all-time American scorer despite appearing in half as many Olympics. As he walked from a joint news conference with Anthony and Krzyzewski after the game, Durant wasn’t certain if he’d return to catch Anthony at Tokyo in 2020.
“I can’t say right now,” Durant told The Vertical. “I’ll be 31, going on 32 …”
Overhearing the conversation, Anthony jumped in and shouted, “He’ll be playing in 2020 and 2024! I’m right. I’m right.”
Durant laughed and shook his head as Anthony darted ahead as the most decorated American Olympic basketball player. For now. “I want to pass him, for sure. Just because it’s ‘Melo, I would love to pass him. But I don’t know if I’ll play or not,” Durant told The Vertical. “Who knows? We’ll see. You never know what’s going to happen in four years. I’m just going to enjoy this one right now.”
Curry, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Anthony Davis, James Harden and Durant’s former teammate Russell Westbrook all declined invitations to play in the Olympics, but the U.S. was still expected to easily win a third consecutive gold medal because it still had a four-time scoring champion and former MVP in Durant. But it took awhile for Durant to get going, with his failure to look like himself coinciding with the Americans’ struggles in pool play.
Krzyzewski sat down with Durant and showed him footage of the 21-year-old who assumed control of Team USA in the 2010 world championships in Istanbul and made the star turn that confirmed to Durant that the dreams he had for his career were attainable.
“He said, ‘I want to see that guy again,’ ” Durant said. “So, I woke up, I guess.”
Wanting to “impose my will on the team,” Durant scored 71 points in the final three games, with his teammates hopping from their seats to celebrate whenever he squared up to shoot. USA Basketball managed to win at the 2014 FIBA World Cup in Spain without Durant, who surprisingly pulled out of his commitment after realizing his heart wasn’t in it. Krzyzewski and Team USA chairman Jerry Colangelo accepted his decision and welcomed back Durant this summer, when the team was unlikely to escape this tournament unscathed without at least one superstar takeover.
“You see guys who like to play, he loves to play,” Colangelo said of Durant. “Kevin Durant is one of the great players that we’ve ever had in USA Basketball, that’s for sure, and certainly in the NBA. I’m so happy for him to have broken the stigma of the media taking issue with him going to Golden State. This was good for him, for his psyche.”
Durant doesn’t like to admit it, but he is sensitive to negative perceptions, and has had to adjust to criticism from fans in Oklahoma City who once cheered him and others who were disappointed that he decided to form a super team with players who eliminated him from the postseason in a heated seven-game series.
“I can’t let anybody steal my joy,” Durant said while crediting the presence of Team USA and former Oklahoma City assistant Monty Williams with developing that approach. “Monty Williams used to tell me that every day: don’t let anybody steal my joy. I get joy when I’m out there playing and it went to another level just playing alongside these great players and playing under Coach K and his staff. I focused on that. All that noise around me kind of quieted down.”
After each of the past five international competitions, a participant in USA Basketball went on to win the league’s MVP. From the players on the latest gold-medal-winning roster, Durant is probably the favorite to claim the honor as the league’s best player next season. In a few weeks, Durant will shift his focus to the one glaring omission on his resumé – a ring. But for now, Durant will cherish a fulfilling gold-medal pursuit that was fruitful because of the process that yielded the positive outcome.
“I worked on my game everyday with the greatest players in the world, you can’t beat that. So winning a gold medal was an amazing cherry on top,” Durant told The Vertical. “It’s something nobody will ever take away. This experience will be embedded in my brain forever. This gold medal is going to sit in my house, in my trophy case, forever. Got two of them now. It’s amazing. For a kid from Seat Pleasant, Maryland, to make it on an international stage, it’s a dream come true.”