In November 2012, five months after the Oklahoma City Thunder’s NBA Finals loss to LeBron James and the Miami Heat, the New York Times Magazine ran a cover story about the “fairy tale” rise of the Thunder and the star at the team’s heart, Kevin Durant. When asked about his reputation as a nice guy, he responded, “I’m just being me, man. I’m just enjoying this all. I can’t complain. I wasn’t raised to be a jerk to anybody. My mama wouldn’t like that, so that’s just all I know. Just being nice to people and enjoying what I do.”
Now fast-forward to this past weekend’s NBA All-Star Game, when Durant was asked about the speculation that head coach Scott Brooks’ job might be in jeopardy.
“You guys really don’t know shit,” he told reporters. Asked what kind of questions he’d prefer the media to focus on, he answered, “To be honest, man, I’m only here talking to y’all because I have to. So I really don’t care. Y’all not my friends. You’re going to write what you want to write.” It might be that Marshawn Lynch’s approach to the media at the Super Bowl has spilled over into a more general rebellion by players against reporters, but come on, this is Kevin Durant.
Taken as two points on a line, those quotes appear to be in direct opposition to one another; they seem to suggest a complete role reversal, almost as if Durant was taking a wrestling-style heel turn – embracing the kind of antagonistic role James did when he went to Miami. But that assumes they’re points, or that there’s even a line. Before we get to that second thing, though, let’s at least add some more points.
Well before that Finals loss to the Heat, in the summer of 2011, it was discovered that Kevin Durant was not as tattoo-free as it appeared on the court. Now, using tattoos as a judge of moral character is thunderously dumb, but it still happens, and Durant’s decision to limit himself to “business tattoos” – ones that could be easily covered up in public – was an acknowledgement of that fact. There was a gap between the way he consciously presented himself and certain parts of his past that he chose not to reveal; things like his grandmother’s house that were important enough to ink on his body. This, though, is not news. This is how it is for everyone.
Then, in April 2013, he was fined $25,000 for a throat slash gesture after a truly vicious throwdown on the Golden State Warriors. “Kill ’em and pray for ’em after the game,” he said by way of explanation at the time. He elaborated on this approach in a recent GQ article, saying, “When I’m on the court, I’m a total asshole. I’m a dick. I don’t talk to the other team. If I fall on somebody, I throw them to the ground, I’m not helping them up.” He might be expressing himself more clearly now than he did two years ago, but again, this isn’t new. He’s always been an assassin on the court.
Although he’s uttered, “I’m a bad muthafucka” after a shot and called Dwight Howard a “pussy,” the persistent image of the reigning MVP – and maybe the peak of our sense of his niceness – comes from his MVP acceptance speech, when he eloquently and emotionally thanked his mother and called her, movingly, “the real MVP.” And then it became an Internet meme. There are probably no pictures of you at your most vulnerable being used by thousands of people to prop up jokes on the Internet.
“I was like, man, that was a real emotional moment for me,” he told GQ. “And you making a joke about it! Like: Damn. Y’all don’t really believe in shit. You don’t have no morals or nothing. You don’t care about nothing but just making fun.”
It’s enticing to completely dismiss the narrative of nice around Durant, not in light of recent events, but simply because there’s always been more to him than that. That reaction is not without merit. We – the media, the fans, the league – crafted a story about KD as the ultimate good guy, and that gave us the license to make light of a heavy moment in his life. And that was the tipping point, the straw that broke the camel’s back. Now Durant is done with it. This is how plenty of people will pave the complex path Durant’s taken over the past few years into something smooth and more-or-less sensible. It’s what we do.
For a long time, Durant and Russell Westbrook have been tagged as the super-ego and the id, respectively, of the Oklahoma City Thunder – the former the conscience, an inerrant compass of right action; the latter a primal force of destruction, demanding freedom. This is reductivist logic, but that doesn’t make it entirely inaccurate, either. The way in which Durant appears to be consciously maneuvering away from the struggle to fulfill the expectations of others seems to confirm that he thought of himself in these terms. “My first few years in the league, I was just finding myself,” he told reporters over the All-Star break. “Most of the time, I reacted based off of what everybody else wanted and how they viewed me as a person. I am just learning to be myself, not worrying about what everybody else says, I am going to make mistakes.”
Even now, he’s walking back the tone of some of his more caustic remarks from the weekend, if not the content. “I had a moment,” he said after practice on Wednesday. “I hope we can get past it.”
Narrative isn’t just externally imposed. It comes from within as well, as shown by Durant’s decision to keep those tattoos business. This arc he’s on now is not so much about changing who he is or revealing some heretofore unseen “true colors” as it is about the never-ending reconciliation every human being is working through: Striking a balance between knowing ourselves and letting others know us. Of course, the rest of us get to do it on a much smaller stage.