Kevin Durant: Why the NBA Superstar Had to Blow Up His Life to Get His Shot
In the glass-box proscenium of the Nolan Ryan Building on Nike’s Brussels-size campus outside Portland, Oregon, Kevin Durant is walking the sacred transept of Sneaker Paradiso: the studios where young designers, working in pods, create future seasons of basketball footwear, some in styles and colors the public will never see. Desktop monitors spin sketches of mid-tops that can’t be bought for months. On shelves in every office are the plaster-cast feet of the men who inspired these goods. And on the ledge of every cubicle sit prototypes past – LeBron Soldiers from 2012 in glorious bronze; Jordans in magenta from the early Aughts – that were never scuffed or sullied by human foot. If you’re walking these halls, it’s all you can do to not fill your backpack with as many kicks as will fit, and make a mad beeline for the door. Sure, you’d be tackled before you reached the stairs – but what jury of your peers would convict?
The creators of these models – bearded male gear geeks – glance up from their screens at the long shadow over their desks. “These are fire,” says Durant, plucking next year’s LeBron high-tops from a stack of sneaker boxes. “You got these in size 17?”
The designers suck their breath in, not sure how to hear this. In the world of basketball shoes, this violates all kinds of icon orthodoxy. Out there, in the world beyond this vast campus, you’re either a LeBron guy or a KD guy, and the stakes are obscenely high. Between them, their clothing lines earn about a half-billion dollars a year for the almighty Swoosh, and the question of who sells more or who’s gaining market share on whom is a matter of pitched concern to their respective camps. Hence, the squishiness in this room: Do we laugh at that line, or fake our own deaths?
Durant looks down and gives the faintest grin. “I’m just fucking with y’all. I love your work, but I’m strictly a low-tops guy.”
He’s flown into Portland on serious business: two long days of meetings with product planners to review his worldwide realm of court apparel. (Nike is paying him a reported $300 million over the course of a decade.) But high finance doesn’t stop Durant, who just turned 28, from pranking and delighting the bright young things who work here. At a meet-and-greet downstairs in the employee mess hall, he suddenly steps behind the coffee bar and starts doling out mochaccinos. For five minutes, the free world’s tallest barista takes orders, foams soy milk and whistles while he works, getting off on the squeals of giddy staffers. Moments earlier, he’d displaced a cashier, ringing up people’s lunches and dispensing change. Maybe he’s just punchy from lack of sleep: The night before, he’d called me to his hotel room to grill him long past midnight while he got tatted. With his left thigh numb from a Lidocaine wrap and a couple of neat shots of Scotch, he talked drowsily of his childhood while the inker worked, sketching a portrait of Aaliyah. For the past month, Durant has turned that long leg into a shrine of his dead heroes. Rick James, whose face now graces his knee? “Grew up listening to him while Grandma cleaned the house.” Tupac and Lisa “Left-Eye” Lopes, who share his calf? “Their music takes me to my happy place.” And Aaliyah, who died too young, at 22, to be widely reverenced now? “Man, that was my first big crush as a kid. Aaliyah was my world in seventh grade!”
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Kevin Durant 2.0: the world’s-my-oyster, body-adorning, liberated upgrade. It is this model he’s taking, with his inimitable talents, to the Golden State Warriors this fall, leaving behind the team he built from splinters into a perennial title contender, the Oklahoma City Thunder. In so doing, he’s knowingly placed in jeopardy his richly earned brand as the game’s kindest star, opening himself up to a barrage of criticism usually lobbed by alt-right trolls. And why all this hatred for a guy who did things right, carried a franchise on his back for nine years while it tried to win a championship on the cheap? Because, for the first time in his life, Durant prioritized himself, chose to pursue his own joy, not his sense of obligation to millions of strangers.
“All my life, I’ve been a pleaser,” he says, “put everyone else ahead of me.” He’d been a “basketball robot” in a “basketball trance,” trudging head-down with his hoodie cinched tight, never asking for what he wanted or even asking himself that question for fear of hurting teammates and fans. Then suddenly, two seasons ago, the hamster wheel stopped when he fractured a small bone in his foot. Unable to play or get off his couch for months, he picked his head up, opened his big eyes wide – and loathed what he saw of his world. He was 25 and had never gone anywhere or done anything that wasn’t in the service of his game. He needed to make some changes, and not the small-bore kind. No, what was called for was a top-down redo, a blank-slate reassessment of his soul. It would begin – and end – with one fundamental question: What are the things in life that give me pleasure?
