In a move that appeared to contradict what many believed – or hoped – would be his legacy as a one-man, one-franchise player, Kevin Durant traded in the stability that had come to define much of his NBA career for liberation. Durant wanted to do what he wanted, to make a decision that put his interests ahead of everyone else’s – and learned that change is often frowned upon when a power player decides to call his shots.
Durant’s decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors last summer was one of the first times he has had to confront a negative backlash (he even emerged unscathed from a little-seen 2012 movie called “Thunderstruck”). After all, Durant gave eight years to Oklahoma City and nine years overall to the franchise – enough time to build a Hall of Fame résumé before his 28th birthday, enough time to form such a connection with a community that it seemed unbreakable.
“He wanted to play for one franchise,” Rick Barnes, Durant’s college coach, said. “That was what he said, from the time he went [to the NBA].”
But Durant matured and took stock of what he needed for the rest of his career. It was time to go. His destination led to some resentment, especially with Durant calling out players for forming super teams on Twitter in 2010.
Now everybody wanna play for the heat and the Lakers? Let’s go back to being competitive and going at these peoples!
— Kevin Durant (@KDTrey5) July 16, 2010
“That was six years ago,” Durant explained recently. “Everybody changes in six years, you know. It’s just part of growth. Opinions change. Experiences change. So I don’t regret what I said. I’m not going to change what I said. But I am here now. And it was a long time ago.”
For his first practice with the Warriors, Durant was so anxious that he woke up before his alarm sounded. He tends to arrive to the practice facility early but had his plans stalled by a traffic jam. “I wasn’t used to that in Oklahoma City,” Durant said with a laugh.
But while he is also unaccustomed to being on the defensive and uncomfortable in the unlikely position of villain, Durant is not unfamiliar with change. In fact, there was a time when all he knew was starting over.
From 2004-08, Durant never wore the same jersey in consecutive years. He bounced around in an effort to raise his national high school ranking. Durant moved for college, moved for the team that drafted him, moved again when the team that drafted him decided to move. “I’ve moved around so much my whole life,” Durant said. “I’ve played with different teams, different schools. It’s kind of easy for me to kind of adjust and blend in. Basketball is probably the easiest thing. Everything else, I’m so used to moving around a lot. So, this was nothing new.”
Those who spent time with Durant during that period of constant transition share similar stories about his humility, selflessness and reputation as a gym rat. And they have no problem supporting his choice to leave behind so much that he knew, because as former Montrose Christian School coach Stu Vetter said, “It’s nice to see a smile on his face again.”
Oak Hill Academy (2004-05)
Ty Lawson remembers going to AAU practice for the basketball factory known as the DC Blue Devils, and Durant informed him that he was going to Oak Hill Academy for his junior year. Lawson had recently heard a pitch from Oak Hill coach Steve Smith, but wasn’t certain he’d leave home – and his high school, McNamara – until his summertime roommate and close friend Durant was certain he was gone. Durant left National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Md., after two years and chose a school in an obscure spot in Virginia, right near the North Carolina border, where the seclusion made it easy to avoid distractions. Carmelo Anthony, Jerry Stackhouse, Rod Strickland and Rajon Rondo all spent time in Mouth of Wilson, Va., before eventually having accomplished NBA careers.
Lawson said players were forbidden from having cell phones but he walked down the street to a U.S. Cellular store to purchase one, and eventually all of his teammates – including Durant – had done the same. Oak Hill had strict dorm rules. The players ate their last meal for the day around 7 p.m., which meant many late nights spent consuming Oodles of Noodles or any other snacks they could scrounge up.
Lawson, who went by Tywon back then, laughs about some of the photos and footage of that era because players didn’t have access to a barber. Eric Devendorf, a guard who went on to play at Syracuse, tried to cut his teammates’ hair, but Lawson drew the line when Durant decided to test his skills with clippers.
“KD tried to shape people up. I ain’t going out like that,” Lawson, now a point guard for the Sacramento Kings, said with a laugh, shaking his head. “I was going to wait it out. We was looking rough up there, but we were hooping. [There was] nothing else to do. But oh, yeah, let’s go work out. Let’s go play five-on-five.”
The work Durant expended in the gym was evident on the court as the rail-thin forward displayed a unique skill set for a player his size.
