Why Kevin Durant is the perfect captain for this imperfect USA men's basketball team

TOKYO — When Kevin Durant was a basketball-obsessed kid growing up outside Washington D.C., the gym inside the local Seat Pleasant Activity Center would close for a couple of hours in the afternoon. So Durant would often hide behind a curtain and take a nap so that when it reopened, he’d be the first one back on the court.

When in 2011, NBA owners locked out the players and delayed the start of the season, Durant spent his time working out during the day and then, at night, hitting up open gyms or city parks — at least until word spread and the place was mobbed by fans. Durant just wanted to get in a run (he famously scored 66 points at Harlem’s Rucker Park).

Kevin Durant is many things — his business and philanthropic efforts are vast — but first and foremost he is a basketball player.

This isn’t a job. This is his life.

He is, perhaps, the ideal leader for this less-than-ideal USA Basketball roster competing under less than ideal circumstances here at the Tokyo Olympics. A number of top players opted out. The ones that were willing to come included two that were added late and three that didn’t arrive until the morning of the Olympic opener.

Yet the U.S. has Durant, who has essentially been built for this.

KD dropped 29 on Spain Tuesday to lead the Americans to a 95-81, come-from-behind, quarterfinal victory. No one else scored more than 13. It follows a 23-point effort in a victory against the Czech Republic at the end of group play.

Even though he’ll insist on this being a team effort (and he’s not totally wrong), the U.S. is headed to Thursday’s semifinal against either Australia or Argentina (12:15 a.m. ET) because of its captain.

This Team USA men's Olympic hoops roster is less than ideal, but it doesn't need to be. It has Kevin Durant. (Photo by Elif Ozturk Ozgoncu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
This Team USA men's Olympic hoops roster is less than ideal, but it doesn't need to be. It has Kevin Durant. (Photo by Elif Ozturk Ozgoncu/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Considering he is still coming back from an Achilles injury, he would have been excused for not being here. It apparently never crossed his mind.

Durant is a basketball mercenary in all the best ways. He’s spent his life looking for the next chance, the next place where he could improve himself. He played for four different high schools, including some away from home, spent one year at the University of Texas and joined a franchise that after his rookie season relocated from Seattle to Oklahoma City.

Getting settled has never been his thing. Essentially from seventh and eighth grade until his second and third year in the NBA — ages 13 to 21 — he never played for the same team or lived in the same city in consecutive years (often neither).

He’s adaptable. Give him a team, give him a gym, give him a ball and he makes it work. Here at an Olympics where USA Basketball has been relegated to an AAU squad cobbled together for the Peach Jam, there could be no better lead.

He isn’t stressed over team chemistry — there isn’t enough time for that. It’s about not just fitting in, but making sure everyone else feels like they are fitting in.

“In this setting,” Durant said, “it’s always hard to get your footing as an individual player because you don’t want to step on toes.”

These aren’t the old days of long training camps and exhibition tours or groups playing multiple summers together in world championships. Last week, USA Basketball coordinator Jerry Colangelo admitted he briefly added Kevin Love to the team simply because Love asked to be on it and claimed he was in shape. (“He wasn’t,” Colangelo said.)

So this isn’t the time or team for rah-rah leadership or a high-strung star. Taking nothing from their on-court ability or competitive genius, but this kind of casual approach to an Olympic team might have sent a Michael Jordan or a Kobe Bryant into hysterics.

Durant seems perfectly comfortable. He is unaffected by chaos. And unwavering in the goal here. Where coach Gregg Popovich has taken every opportunity to set the groundwork for the closed talent gap resulting in a loss, Durant hasn’t balked.

Yes, the other teams are better. It still says U-S-A on his jersey, though.

“For us,” he said, “it’s about getting a gold.”

Despite being a two-time Olympic gold medalist, two-time NBA champion and former league MVP, he treats his teammates with admirable respect. If he is providing any leadership, it’s by how he plays, not via locker room speeches.

“It's basketball at the end of the day,” Durant said. “These dudes are all-world talents, all-stars, the best players on their team. I don't say much to them … I lead by example, just going out there and being a good teammate in practice and leaving it at that.”

Against Spain, that included not just being aggressive on offense — stepping into 3-pointers, driving the lane, calling for the ball on the block. It meant intense defense, diving for loose balls and pumping his fist for others while getting a breather on the bench.

“We are playing for a lot of people back at home and a lot of people around the world who support us,” Durant said on NBC. “Guys are laying it out on the line to win this. Guys are going to do whatever we need to win.”

So far that’s been enough, even as he’s playing three or four positions across the course of a game. Earlier in these Olympics, he was asked how he felt about Popovich asking so much of him.

Durant looked puzzled by the question.

“A lot has been asked of me on every team I played on since I was 8 years old,” he shrugged. “Every coach expected a lot.”

From Seat Pleasant to the Olympic semifinals, not much has changed. Just open the gym, Kevin Durant will find a way.

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