From the second LeBron James announced his intention to leave the Miami Heat and return to his boyhood home of Northeast Ohio to play for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the summer of 2014, the questions started. When the time came for another MVP small forward to enter free agency two summers later, would Kevin Durant decide to stick with the Oklahoma City Thunder … or follow in LeBron’s footsteps, make a pilgrimage back to his home of the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, and sign a deal to join the Washington Wizards?
“First of all, it’s always an elephant in the room when you’re talking about that stuff,” Durant told Michael Lee of The Vertical during a November 2015 visit to D.C. for the Thunder to take on the Wizards. “I don’t want to, like, totally just dodge it. I know it’s coming. I know the situation.”
Ultimately, Durant decided to go a different route, leaving the Thunder not for the Wiz, but to strike out for the West Coast to join the Golden State Warriors in a move that stunned the basketball world (even if, perhaps, it shouldn’t have). Durant never even met with the Wizards before making his decision, which many observers took as an indicator that he’d never seriously considered coming home to join a team that, despite the presence of All-Star point guard John Wall and rising shooting guard Bradley Beal, had just wrapped up a disappointing season that ended with 41 wins and no playoff berth.
With the Warriors on an East Coast road swing and heading to the nation’s capital on Tuesday to take on Wall, Beal and the Wiz, Tim Bontemps and Adam Kilgore of the Washington Post caught up with Durant to find out whether he’d ever entertained the possibility of a homecoming. Durant answered clearly and unreservedly: no.
“I don’t want to open up anything in the past, but I really just didn’t want to play at home,” Durant said. “It was nothing about the fans. Being at home, I was so happy with that part of my life — playing at home, being in front of friends, hanging with friends and family every day. That was a part of my life that has come and gone.
“I was like, I’m trying to build a second part of my life as a man living in a different part of the country, just trying to do different things. I did everything I was supposed to do in the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area, I felt. Now it’s time to do something new. I didn’t want to come back. That’s just my thought process behind it. It had nothing to do with basketball, the fans, the city.
“It was just like, ‘All right, that part of my life I’ve conquered already. What’s next?’”
That tracks with what Chris Mannix of The Vertical reported last April, after the Wizards hired former Thunder coach Scott Brooks to be their new head coach but before Durant had reached the end of the line in Oklahoma City:
Durant isn’t bound for Washington, friends say, because … it’s Washington, it’s home, and, like so many athletes, Durant isn’t all that keen on returning to play in the city in which he grew up. Friends, family – some real, some claiming to be – all come out of the woodwork in those situations, and Durant, who has tightened his inner circle considerably in recent years, isn’t interested in dealing with them. His lone trip to D.C. this season was stressful, league sources told The Vertical, reinforcing to friends that wherever Durant signs next summer, Washington won’t be it.
It’s also very much in keeping with some of the memories Durant revisited, and concerns he raised, when discussing his past, present and future with Paul Solotaroff of Rolling Stone this past summer:
When he wasn’t playing ball – meaning, in class or home sleeping – Durant was literally racing from the drama in his town, where bad things happened if you slowed it to a walk. “I got bit by a pit bull jogging to the gym – I learned to run in the middle of the street,” he says. He saw a neighbor get shot, saw a family member menace another with a gun, saw his Aunt Pearl keel over in 2001, gurgling blood from end-stage cancer. His chief respite, apart from travel games, was to hop aboard the Metro and ride it as far as it went, getting out in leafy suburbs and walking the streets. “It was all tranquil and cool there, and when I’d play pickup, nobody tried me or talked a lot of s***,” he says. “I’d be like, ‘This is where I want to be.'” He had formed no grand illusions about what he would buy if and when he made the league; wouldn’t, in fact, let himself think such thoughts, for fear of offending the gods. But he decided if he got paid, he’d invest in some peace and quiet: get a place where he and his people could exhale. “My mom was so scared, she made us whisper when we came home. ‘Shhhhshh!’ she’d say. ‘They’ll hear us. Keep it down!’ ”
To be sure, no one makes it out of hell alone. [Durant’s former AAU coach Taras] Brown devoted nearly a decade to Durant and was constantly out of pocket for meals and road trips. Wanda [Pratt, Durant’s mother] spent every dime she had on basketball camps and court shoes, though for a while, all she could buy him were Lisa Leslie’s, because they were cheaper than men’s sneakers. Even the gangsters looked out for KD, warned everyone on the block not to f*** with the kid who was lighting it up at National Christian Academy. But nothing is free, even kindness, where he’s from. It’s a loan that compounds daily and trails you after you’ve left. Don’t forget us when you’ve made it and we’re still here….
From here-and-now hassles like figuring out how to manage a deluge of requests for tickets, time and attention to potentially more complicated and further-reaching matters like reconciling a full-time return to a place you once felt you needed to fight to leave, the prospect of playing for a hometown team can come with quite a bit of baggage that might mitigate the value of closer proximity to family members or creature comforts from days gone by.
From Durant’s perspective, the chance to join a ready-made juggernaut into which his talents seemed a seamless fit, where he saw the chance to experience a kind of on-court joy that he said had eluded him to date, and where he could take a pro-active role in making himself happy rather than just “acting like a passenger in” his life as he felt he had since he was a child ultimately represented a much more enticing opportunity than simply going back to somewhere he’d already been.
While the Wizards have bounced back in a big way under his old coach, rising to fourth place in the Eastern Conference at 34-23, it’s hard to fault Durant for making the choice he did. (Well, if you’re not from Oklahoma City, that is.) The Warriors have laid waste to the league this season, owning the NBA’s No. 1 offense and No. 2 defense, posting an NBA-best mark of 50-9 and clinching a playoff berth before the beginning of March.
Durant’s minutes, shots and points per game are down slightly from his days in OKC, but he’s still putting up MVP-caliber numbers, averaging a shade under 26 points, 8.5 rebounds, and five assists per contest. On top of that, he’s also averaging just under three combined blocks/steals per night, and has emerging as a legitimate defensive force in the middle for a Warriors team that looks downright deadly when it downshifts to “small”-ball featuring Durant and Draymond Green at the four and five spots.
There have been some bumps in the road, but by and large, Durant’s seemed to be having quite a bit of fun on his new team and in his new home. And while he doesn’t begrudge LeBron or any other player who chose to go home their preference, he doesn’t seem to be giving too much in the way of a second thought to his decision not to return to the DMV. More from Kilgore and Bontemps:
“I thought about what it might be like,” Durant said. “I thought about it. But it made LeBron’s situation different because he got drafted [by Cleveland in 2003]. So it was like he was home already, so he knew what it was like. It wasn’t like it was his first time going back. For me, I never played at home. I didn’t know what it would be. I know every time I go back it’s pretty hectic, and I just wanted to focus on basketball and not have to worry about a lot of stuff that comes with being at home.
“It’s always good going back, but I would rather play in a different city.”
On Tuesday, he’ll get to check off every box: being with the team he wants, getting to visit his old stomping grounds and his old head coach … and getting to move on at the end of the night, continuing his pursuit of happiness and a championship on his terms.
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