“I told people I thought he could possibly be a better player than Carmelo Anthony, and everybody thought I was crazy at the time. People thought I was nuts,” Smith said. “He was fun to coach. Great attitude. I can’t think of a day he didn’t show up and work hard. He was our leading scorer and rebounder that year and our best player, as a junior. At Oak Hill, that’s not always the case. I’ve had big-time players when they were younger, and as good as they were, they weren’t our best player or our leading score, but he was.”
Durant had a knack for quietly racking up statistics and leaving his teammates in awe whenever they glanced afterward at the box score. But in leading his team to a mythical national championship, Durant never tried to hog the spotlight and shunned attention away from the court.
“Honestly, you really didn’t notice him if you didn’t know who he was. He wasn’t wearing flashy stuff, he wasn’t too out there. He was just KD, chilling,” Lawson said.
“He just fit in like anybody else,” Smith said. “He didn’t have any ego whatsoever. He had confidence about him, but absolutely no ego. That just seemed to be his personality. Didn’t think he was above other players. He just wanted to get better. That was kind of his mindset, which is a good one to have when you’re that good of a player.”
Durant had never expressed any homesick feelings in his first year away, and Smith was set to add some reinforcements – future NBA players Michael Beasley and Nolan Smith – to his already stacked squad for the next season. Beasley and Nolan Smith were from Prince George’s County, Md., and played for a rival AAU program but Durant was friends with both of them. To Steve Smith’s surprise, Durant’s father, Wayne Pratt, informed the coach in June that his son would not be returning for his senior year and would instead transfer to Montrose Christian School in Rockville, Md.
Steve Smith said he couldn’t recall the exact reason for the move, but speculation centered on Durant being closer to home and playing for a program that would give him a chance to surpass Greg Oden as the top college basketball prospect. Durant told Lawson he wasn’t returning but didn’t get into specifics. Looking back, Lawson feels Durant probably made the best decision. “It wouldn’t have been enough shots,” Lawson said, matter of factly. “We would’ve won a lot of games, but it wouldn’t have been enough shots, between us four. It wouldn’t have been possible.”
Steve Smith believes they would’ve found a way to work it out. “It would’ve been quite a team. Been one of the best teams ever, probably, in high school,” he said.
Montrose Christian School (2005-06)
The first time Vetter met Durant, he didn’t sense much enthusiasm from Durant about joining a program that immediately became the top-ranked school in the nation upon his arrival. Vetter spent most of his time speaking with Durant’s parents, explaining the academic programs at the school, rules for wearing a jacket and tie on game days and other subjects that just wouldn’t interest a 16-year-old. Durant stared into the distance, daydreaming to avoid snoozing.
Montrose Christian was closer to Durant’s Seat Pleasant, Md., home but still required a lengthy round-trip commute that included hopping on two trains. David Adkins, an Montrose assistant who has since become a player-development coach with the Washington Wizards, held early morning training sessions, and Durant was a regular, along with future NBA player Greivis Vasquez and Taishi Ito, a Japanese-born point guard. “A lot of times, we’d play one-on-one and he used to bust our ass, and we kept playing and he knew we were going to fight back and he liked that. That got us better,” Vasquez said.
After practice, the trio would go to a nearby Chipotle, where the plan was that they’d take turns paying but it rarely worked out that way. “Taishi Ito, he’s the one who paid the most. I think the Japanese currency was a bit better than the U.S. dollar,” Vasquez, now a point guard with the Brooklyn Nets, said with a laugh. “It was a struggle, but it was fun. Sometimes, [Durant] didn’t have any money to catch the train. He went through some struggles and that’s why the whole story is a beautiful story and we had an unbelievable year together. I can tell my kids that I played with one of the best players that ever played the game. I thank God for that opportunity.”
Durant’s reputation as one of the top two players in the country proceeded him, but Vetter said Durant went out of his way to make his teammates feel empowered and he never tried to dominate the ball. “He could’ve come to Montrose wanting to average 40 points a game. He could’ve done it. To be perfectly honest, he could’ve played for us on Friday night and played for the Wizards on Sunday afternoon,” Vetter said. “With him, it’s not about getting a lot of points. He wants to enjoy himself and play unselfish basketball. He likes being around guys that love the game and love to work on the game. He was very comfortable fitting into that environment where we played unselfishly and acknowledged good passes, as good teams do. And one of the things we always talked about was gratitude unexpressed is meaningless.”
Vetter also encouraged his players to come up with slogans to serve as motivation after each practice. Late in the season, Durant stated a phrase that would later become his mantra: “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.”