In Los Angeles, where I joined Durant’s business tour (five towns and four states in five days), we sat together at an outdoor bistro, chatting about the city he’d just left. (This being Beverly Hills, of course Usher walks past us, dapping KD as he goes. Later in the day, Kevin Love drives by, waving from the window of his Porsche.) Since Durant quit Oklahoma at the beginning of July, all anyone had wanted to ask him was why he’d ditched his boys there for the squad of supervillains on Golden State. He’d been called everything but a radical Muslim by otherwise mannerly Oklahomans, their presumption being that Durant was basket-hanging in pursuit of a ring. That seemed, to put it kindly, ungrateful. Six years ago, he spurned free agency to re-sign on the very day LeBron James abandoned Cleveland. While James was nationally broadcasting his departure, Durant blessed his fans in a tweet: “I love yall man forreal.” He was the semper fi soldier two years later when management traded away James Harden, his friend and co-superstar. And he held his tongue when, summer after summer, the Thunder declined to add a proven third option – think Ray Allen in Boston, or Love in Cleveland. “Where other teams went out and got that veteran guy, we kept getting younger,” he says with a sigh, pushing around a sausage link with his fork. Apparently it’s exhausting, even in memory, to carry a team on your back.
Though he’s too shrewd to say it, that series of betrayals eventually broke his heart. “For nine years, he refused to speak a word against that team – he loved those guys and that city,” says his mom, Wanda Durant, who’s been his best friend and confidante since he started his b-ball journey at the age of eight. “But this summer he said, ‘Mama, I can’t do it anymore. They’re not in this thing with me, we’re not together like we were – I feel like I need something different.’ ” These past four years, he’d gamely shouldered the burden of heading a one-horse, two-star franchise, going into battle with just his point guard, Russell Westbrook, as a dependable second scorer. Each year, his Thunder would finish inches short, sputtering out against deeper teams in the playoffs. The latest, and most hurtful, of those heart-stab ousters was the loss to Golden State in the Western Conference finals last May. Riding the brilliance of Durant and Westbrook, the Thunder raced out to a 3-1 lead, not just beating but bullying the reigning champs, knocking them around the lane like duckpins. Then suddenly, its stars ran out of gas against the three-headed monster of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. With a lead in the fourth quarter of what could have been a clinching Game Six, Durant and Westbrook began clanking up misses as Thompson and Curry caught fire, dropping three-pointers from the rafters while falling out of bounds. “It’s like the hand of God touched Klay,” says Durant. “He couldn’t miss. And then Steph went nuts and – well, day-umm. . . .”
The Golden State Warriors rally back to defeat Kevin Durant’s Thunder.
Yes, exactly: day-umm. Durant had wanted that game so bad, he did something he never did: let himself savor winning before it happened: “Man, I saw us in the ball caps and T-shirts, with our fans going crazy and dancing. That town was so good to us, showed us love even when we lost. I wanted it more for them than even me.” He went home crushed, replaying his every miss – and there’d been plenty. He acquitted himself better in Game Seven, but Westbrook was strictly on fumes then. Some part of Durant knew he’d already punched his ticket. “It felt like that whole thing was set up for me to leave,” he says, “especially after they blew a lead in the finals, because I damn sure wasn’t going there if they’d won. But after Game Seven, I called up my agent and said, ‘Damn, dude, Golden State – what if?’ ”
Until two years ago, Durant had never taken a week’s vacation or been anywhere exotic for pleasure. Instead, he spent his off months doing exactly what he’d done since he discovered the game as a boy: refining his court skills in wall-to-wall workdays that bordered on self-affliction. His sport is littered with Type-A legends – Kobe Bryant, with his manic year-round drills; James doing three-a-day workouts – but Durant is right up there with them. He’d go morning, noon and night at the Thunder’s facility, fixing his soft spots from the three-point stripe or mastering back-to-the-rim moves in the low blocks. He’d already won the scoring title four years out of five, been the league’s MVP in 2014, and been a five-time All-NBA first-teamer. When sanity argued that he take a month off and go clear his head in Bora Bora, he’d instead put his gaunt frame through unrelenting hell – till, finally, it had enough and broke down.
