Of all the events of this NBA season, the least surprising was that Kevin Durant was not celebrated by the Oklahoma City Thunder and heavily booed by fans in his return to Chesapeake Energy Arena on February 11. The intense emotions and extreme reactions that surrounded Durant’s decision to move to the Golden State Warriors last offseason made it certain that his first game back in front of 20,000 exes would not feature a pleasant atmosphere. Fans showed up to savage Durant, celebrate Russell Westbrook and the rest of their playoff team, and take part in the most anticipated game of the regular season. All the joy Durant had given the Thunder organization and fans for close to a decade was pushed into the back of everyone’s mind.
Under such circumstances, any attempt at reconciling with or celebrating Durant would have been seen as a tone-deaf gesture on the part of the Thunder. Nevertheless, a new report from ESPN.com’s Chris Haynes says that the Warriors were very upset Durant was not given some sort of positive reception upon his return:
The Golden State Warriors organization was furious and bewildered about the inactivity from Oklahoma City Thunder leadership leading up to that first Durant return contest on Feb. 11, league sources told ESPN.
Sources say the Warriors were of the mindset that someone from ownership or management should have addressed the media on Durant’s behalf to help ease the tension upon his return.
The feeling is that Durant should have been acknowledged or thanked, in a news conference setting, for his nine years of excellent service.
The Warriors’ belief, according to sources, is that the Thunder’s silence contributed to the raw emotions, outrage and indignation that created an unsettling, hostile atmosphere for a player many consider to be the franchise’s all-time best. […]
Durant was emotionally drained after that game, and he too felt that the situation could have been handled better prior to his arrival.
As Haynes notes, the Thunder general manager Sam Presti did issue a statement on Durant to his ESPN colleague Royce Young:
“We are very appreciative of Kevin’s contributions during the first eight years of the Thunder,” Thunder general manager Sam Presti told ESPN’s Royce Young leading up to the Warriors’ first game in Oklahoma City earlier this season. “As we have said, they’re a big reason for the foundation that we stand on today. He, in partnership with many teammates, invested a great deal in helping to build a culture and identity for a franchise in its infancy stages, one whose accomplishments and identity we should all take great pride in representing.
“When Kevin made the decision to leave and move on from Oklahoma and the Thunder, we responded in a manner that is consistent with how the Thunder tries to conduct itself, and I am incredibly proud of the people across our entire organization and the professionalism they have demonstrated. They have embraced Kevin’s past with the Thunder while sensibly and passionately investing in those that stand with us as we continue our work in Oklahoma with an inspired and positive outlook.
“We are fortunate to have people like Russell, Nick, Steven and Billy in place, individuals who care deeply about the Thunder and what it stands for in our community and who are proud of their contributions to date, yet driven and honored to write our next chapter together.”
These comments communicate the Thunder perspective about as well as anyone possibly could. Durant’s contributions to the franchise are beyond reproach — he was their best player from the moment the Sonics became the Thunder, won an MVP, and combined with Westbrook to form one of the league’s best star combinations for many years. At the same time, the Thunder had to move on once he made his decision in free agency and cannot afford to dwell on the past. Celebrating a player on an opposing team — the team that Durant and the Thunder lost to in the 2016 Western Conference Finals! — was never going to be on the agenda. It would have alienated the fans, who didn’t need any direction from the front office to know they were going to boo to Durant. That decision was made three seconds after they saw his announcement in July.
At the same time, it’s easy to see why the Warriors would have preferred the Thunder acknowledge all Durant had meant to them. He’s their player now, after all, and any team wants to do right by their stars. It’s in their interest to stand up for his interests and try to protect him from poor treatment from opposing fans, and not doing so would probably irk Durant quite a bit.
Still, whoever leaked this story probably ended up making the Warriors look worse to anyone but Durant (and maybe a few of his teammates). Telling the Thunder how they should’ve handled this situation is arrogant and condescending, evidence of the same kind of attitudes that made the rest of the league bristle when Warriors owner Joe Lacob said his team was “light years ahead” of everyone else in a New York Times profile last season. The Warriors front office has never been in the same situation as their peers with the Thunder and have no idea how they’d handle the matter. They have no place to tell OKC what to do.
It’s fine for the Warriors to think that Durant’s treatment in OKC was unduly negative and too harsh. But it’s a whole other level to blame the Thunder front office for it. Fans are entitled to be upset when a generational talent leaves their team for one of its closest rival. The Thunder can’t ignore the feelings of their fans just because the opponent thinks their new superstar deserves better. The same impulse that has the Warriors trying to protect Durant applies to OKC, as well. You have to take care of your own.
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