Kevin Durant rolled down the blue protective compression sleeve on his left leg and slipped it off to reveal his latest, and most easily visible, tattoo. The face of late rapper Tupac Shakur covered the left side of Durant’s lower leg, and the plastic healing wrap covering the image signaled that the ink had been applied right before he began practicing with the U.S. men’s Olympic team last week in Las Vegas.
“Aw, man, you weren’t supposed to see that,” Durant said, sheepishly, as if he had hoped to keep the image hidden under tights and socks, or planned a grand unveiling at a later date. The next day, however, Durant left the tattoo exposed for anyone to see and even offered an explanation for how Shakur’s lyrics helped inspire the body art, even if the Notorious B.I.G. was his all-time favorite rapper.
Durant’s latest ink could easily be interpreted as a response to any detractors to his decision to join the Golden State Warriors earlier this month, because Shakur offered up several aggressive and defiant rhymes before his untimely death. But Shakur also grew up in Maryland, like Durant, and found the success he sought after moving to Oakland.
Though Durant had USA on his chest Tuesday in the U.S. team’s 107-57 exhibition win against China, it was his first game at Oracle Arena as a member of the Warriors. Durant hasn’t had any time to get settled into the Bay Area, with his introductory news conference followed by an international trip with Nike and then his Team USA obligations. But Golden State and Olympic teammate Draymond Green helped introduce Durant to San Francisco on Monday during another Nike event at Pier 48, where fans chanted “Warriors” and shouted his initials.
The reception Durant will receive in his new basketball home will be different from the reaction – at least in the early stages – the Warriors will get in visiting arenas in the upcoming season. The second game of this Team USA exhibition tour on Sunday offered a hint of what Durant should expect as fans in Los Angeles greeted the former MVP with boos during pregame introductions. Durant denied that he heard the jeers, but he accepts that his decision to join the Warriors wasn’t supported everywhere and particularly in Oklahoma City, where he knows the move “hurt so many people.”
“I understand how they feel,” Durant said of Thunder fans last week. “I can’t really say anything to make them feel any different.”
A person close to Durant recently told The Vertical that Durant was “in a good place” with his choice. Durant’s experience in Los Angeles, however, might serve as an example of what he will encounter after joining the team that eliminated him in a classic, seven-game series last postseason: As the game progressed and Durant continued to torch China with his flame-throwing jump shot, the fans started to cheer.
Durant expects that most casual fans upset by the abundance of riches on the Warriors will eventually begin to marvel and admire the spectacle of having the winners of the past three MVP awards on the same squad, flanked with two other All-Stars in the starting lineup. The circus shots, the pull-ups from just inside halfcourt and the destruction of double-team-at-your-own-risk defenses will all be in play once this team goes from on-paper fantasy to on-court reality. To Durant, anger will give birth to an appreciation. Hate will dissipate.
“If you like basketball. If you enjoy basketball,” Durant said. “But if you enjoy the drama and everything that comes around, the narratives, the comparisons and the rankings, obviously, it’s going to be like a TV show to you. If you enjoy pure basketball, like I enjoy it, then it don’t matter who is playing. You’re going to want to watch good basketball. If you enjoy basketball in its purest form, you can appreciate how far our league has come and the great players in our league. But if you enjoy all that [expletive] that comes from the outside, then you’ll love the boos and the tweets and the first takes and all that. I love basketball and I love whoever loves the game in its purest form.”
With Green and Klay Thompson on the Olympic squad, Durant will get a nearly one month head start on developing chemistry before training camp, though their time on the floor hadn’t even registered in Team USA’s opening exhibition win against Argentina on July 22. But many wonder how Durant will connect with reigning unanimous MVP Stephen Curry, the only player Durant trailed in player efficiency rating last season. “I’ll figure that out when we get there,” Durant said. “When you have two players who love to play the game, enjoy winning, enjoy teamwork and camaraderie – obviously, it’s going to be a transition, but everything new has a transition. It will be all right.”
Thompson didn’t foresee any problems with the Durant-Curry pairing and looked forward to having another superstar teammate from whom he can still learn a few moves. “They’ll be great together,” Thompson said. “Both those guys can fit in any system with their skillset. The best part about them is they both love basketball. They’d do this even if they didn’t get paid, that’s how much they love the game. I can’t wait. It really is surreal … None of us cares if we have to sacrifice numbers or playing time. We just want to win a championship and hopefully build a dynasty.”
Durant has tried to not get too ahead of himself with what the Warriors could become and is focused more on winning his second gold medal in Rio de Janeiro next month. All of the so-called “villain” talk can be put aside while Durant is representing his country and trying to unify it under a common purpose during a divisive period for the nation. Before the event in San Francisco, Durant assisted Carmelo Anthony during a forum in Los Angeles with community leaders, youth and law enforcement to address recent police violence.
“We are going through a tough time right now, in the country and also around the world. We can provide that sense of togetherness and unity. When we break the huddles, we scream ‘united’ and that’s what we want our country to feel when they watch us play,” Durant said last week. “We definitely want to win a gold medal, that’s the most important thing for us as basketball players, but we look at the big picture of things and we want people to see how much we love each other, see how much we love being around each other, but we compete at the highest level. We want that united feeling when you watch us play and having these great group of guys together, you’ll see that. I’m excited to go out on the floor and compete.”
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