The Game (2006)
Durant received the exposure he needed with a program that maintained a national schedule, similar to what he had at Oak Hill. And later in the season, Durant got the opportunity to face his former team in a game that is regarded as the best high school game in the D.C. area since Lew Alcindor’s Power Memorial faced Morgan Wootten-coached DeMatha at Maryland’s Cole Field House in 1965.
Montrose Christian upset Oak Hill, 74-72, ending the Warriors’ 56-game winning streak as Durant scored a game-high 31 points and Lawson had 26 points, nine assists and seven rebounds. “He was anxious. He wanted to beat his former team. He was so hyped for that,” Vasquez said of Durant. “That goes in the books for high school games in D.C. That was an unbelievable night. A great experience for all of us.”
Durant and Lawson remained good friends despite being on opposing teams, and even went on an official visit together to the University of Connecticut. Lawson eventually settled on North Carolina, where he would lead the Tar Heels to the 2009 NCAA title. Durant picked Texas, where he only needed one year to go No. 2 overall in the 2007 NBA draft.
When Durant arrived at Texas, the program was practically starting over after losing LaMarcus Aldridge, P.J. Tucker and Daniel Gibson to the NBA draft, leaving the Longhorns with only four returning rotation players. Barnes, Texas’ coach at the time, remembered having a conversation with his friend and college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla about the state of his team. “I said, ‘We’re really young, but I think I’ve got the best player,’ ” Barnes said. “And he said, ‘You’re talking about best freshman.’ I said, ‘No, we have the best player in the country on our team.’ ”
Durant was good enough to enter the league out of high school, but the NBA forced his prep class to wait at least one year as part of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement. The term “one-and-done” hadn’t fully become part of the lexicon, but Barnes was aware that Durant’s talents weren’t going to keep him on campus very long. In one of his early meetings with Durant’s parents, Barnes said, “Kevin wasn’t even in the room when I had my first meeting with them. I said, ‘He’s not going to be in school but one year.’ And they both said, ‘We’re not thinking like that.’ And I said, ‘I know you’re not, but you’re going to have to.’ ”
The question of when he planned to enter the NBA draft would follow Durant everywhere and became annoying during a season in which he proved his coach correct by being named the Naismith Player of the Year. “It bothered people when they asked that, because he did not want to do anything to take away from his teammates,” Barnes said.
Durant tried to ask out of a commitment to participate in Big 12 Media Day when he discovered that other members of the team wouldn’t attend. And he demanded that teammates A.J. Abrams, D.J. Augustin, Damion James and Justin Mason share the front page of Dime Magazine when it sought to do a cover story on him. “He always, always wanted to be a regular guy. Whenever somebody made a comment about him being Kevin Durant, he always let you know, ‘I’m one of the guys. I’m just like them. I’m not anybody.’ He’s always been humble like that,” said Augustin, who entered Texas with Durant and later was his teammate again in Oklahoma City.
“He’s definitely the best teammate we’ve ever coached,” Barnes said. “And he never made it about him. There were games that went on, where I would call him over, like, ‘Hey, KD, you and I both know this is a team game, but I need you to get real aggressive and take this game over.’ And his teammates would get on him, because he was so unselfish that he wanted to make sure that those guys didn’t think that he had a sense of entitlement.”
Barnes got on Durant about his defense after his first game, calling him the “worst defensive player” he’d ever coach and imploring the near 7-footer to use his 7-6 wingspan to disrupt the other team. From that moment on, Durant made it a point to seek out a coach after making a play, to ask, “How’s my defense?”
Durant had no trouble adjusting to Austin because he found a familiar home: the gym. Augustin still marvels at how Durant was so dedicated to his craft that he immediately grabbed a ball and started working when players arrived on campus. He spent his few months at the school attending class, playing video games and working on his game. “I’ve never seen somebody like that. We all loved basketball. We all played basketball growing up. But seeing someone with his name, his ability, always wanting to get in the gym and get better was amazing,” Augustin said. “I knew in the back of my mind he was probably one-and-done.”
Now coaching at Tennessee, Barnes put Durant in the same category as another one of his former players, T.J. Ford, in his dedication to basketball. “If Kevin Durant was walking around New York City with some people and there’s some kids playing basketball on the side, I would be surprised if he didn’t stop and play basketball with them,” Barnes said. “He loves being on the basketball court. He’s comfortable there, he’s happy there because I think that’s where he can be himself.”
