On the morning of July 7, Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City’s supremely gifted pterosaur, who is currently dunking on people’s heads all along the Bosphorus at the FIBA World Championships, announced he would be re-signing with the Thunder. This was a fairly unremarkable piece of business—Durant, a year from restricted free agency, was expected to re-up—and the news arrived via his Twitter account: “Exstension for 5 more years wit the #thunder….God Is Great, me and my family came a long way…I love yall man forreal, this a blessing!”
More remarkable was Durant’s timing. That same day it emerged that LeBron James would reveal his free-agent destination on a live television show that, for those who missed it, came to resemble nothing so much as a hostage crisis on the set of Howdy Doody. Facile contrasts were hastily drawn. LeBron stood accused of disloyalty and excessive immodesty, of being bad on television in the first degree, and the only debate about the Miami Heat’s new hood ornament was whether to chase him around South Beach with a pitchfork or a torch. And Durant? He was “soft-spoken,” “congenial, respectful,” “humble, loyal.” Kevin Durant had become the national sports unicorn.
“Hey, what’s Kevin Durant trying to do there?” smarmed Adrian Wojnarowski, an otherwise excellent columnist for Yahoo Sports who all summer wrote about LeBron James in prose lifted from Travis Bickle’s diary. “Be humble, understated and gracious?”
Oh, and loyal, too. Don’t forget that.
This is how sports heroes are made nowadays—not by some feat of athletic transcendence, but by virtue of not being the bogeyman of the day. Phil Mickelson, once known sneeringly as FIGJAM (“F*** I’m great, just ask me”) got himself anointed with oil on account of not being Tiger Woods at the moment it became very bad to be Tiger Woods. A few years ago, in a very different context, sportswriters celebrated Hank Aaron anew for not having been Barry Bonds, even though the two ballplayers had a lot more in common than anyone cared to admit. (In his autobiography, Aaron confessed to trying amphetamines, like everyone else from his era.) And now people praise the allegedly humble Kevin Durant for not being the allegedly narcissistic LeBron James, whom they once praised for not being the allegedly selfish Kobe Bryant, whom they once praised for not being the allegedly thuggish Allen Iverson.
That this is all very silly should go without saying. Never mind that the sportswriters wave around Durant’s use of social media as a token of his quiet grace, then trash LeBron for getting a Twitter account. And never mind that LeBron announced his contract extension in 2006 with a press release that one could fairly describe as, yes, humble, understated, and gracious. The primary folly here is trying to divine the motives and innermost feelings of professional athletes. We know so little of them that doesn’t come by way of razor commercials and magazine spreads and strategically chosen television interviews in front of strategically chosen topiary. We have as much genuine insight into Kevin Durant’s head and Phil Mickelson’s bedroom as we do into LeBron James’ soul and Tiger Woods’ underpants. To call Durant humble—over and over and over again—is to look at a passing cloud and swear you see the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
And not to put too fine a point on it, but who freaking cares? All great athletes are arrogant; some just hide it better on camera. The people ladling praise on the guy for saying shucks and thanking the equipment manager and generally being very Beaver Cleaver with everyone—”Durant always asks the [University of Texas] basketball sports information director, Scott McConnell, about his sons by name,” the New York Times informs—evidently would rather use athletes as large vessels for vicarious moralizing, something to put down on the mantel next to the Precious Moments figurines, than admit we care about them only because they jump high.
What do we actually know about Kevin Durant? His game, for one thing. He is as pure a scorer as we’ve seen, and you could drop him in with all the other great self-styled scoring forwards in NBA history—Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, Alex English, even George Gervin—except that at 21 he’s probably already better than those guys. He is certainly more intuitive than just about any of his contemporaries. Carmelo Anthony, for instance, jab-steps and jab-steps and jab-steps on offense, as if cycling through different drafts of his possessions. Durant looks, considers, and attacks. There is nothing humble or understated or gracious about that.
He is the face of Team USA for a reason, and his time at the world championships in Turkey has served his game and his reputation well. In the tournament’s group stage, it has become apparent that he is the team’s only essential piece. In the first three games, he scored 63 points—the team’s second-leading scorer, Chauncey Billups, had 35—and he became, out of nowhere, a sharp-eyed passer from the high post. Meanwhile, Durant has benefited greatly from all the cheap bunting and patriotic juju that people attach to any athlete who represents his country while his colleagues, as the New York Times put it, are “making movies and taking vacations.” He is humble, and he is G.I. Joe.
Of course, that’s what really matters in an age that judges athletes foremost on the quality of their salesmanship. LeBron packaged himself poorly. Durant has sold himself well, or at least has given of himself so little that the very idea of his reticence could be fashioned into a cudgel against the Very Bad Thing of the day—ego run amok. More than anything, Durant offers the moralists a clean bank shot at LeBron and his cohort. He will remain useful in this role for a time, and then one day he’ll go and do some Very Bad Thing and shatter all our precious illusions. We’ll have no choice but to pick out a new unicorn, a new cardboard idol to worship, and all the while we’ll wonder how we got the last one so wrong. Did we ever know Kevin Durant at all?
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