The Golden State Warriors and Oklahoma City Thunder square off on Thursday night, with a Thunder team now inarguably led by point guard/rampaging beast Russell Westbrook entering Oracle Arena for its first-ever meeting with former franchise centerpiece Kevin Durant. It’s the most highly anticipated game of the NBA season thus far, owing to the drama surrounding the summertime severing of the on-court partnership between Durant and Westbrook, who rose together from wide-eyed neophytes to become two of the NBA’s most dominant presences, after KD decided to take his talents to the Bay.
The nature of that separation has been one of the most widely discussed storylines in the sport over the past four months. What previously appeared to be a pretty tight bond suddenly seemed anything but after Durant’s departure, waning further with every new report about phone etiquette, guffaws and cupcakes.
Chatter about the KD-Russ relationship ratcheted up another notch last month following the publication of a cover story on Durant in Rolling Stone, in which writer Paul Solotaroff wrote that the two “were never much more than work friends” during their eight shared years in Oklahoma. Solotaroff quoted Durant as saying, “We had our own cliques that we hung with on the road. Russell had his guys, I had mine. It was never a bad thing. Just how it was.” The piece also has Durant responding to inquiries about why he never called Westbrook about his decision with a mere shrug.
With Westbrook and the Thunder coming to town Thursday, Durant decided to try to clear the air. He sat down for separate one-on-ones with Anthony Slater of the Bay Area News Group (who covered Durant and Westbrook for The Oklahoman before heading to California) and Sam Amick of USA TODAY Sports, aiming to take some starch out of the “work friends” comment (which he laid solely at the feet of Solotaroff) and to puncture “what he perceives as a manufactured, but inauthentic, feud between” the longtime running buddies.
From Durant’s chat with Slater:
Me and Russell grew up together. I was in the phase of finding out who I was outside of basketball. He already knew who he was. He already had a stable life. He had stable parents, a girlfriend through college. I didn’t have none of that stuff. I’m trying to find out who I am, which I didn’t know, which is not a bad thing. He knew who he was. So obviously we’re going to grow toward this way (splits arms). It’s not a bad thing. It’s not at all. We still hung out. We’re boys. My interest went this way, his went that way. He got married, I didn’t. He hung with his wife. What you want me to do? I love Russ. I don’t care what nobody say. I don’t care what he say or what the fans say. Like, this is a tough time right now in our relationship. But I love Russ. I love his family. They all know that. I never did anything morally wrong. I never back-stabbed him in real life, never did anything behind his back, never told anyone anything about his character. Never did any of that. I just left teams. I just switched teams. Everyone on the outside is looking at it as, ‘Oh, you must not have liked him.’ Hell no. C’mon man. Nobody understand that part. […]
Five, 10, 20 years from now, you expect him to be a lifelong friend?
Durant: “This basketball (bleep) is fake, man. It’s not real life. I love it. I go to work every day. I work hard every day. But when you’re talking about off the court stuff, that (bleep) is not real. What would I look like being mad at somebody for 20 years? Or having a feud with anyone for 20 years? Hell yeah, if I’m getting married, he’s getting an invite. If I go to the Hall of Fame, he’s getting an invite. Even if he don’t accept it. Basketball beef, I’m not on that. Where I come from, we don’t play around with that. So I’m not into that basketball beef. When we’re on the court, of course we’re going to compete. He’s going to come at us, I’m going to come at them. Their whole team going to come at us and vice versa. But nothing more.
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Durant echoed those sentiments in his talk with Amick, refusing to characterize the state of affairs between him and Westbrook as “beef.” Still, he acknowledged that Thursday’s contest — his first ever against the franchise for which he played the first 732 regular- and postseason games of his career, led the league in scoring four times, made six All-NBA appearances and earned 2013-14 MVP honors — means more to him than your garden-variety fifth game of a season:
Q: [Is] that game going to be emotional for you?