Durant made his decision to leave Texas while in Los Angeles to receive the John R. Wooden Award as college basketball’s most outstanding player. Barnes still remembers Durant coming to his hotel room, along with his parents, to deliver the news. “He could hardly speak, because in his mind, he felt that he was letting our coaching staff down, his teammates, the University of Texas, and I’m telling you, he was so emotional, he was crying,” Barnes said of Durant, who made the formal announcement while wearing his Texas practice gear. “Here’s a guy that’s projected to be the first or second pick in the draft, and he’s got to go, but he has so much respect for people around him and where he was that he literally, emotionally broke down. And I remember saying, ‘KD, you’ve got to do it.’ But he was thinking about everybody else as opposed to thinking about himself.”
Durant had no say in where his professional career would begin but knew that he would start far away from his hometown, with the Portland Trail Blazers and Seattle SuperSonics holding the top two picks. Though he wanted to go No. 1 over Oden, Durant couldn’t be too upset about landing in Seattle, where his agents at the time – Aaron and Eric Goodwin – were based. Durant’s mother, Wanda, gave up her job as a postal worker to live with Durant in a spacious, $2.8 million home on Mercer Island.
Before Seattle acquired him from Boston in a 2007 draft-night trade involving Ray Allen, Jeff Green had grown up near Durant but only knew of him. They quickly connected because they shared a mutual friend in Charlie Bell, who now serves as Durant’s business manager and lived with him during his rookie season. “Being from D.C., we both were coming from the same area but also having a chance to grow together and experience NBA life together. It was fun,” Green said. “We had a great time. We had a rough first year, but it was also fun, because we got to experience a lot. Having a chance to go through it with someone who understands you and knows where you come from, that made it exciting.”
The SuperSonics hired San Antonio assistant P.J. Carlesimo as head coach after the team selected Durant, and he was somewhat familiar with his young star because Texas games were among the few college basketball contests he watched. Carlesimo later spoke with Barnes, who raved about what made Durant a quality person and player – traits that were quickly confirmed.
“First practice after you worked with him, you didn’t have to be real perceptive to understand what a special talent he was,” Carlesimo said. “I know a number of times we’d come back, after a game or we’d be scouting or whatever, if I was in my office and heard a ball bouncing at night, it was usually Kevin. … He works at his game. He’s always had great pride in it and he’s always been highly motivated, not to be good, to be the best.”
Durant was able to mix in some fun with his work, usually hanging out with teammates Green, Chris Wilcox and Earl Watson at one of their favorite restaurants, Joey. The SuperSonics were among the league’s dregs, but Durant was given the chance to learn by losing, averaging 20 points on a 20-win team.
“Kevin [had] pressure that people put on him, to be who he was and to live up to what he’s been living up to his whole career,” Green said. “I think he viewed it as motivation to get better. He used it as fuel to inspire, improve his game. He proved a lot of people wrong his first season. There was a lot of skepticism because he was skinny. But it is what it is. He has a lot of heart and he worked hard, and I think it superseded a lot of things that he lacked.”
Aside from losing, Durant also had to deal with distracting rumors that that franchise wasn’t long for Seattle with an ownership group of Oklahoma businessmen eager to bring the NBA to their home state. “It’s one of those things. You want to support the city that supports you. But knowing that we had an owner who was going to move the team, it was tough,” Green said. “We fell in love with the city of Seattle, so it was tough to depart from that or that connection that we were growing with the city. We also knew it was a business and it was nothing we could do about it.”
Oklahoma City (2008-09)
The move to Oklahoma almost felt like an extension of the college experience for Durant and his teammates. They attended college football and basketball games at Oklahoma and Oklahoma State, and found a community so desperate to prove that it was a major league town that it fervently supported a team that was short on wins but long on potential, especially after the arrival of a player drafted by the SuperSonics but never afforded the chance to play in Seattle: Russell Westbrook.
A hasty move led the newly named Thunder to convert an old skating rink into a practice facility, which remained an appealing place despite it’s proximity to a dog food plant that produced a consistent odor. “We always stayed in the gym,” Green said. “It was an easy commute from where we lived. We just enjoyed it. It was something brand new, and to us, it was a great. We’re men of simple qualities, simple tastes, so for us to have a gym that we could go to, 24-7, it was fun.”
Durant, Green and Westbrook helped push each other, turning almost everything into a competition, including which player showed up first for practice. “It was always a competition, as far as working out and getting better, because we knew that if we got better, it would make our team better,” Green said. “That’s how we viewed it.”
