LAS VEGAS – Kevin Durant started scribbling “Have Fun” at the toes of his sneakers last postseason to remind himself why he started playing basketball – and fell in love with it – any time he looked down because he was too tense or too upset with his performance. Forgetting that simple motivation can be easy once a player becomes a household name and the pressure to produce – on the court, in the community, as a product pitchman and everywhere else – becomes more intense and highly scrutinized.
That two-word motto remains on Durant’s shoes even at Team USA training camp, which is easily the loosest basketball environment a superstar can encounter. The pressure to win a gold medal in Rio de Janeiro is minimal but the notice on his sneakers to have fun is perhaps still needed, given that the decision he made earlier this month to become a member of the Golden State Warriors inspired its share of detractors. Durant was lured away from Oklahoma City because he wanted to be a part of a brotherhood that won by having fun – not necessarily because he was consumed by the championship that has eluded him or concerns over his eventual NBA legacy.
“I just felt that this is where I should’ve been, where I should be, and I made the decision. And I’ll live with it. Because obviously, by making this decision, like Charles Barkley said, my legacy has dipped, I guess,” Durant told The Vertical after Wednesday’s U.S. Men’s Olympic team practice, with a hint of snark. “I don’t even know what ‘your legacy’ means. I look at legacy and I associate that with family.
“As a basketball player, what I’ve done, when I’m done playing, look at what I did. And ask yourself how you feel about it. The numbers are going to be there. Everything I’ve done, you’re going to see it. No matter if I play well or fall off, it’s your decision to tell me what my legacy is to you. That’s how it is now. Individually, what do you think Michael Jordan’s legacy is about, LeBron James’ legacy is about? That’s an individual, personal thing. I can’t control that.”
Choosing to form a super team on steroids with Golden State wasn’t the first time Durant made a public decision that wasn’t universally accepted. Just two years ago, Durant pulled out of his commitment to participate in the FIBA World Cup, notifying Coach Mike Krzyzewski and USA Basketball czar Jerry Colangelo with a phone call shortly after witnessing Paul George fracture his right leg in a horrific crash landing during a Team USA scrimmage. Durant was distracted soon after arriving for training camp that summer and said he “felt weird” after returning to Los Angeles following George’s injury.
“I was tired. I felt like I wasn’t 100 percent in. And I can’t be here if I wasn’t 100 percent in. Coach K understood that. He showed me some grace and allowed me to continue playing USA Basketball and I’m very grateful for it,” Durant said. “It was hard, because I love Coach K and Mr. Colangelo, and USA Basketball so much and I didn’t want to disappoint them or let them down, but I felt like I needed time away and have time to rest. There was a lot going on that summer as well. I had the shoe war going on [between Nike and Under Armour], so, mentally, I was like everywhere.”
The decision wasn’t popular but Durant escaped relatively unscathed, especially after Team USA went on to romp the competition in Spain. Durant loves to please those around him but learned from that experience that he could survive making choices that put his interests first. “I’ve had to make tough decisions behind closed doors a lot. It’s the first time I made a decision where everybody had an opinion on it, everybody wanted to tell me what to do,” Durant said. “I prayed on it. I thought about it a lot. And it was something in my gut. I didn’t want to ignore it.”
Durant took a similar approach this summer when he was given the chance to select where he would continue his career. But after spending eight years in Oklahoma City, where he built the foundation for a relocating franchise and became entrenched in the community, Durant was bound to let down, hurt and upset exponentially more people by his decision. Earlier this week, Durant joked that he didn’t leave his rented mansion in the Hamptons for two days after announcing the move, “because I was like, ‘Man, if I walk outside somebody might just try to hit me with their car or say anything negative to me … at some point, I just said, ‘Look man, life goes on. Life moves on, and I can’t hide forever.’ ”
Pressed Wednesday to elaborate, Durant downplayed the extent of the drama. “I think you guys took that a little too literal,” Durant said with a laugh. “I just hung out. I stay in the house all the time. That’s not the first time I did that. Me and my bro [Rayvonne] hung out. I was just joking, don’t take me serious.”
Though he has heard some criticism from Barkley and fellow Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, various talking heads and people in social media who believe he has cheated the system and cut corners to a ring, Durant said the reaction to his choice hasn’t been too bad: “All that stuff happens on the Internet. I haven’t had one person come to me and say anything negative. … It’s easy for the critics on the outside to tell you what to do, to tell you how to play. I’m the one that’s going through it, so I can’t really worry about the outside noise. The work don’t stop. Everything stays the same.”
Durant has repeatedly stated that he hasn’t changed as a person strictly because he chose to play basketball somewhere else and he shot down a question when it was implied that this process was more difficult given his desire to be liked.
“No, I don’t. I want to be liked by people that I think love me. People I don’t know, I don’t care about,” Durant said. “I want you to respect my game and what I bring to the floor, and if you don’t like what I do as a person, I don’t care. I want you to respect my game and if you don’t, that’s your problem. But I don’t want to be liked. If somebody says, ‘KD’s a bad person,’ I’m not going to go in my home and boo-hoo tears. If you don’t like my game, I’m going go work on it and prove people that I am who I am, so it’s a difference.”
From the time he entered the NBA as the No. 2 pick in 2007, Durant has taken the steady climb from trying to stick in the league, to establishing himself as one of the best players in the game, but his individual successes – the four scoring titles, the MVP award – have always been met with slippage the closer he came to the ultimate team prize.
“As time goes on, you taste winning a little bit, it becomes infectious and you want to feel it all the time, especially now,” Durant said. “As you get older and older, that’s all you really want to do. I know what I am as a basketball player. I know what I bring. I know how I am and what type of a teammate I am. That stuff is a given to me. I just want to be part of helping a team. I want to be a part of being a great teammate and leaving a long-lasting impact on my teammates for the rest of our lives. That’s my whole goal.”
Oh, but there is more. “I just want to have fun,” Durant said.
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