A: “Hell yeah it will be. Yeah, it’s going to be emotional, seeing people on the sideline that I haven’t seen in a while. Yeah, it’s definitely going to be emotional, but I’ve got a job to do. I’ve got to go out there and be me in between the lines. I’d be a fraud if I go out there and say, ‘No, it’s not going to mean nothing. It’s just another game.’ It’s not. It’s not another game.” […]
Q: Have you [and Westbrook] talked since [the text message farewell]?
A: “No, we haven’t. You know, I’m not saying what I did was right, or I’m not saying that I was right about anything. I went about it how I thought I should have went about it. I like to sit on things and digest them and then I’ll figure out my next move, but I never said I was right for doing anything. We’ll figure that stuff out as men behind closed doors, and we’ll figure our whole relationship out behind closed doors. But yeah, it is what it is. We just try to move forward.”
While he might have quibbled with Solotaroff’s word choice, the perspective on the split that Durant forwarded in these two interviews seems to dovetail with what came through in the Rolling Stone piece: that KD had spent the bulk of his life doing for others, and that the move to Golden State came as part of an overarching choice to start doing for himself.
“All my life, I’ve been a pleaser,” he says, “put everyone else ahead of me.” He’d been a “basketball robot” in a “basketball trance,” trudging head-down with his hoodie cinched tight, never asking for what he wanted or even asking himself that question for fear of hurting teammates and fans. Then suddenly, two seasons ago, the hamster wheel stopped when he fractured a small bone in his foot. Unable to play or get off his couch for months, he picked his head up, opened his big eyes wide – and loathed what he saw of his world. He was 25 and had never gone anywhere or done anything that wasn’t in the service of his game. He needed to make some changes, and not the small-bore kind. No, what was called for was a top-down redo, a blank-slate reassessment of his soul. It would begin – and end – with one fundamental question: What are the things in life that give me pleasure?
And so Durant chased his bliss. He choseGolden State because he wanted to be part of the joy that seemed baked into the Warriors’ culture, flowing forth from the relationships between stars Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, as fostered by veteran sage Andre Iguodala and coach Steve Kerr. Getting to join a ready-made juggernaut that returned the All-NBA core of a 73-win team and fell minutes short of winning back-to-back championships? Well, that was just a neat perk that came with accepting “an employment offer that he preferred.” The cherry and sprinkles on top of that joy sundae.
But while Durant’s completely within his rights to make the choice he did, and while I don’t for a second doubt his sincerity in continuing to refer to Westbrook as his “brother” … I mean, when you end a relationship, you don’t get to decide for someone else how they feel about it.
I don’t think Kevin Durant’s lying when he says he believes him and Westbrook are “still cool.” He might be projecting hope onto reality, though, because it seems clear — from the “cupcake” Instagram on down — that despite Westbrook’s disinterest in speaking about how things shook out with KD’s departure, he does feel some type of way about how it transpired. From a recent Sports Illustrated cover story by Lee Jenkins:
Westbrook is making the case, impossible as it may be, that the Clippers game on Nov. 2 will mean as much to him as the Warriors game on Nov. 3 or the Timberwolves game on Nov. 5. “Who it is, what day, what time, pickup, not pickup, I only know how to play one way,” he says. “There’s nothing extra. I don’t need it. I already have it. My duty is to give all I have. Other people have to think about competing. I don’t. Watch those games and tell me I don’t play the same way.” […]
But then a quote is relayed to him from another NBA star he knows well. “I don’t pay to watch sporting events, but I would pay to watch Russell Westbrook against Golden State.” At this, he unleashes a delirious laugh.
There’s a chance that we’ve heard this laugh, in a similar context, before:
Maybe Westbrook doesn’t have “beef” with Durant, either, and it’d be great for them to one day do as Durant suggests and “figure our whole relationship out behind closed doors.” For now, though, it sure seems like the two former teammates aren’t on the same page about the way their time together ended, and it seems unlikely they’re going to get there before tipoff of what promises to be an explosive Thursday tilt.
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