Carlesimo didn’t finish the first season in Oklahoma City; he was replaced by assistant Scott Brooks in November. But he could already see how well Durant was connecting with his new home. “The people of Oklahoma City could not have been better, in terms of how excited they were that an NBA franchise was coming in,” Carlesimo said. “I never thought Kevin had any problems. In fact, I thought Oklahoma City was good for him. He seemed very, very comfortable. A lot of people were, ‘You should be in New York, you should be in L.A. to maximize your [earning potential].’ It never hurt him.”
Though he had no say in where he played, Durant made Oklahoma City a place where his basketball carousel would stop for a while. Durant agreed to a five-year extension the moment it was offered in the summer of 2010 and produced an MVP award, an NBA Finals appearance, four scoring titles, four conference finals trips and that forgettable movie before entering unrestricted free agency for the first time.
Golden State (2016)
When Durant elected to take his talents to the East Bay, those who spent time with him weren’t completely surprised. “There was tension on the Oklahoma City team. That’s not inside information, that’s just observation,” Vetter said. “I think Westbrook is a great player. He’s one of the great players in the NBA, but I think sometimes his emotions get the best of him. And I think any time you’re playing or coaching a player like that, it creates a little bit of tension and it’s not always fun. Because you’re always concerned about what the player will do and how that player will react.”
Augustin played with Durant during his final season in Oklahoma City and believes his commitment to the organization never wavered, just as he remained focused in his lone season at Texas. “I knew there was a chance he could leave. In the back of my mind, knowing how he is, and how he cares about how people think, I didn’t think he would actually do it,” Augustin said. “I know he didn’t want people to think about him in a negative way for leaving. He meant so much to that city, that culture. Everything there in that culture was about Kevin, from Day One. I know that it was a hard decision for him … but at the end of the day, he had to make the best decision for himself, for once. He’s really happy. I’m happy for him.”
Durant remains close with his teammates from Texas. Barnes said Durant attended Mason’s wedding in Austin two years ago, around the same time Durant was closing in on a nine-figure shoe deal with Nike. “I know he told them, ‘This wouldn’t have been possible without you guys,’ ” Barnes said. “He’s real.
“He’s extremely loyal. And I know people will say he wasn’t loyal because he left OKC, but you know what? In that business, we’ve seen great players get traded, too. So, it’s a business and, again, I think he made a decision. He consulted with his people, his team, and they made a decision that they felt was right for him at this time. Even when he made it, it wasn’t easy. I think it was probably the hardest decision he’s ever made in his professional career.”
Lawson remains in contact with Durant and said he gave his friend a hard time over his recent Rolling Stone cover for which he drew some flak on social media. “It was a little different,” Lawson said. “I told him, people were hating but you’re on the cover of Rolling Stone. Not too many people can say that.”
Lawson doesn’t understand the backlash Durant has received for his decision. “You got to play where you’re happy. He looks happy out there. He gets naked shots. Every time I turn on the TV, he was wide open. At Oklahoma I didn’t see any shots like that. Looks like he’s having fun and it’s a good brand of ball. You see him loosely throwing the ball, getting wide-open shots. I think it was a good decision for him. First time in free agency, he took advantage of it. You can’t judge a man off chasing his dream and having fun. That’s what you play basketball for, anyway.”
Green wasn’t granted the opportunity to stay in Oklahoma City; he was traded to Boston before he entered unrestricted free agency. The negative reactions to Durant’s decision, Green said, should be expected. “That’s the world we live in. People don’t like change. People are very opinionated and they want what’s best for them,” Green said. “Oklahoma City was great to him. It’s a great fan base that supports their team. So, for them, they want the same and they want Kevin to be there. But it’s not necessarily what Kevin wanted. And people criticized because they wanted what was best for them. Kevin has to do what’s best for him. I’m pretty sure he has no hard feelings for Oklahoma.”
Vetter believes leaving for Golden State to play with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson was the logical decision for Durant. “He’s got a lot of money, he’s got a lot of fame, now it’s about wanting to win a championship and it’s about having fun doing it,” Vetter said. “And I can’t think of another team in the NBA where he could have as much fun and have a better chance of winning multiple championships. To play in that type of environment, an unselfish environment, a good area … and they will have a chance to win championships. What else could a player want? If you got offered a great job, in a situation where we could be the best that we could possibly be, and have the chance to make equal or more money, why wouldn’t you? Most people don’t have an answer for that. And I think the people of Oklahoma City, when they look back, they’ll say, ‘Those were some really good years. Kevin gave us some pretty good years.’ ”
More NBA coverage from The Vertical: