OKLAHOMA CITY – From the Washington Nationals' curly "W" tattoo on his abdomen, to the Redskins socks he slipped on after leading the Oklahoma City Thunder to a a 124-103 rout of the Phoenix Suns Sunday night, Kevin Durant has never been able to hide the heart-tugging connection with his hometown.
Durant has always been able to separate his rooting interests from his personal, professional interests but that challenge became more difficult once the countdown to his free agency drew closer and the team he used to ride the green line Metro to watch as kid started angling to move to the front of a long line for his services in the summer of 2016. Two days before he made his lone visit to Washington – where he is assured of seeing a rabid sellout crowd making its last regular-season pitch for its favorite son – Durant jokingly tried to act oblivious to what was in store.
"What game?" Durant said, cracking a smile.
What game? The game that Durant has to be relieved will be played in the second week of November, without some long, drawn-out build-up of hype and anticipation. The game that Durant will be able to put behind him so that he and the Thunder can spend the rest of the season focusing on learning the system of first-year coach Billy Donovan and the pursuit of a championship. The game that will serve as one of the most heavily scrutinized of his visits, given its potential as a possible landing spot should Durant elect to leave Oklahoma City. Yeah, that game.
"First of all, it's always an elephant in the room when you're talking about that stuff. I don't want to, like, totally just dodge it. I know it's coming. I know the situation," Durant said. "But I'm really focusing on how I can be better every game. And how I can get back – I don't want say get back, because I'm back – but get used to playing again. All that other stuff is going to come, but we'll wait until we get to that bridge when we cross it."
Regardless of how uncomfortable the attention will make him, the next eight months will largely revolve around Durant and any tea leaves hinting at his possible leanings. He arguably will be the most sought after free agent since LeBron James in 2010, or possibly ever; a four-time scoring champion and one-time MVP still in his prime at a time when an expanding salary cap will give dozens of teams the financial means to chase him.
Rumors and speculation about his future have been circulating for at least two years but Durant has managed to hit the mute button on most of the noise. With his franchise in the midst of a critical campaign, and so much hinging on what he eventually decides, Durant has tried to deflect or avoid much of the attention that could separate him from the team. While that will change some Tuesday at Verizon Center, as his free agency hijacks the headlines, Durant said navigating through that aspect of this season has hardly been overwhelming.
"It really hasn't been like that. I was in Houston, and it was not bad. It's not like ESPN is following us every trip. Nobody has really asked me about it, to be honest," Durant said.
Durant remembers the environment he encountered last season when the Thunder made their lone visit last January and Wizards fans with conflicted loyalties fawned over him, holding "KD2DC" signs and wearing Wizards No. 35 jerseys with "Durant" on the back. During one bizarre scene in the arena, a sponsored weather promotion briefly showed Durant photoshopped in a Washington jersey on the jumbo screen in the fourth quarter of the Thunder's overtime win.
"It was crazy. It was crazy," Durant said. "It was kind of disrespectful, in my opinion, because you've got a great team there already, that deserves your full, 100 percent support. And I wouldn't like that if I was on that team. And I didn't like that. But it comes with it nowadays. It's a part of it.
"I'm really not good with attention," he said. "I really don't like all this stuff to be centered around me. It comes with it, it's a part of it, but I'm still getting used to it. I learned to embrace it a little bit more, but it's still a little awkward for me."
The love fests will be duplicated when the Thunder pass through Los Angeles, New York and other cities desperate to lure Durant from the place he's called home for the past seven-plus seasons. "Free agency is like a season and it shouldn't be that big," Durant said. "Me, I feel like you should focus on who you have. It's easy to get your hopes up and expect a guy to come to your team or whatever – I'm not talking about myself, I'm just talking about free agency in past years and the future. You get your hopes up as a fan, and then they let you down and then you end up not liking the player. So, it's a little too much emphasis on that type of stuff. But it's part of the game.
"I always been a guy who loves praise from my teammates and coaches. I want to please them more than anything. But I never been one of those guys that looks for it from everybody else. I don't care if guys in the stands respect me. I'm more for respect from the guys on the court. Praise from people lobbying me to play for their team or whatever. I can't please them. I'm sure they're the same ones who will cuss me out when we go into an arena as the opposing team. So, I try not to focus on that, worry about that. I'd rather have respect from my peers. From my teammates and my coaches."
Durant can't allow himself to worry about a decision in July when so much is at stake in the interim. He remains in pursuit of his first ring – a quest that has been derailed by injuries in each season since reaching the NBA Finals for the only time in 2012. And after three procedures to repair a Jones fracture in his right foot limited him to 27 games last season, Durant has more pressing, immediate priorities.
"I just want to get better. I'm obsessed with trying to learn more about myself as a person, as a leader, as a basketball player," he said. "I was always concerned before. In the past, it was, what do people think of me as a player? How am I viewed as a player? Now, I'm more so, I know who I am. I'm content with who I am. But I'm always trying to strive to get better. As cliché as that sounds. That's really all I'm worried about. I'm always just thinking about what I could've did better and if I can grow from mistakes and experiences that I've been through."
The first few weeks of the regular season haven't been without their early tests. Durant and his fiery teammate Russell Westbrook needed to combine for 91 points to beat Orlando in double-overtime, then a rare three-game losing streak set up a critical contest against the Suns. The Thunder dominated Phoenix and Durant had one of those nights when almost everything went his way. He caught a pass from Westbrook, took a Euro-step from the foul line and made a Gervin-esque finger roll. He nearly lost his dribble trying to split a double team and made a behind-the-back pass off his backside that led to an Andre Roberson layup. He pulled up for 3-pointers, talked trash to Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe and smiled as he backpedaled on defense after hitting a turnaround, foul-line jumper.
Having had the game taken away from him for the first time, Durant is finding joy in his sanctuary once again.
"I still have my moments when I'm upset about stuff. That doesn't totally take away from the down parts of the season. There's always the ups and downs. It's not like I'm not upset the whole year. I'm upset with myself, I'm upset with my team sometimes, the way that we play. It's just a part of being a basketball player," Durant said. "But it is so good to play again. I really do appreciate it. But I appreciate walking. I appreciate taking a shower without having to wrap my foot up and without having my mom [Wanda Pratt] wash me up, or having to put a seat in the shower. Or driving. I appreciate that type stuff. Being able to put on two shoes. It took me four months to put on two shoes. That's the stuff that people really don't notice. But basketball, it's like, man, it's good to have fun again. But everyday life is what I'm grateful for."
So, about that game in Washington … for Durant, it won't be about what you think.
"I'm just going to go home. I'm going to play ball," Durant said. "If I was going there now or not, they are going to keep talking about that anyway. I'm just going to focus on my family, on my team and how we're going to get a 'W.' All that other stuff is going to come. I'm going to answer the questions if they come at me. And be a pro like I am, man."