And so, two winters ago, he sat on his couch and began the mental accounting of full adulthood. For 20 years, his inner life had been in a cryonic freeze; almost every decision, big and small, was deferred for the sake of his craft. His house in Oklahoma had filled up with guys he’d known growing up in Seat Pleasant, Maryland, though to hear Durant tell it, he’d had few if any friends in that hard-knock town. His houseguests lived it up at his place and drove his cars to the clubs, but did little or nothing to advance their cause – or, for that matter, his. Videos surfaced on TMZ: Durant shot with a toy dart by Justin Bieber; a vial of medicinal weed falling out of his truck. He’d avoided the usual leg-traps of extended adolescence – drunk busts, baby-mamas and after-hours beefs. (Durant has no children and has never been married, though he was briefly engaged to Monica Wright, who plays in the WNBA.) Still, he was acting like a passenger in his life, not the self-made marvel who’d reached great heights precisely by flying alone.
As a child, he’d been forced to make a Faustian bargain to pull himself and his family out of danger. He sacrificed his boyhood on the altar of his gift, forsook friends and girls and the chance to just be a kid in order to practice from dawn to dusk. Between eight and 18, he lived in a tunnel that was never quite the present or the future, kissing off a decade to become that one-in-a-million baller who gets drafted high enough to buy his mom out of work and retire her from the crossfire of the streets. He grew so long and thin his classmates called him Skeletor as he trudged to class on clown-shoe feet. His mom worked the night shift loading postal trucks, so as far back as elementary school it was on him to get ready for class and to put something in his belly at lunch and dinner. “She’d give me $20 to last the week,” he says. “I ate a lot of Drake’s Cakes and Little Debbies.”
They lived in the nowhere slums of Seat Pleasant, an exurb of Prince George’s County that is a river – and cosmos – away from Capitol Hill. Durant’s father, Wayne, a security guard in D.C., was mostly out of the picture by the time Kevin was one. “He helped with child support, but wasn’t the presence that they needed from a father,” says Wanda, who years ago retired from the Postal Service and is now a motivational speaker. Every once in a while, Wayne would move back in, kindling hopes in Durant and his older brother, Tony. Then all hell would break loose between their parents and Wayne would vanish again, except to visit.
Wanda’s family helped fill the gaps, particularly her Aunt Pearl and her mother, Barbara; they’d watch Kevin nights and weekends while she worked. But women can’t seal the gash that a father’s departure opens, particularly when poverty picks you up and tosses you around like dry leaves in a cold wind. “We moved five times,” says Durant. “I went to seven different schools.” He never had his own bedroom – barely had a proper bed, once he outgrew his twin mattress. “I learned to sleep all squinched, with my legs curled up – it was like that till the NBA. One time, I’m home from college [Durant spent a year at the University of Texas, then declared for the NBA draft before he turned 19], had just scored 37 points, and I’m balled up on the couch, trying to sleep. I look around the living room and think, ‘Yup, still grinding.'”
He developed into a silent, solitary child who, in lieu of homeys, had sports. In particular, he had basketball, though it’s fairer to say that basketball had him. It was all he ever thought about, all he craved, once Wanda signed him up at the Seat Pleasant Activity Center and dropped him off in the care of two good men there. One was Chucky Craig, the rec’s basketball coach, who was murdered while Durant was in high school. (Durant wears the number 35 for Craig, who was killed at that age after reportedly stepping into the middle of a street brawl.) The other was Taras Brown, who ran the Amateur Athletic Union team that was loosely connected to the center. Both knew right away that they had something rare in the shy, gangly kid who all but lived there. “I told him that first year, ‘You got the gift of want-it-bad,’ ” says Coach Brown, who now runs Durant’s AAU organization, a huge undertaking that Durant’s charity finances to give a few hundred or so kids the space and guidance to survive a Seat Pleasant boyhood. “He wasn’t just hungry, he was a sponge. He always wanted to know what he had done wrong, even when we won by 30.”
Brown, who has sent dozens of kids to college and the best of them – Durant, Michael Beasley – to the NBA, invested so much in that nine-year-old beanpole that, as a teen, Durant named him his godfather. What Brown saw, besides his want-to, was a body-type that could be shaped into something that had never been: a 6-11 sniper with a point guard’s handle and the wingspan of an F-16. “I loved Larry Bird and sent KD to school on him, made him sit and watch his game tape at my house,” says Brown. To teach him Bird’s glorious, whipcord release, he forced Durant to lie on his back for an hour, cocking a weighted ball off his forehead. “Man, that shit sucked – I used to cry, it hurt so much,” says Durant. “But it made my wrist strong as hell.” There was a hill behind the center that was brutally steep and just about the length of a full court. Brown had him run it at top speed over and over so that sprinting a flat surface felt like walking. He’d make him dribble, shoulders down, around pylons or chairs, doing a series of three moves at each station. Once, Brown ducked out to coach a game and told Durant to keep at it while he was gone. Something detained Brown, and he was hours getting back. When he returned, he found the young man crying, exhausted – but still doing the drill in his absence.
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 shit,” 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. Brown devoted nearly a decade to Durant and was constantly out of pocket for meals and road trips. Wanda 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 fuck 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. . . .
And so there he was two springs ago, still paying those psychic debts and putting off the hard calls left unmade. “I was in that trance so long, it was affecting my life,” he says. “I woke up one day and made some changes.” He decided to clean house, sending everyone packing except his half-brother, Rayvonne, and one other friend, who now share Durant’s splendid house in the Oakland hills. Durant had already switched agents, signing up with RocNation, and now he bore down on his charitable giving, which focused on building basketball courts for hard-pressed city kids. “The only haven he had was playing ball at the rec center, and his mission is to pay that forward,” says Rich Kleiman, Durant’s agent and partner in Kevin Durant Enterprises. Kleiman, who coordinates every detail in Durant’s life, has overseen his Build It and They Will Ball initiative, reviving courts and rec centers in seven cities, with more to come. Further, he accompanied Durant on the worldwide tours that he was suddenly bent on taking, to France and China and parts in between, savoring new cultures in the slow lane. “Being hurt opened my mindset, made me more transparent so other people would be that way with me,” says Durant. “Now, I want to share the stories I hear, write a book or make a movie, whatever. It’s all new to me, but that’s cool, I’m learning. I’m just starting to work this thing out.”
When a man has that sort of head-snap revival, every element of his life goes up for grabs. For Durant, it meant finally coming to grips with the verities in OKC. Try as it might with draft picks and trades, management there was never going to fix what it had broken with the Harden deal. And so Durant began eyeballing other teams, taking the temperature of the league. One team particularly drew his notice: the ball-don’t-stop, breakneck-tempo, blowout-happy Warriors. These dudes play just like I do, he thought. They see the floor the way I see it. There, he could “set picks and get hockey assists,” the small-ball things he’d likely never get to do as long as he played with Westbrook. “It’s an open secret that the fun had stopped there and it was never going to flow with Russell,” says a highly placed source in the league. “Russell’s a my-turn, your-turn kind of guy, and don’t think defenders don’t know that. When Russ had the ball, KD’s guy would leave him to go and help guard Russ.”
Late last June, then – a fortnight after the Warriors got a taste of their own medicine, blowing a 3-1 lead in the finals to the Cleveland Cavaliers – Durant and his father, Wayne, together with best friend Charlie Bell and Kleiman, rented a house near the beach in East Hampton, New York. For three days, they hosted his short-list suitors: the Warriors, San Antonio Spurs, Miami Heat, Boston Celtics, L.A. Clippers and, of course, the Thunder. Each team got part of a day to present its case; each brought its big guns to pitch Durant. Golden State trotted out all its weapons: Curry, Thompson and Green, to be sure, but also Steve Kerr, the coach of the year in 2016, Bob Myers (executive of the year, 2015) and a mind-blowing virtual-reality tour of Oracle Arena when it’s rocking. Alas, the VR goggles malfunctioned, an epic stumble out of the gate. “We all thought, ‘There goes the deal’ – we went from the best presentation to the worst in 15 seconds,” says Kerr. But then his players piped up, particularly Curry. “He told Kevin, ‘I don’t need the ball and that many shots – I just need another title, man.’ ”
Meanwhile, Durant studied the body language of the players at his table. “They just liked each other so much and were so relaxed,” he says. “I thought, ‘These are some chill-ass dudes I wouldn’t mind hooping with.’ I wasn’t even asking, ‘How do we play together?’ I was asking, ‘Where do y’all go eat, do y’all hang out together?'” These were salient questions for Durant. As close as people presumed he and Westbrook had been, they were never much more than work friends, he says. “We had our own cliques that we hung with on the road. Russell had his guys, I had mine. It was never a bad thing. Just how it was.” For the guy who’d grown up friendless through grade school and preps, the pull of those stars and their shared affection must have felt like a welcome banner. All his life, he’d been walking alone, a party of one in the desert. Now, at last, his tribe called out to him. Who among us could have said no?
That Sunday, after everyone had had their say, including reps from the Thunder, whom he saw twice, he brooded alone in a hot tub for two hours, agonizing over the choice. Finally, he went to bed, unsure what to do. When he woke, at 5 a.m., he heard one word in his head: Warriors. He went and rousted Kleiman, then prepared himself to make the hardest phone call of his life. “It was rough, talking to [Thunder GM] Sam Presti and [owner] Clay Bennett. I cried and got emotional, I’ll put it like that.” He texted Westbrook the news, but didn’t call him – they hadn’t really talked through the process. Asked why, Durant gives a shrug. They’d had those years together, fought as hard as two men can when they’re outnumbered. Sometimes, when it ends, you let the silence speak; words just don’t seem adequate, for better or worse.
Each fall for the past five years, the Warriors have staged a pickup game against the best players in San Quentin prison in California. It’s always a sweet and sour day inside the walls of that notorious pen. Looming over the yard is the country’s largest death row, where more than 700 killers wait out their bids in dilapidated cells. The general population is overcrowded and divided on racial lines. “Shit can pop any second here,” says an inmate called Wall Street, sitting beside me on a bench before the game. “Everyone hates everyone, but not today. Today, that noise is ceased.”
Typically, the Warriors field a team of assistants intermixed with some front-office guys. Often, a couple of players will tag along; occasionally, a star shows up. Today, there are two: Draymond Green and Kevin Durant, talking mess to each other as they make the long walk uphill from the parking lot. “Dude, why you riff so hard on Steph’s kicks?” says Green, referring to the Chef Curry model that debuted last summer, to widespread derision on Twitter. “‘Cause they were foul,” snarks Durant. “Ugliest shoes I ever saw. Your boy should be ashamed of himself.”
Graciously, the two stars stand and sign everything the inmates put in front of them – baby shoes, water bottles, someone’s wedding album. Both seem relaxed in the heaving mob, trading bro hugs and daps with tattooed bangers on the bumpy slab of asphalt at center court. And then the game starts and the men go their own ways: Green to play dominoes on a noisy side court; Durant to the bench to chat with convicts. One after another, they kneel beside him, telling their stories in terse whispers. I can’t quite hear them, but then, it’s none of my business. Instead, I watch Durant as he watches them. His face brims with a gamut of feelings: pain and sorrow and small-step redemption, all of it grist for his heart. He can’t not listen, he’s here to bear witness. This, too, is life, and he must have it.
At halftime, he rises; it’s time to leave; he’s got a business engagement in town. But then someone asks him if he’d like to see the cells, and Durant being Durant, he can’t say no. In we’re led, past a long block of doors with pieces of grimy plastic for portals. “This is me,” says an inmate, beckoning him into the four-by-10-foot shoebox in which he’s housed. Though it’s roughly the size of a water closet – stretch your arms out and you can touch either wall – he shares it with another man on the bunk below him. Stunned, Durant walks in and looks around. Elbows propped on the top bunk, he stands there and listens as the inmate describes his life. “You gotta piss and do your business in front of your cellie, gotta step on his bed to get to yours – and if he says no, then y’all gotta fight.”
“Well, I could jump up,” says Durant, trying to leaven the mood, but his joke lands flat and he knows it. Though largely close-mouthed about political matters, he’s furious with the state of play in this country. “The hood is a trap, man – you’re born there and die there, with nothing in between but that,” he tells me. To illustrate the unfairness, he’d raised Curry as a contrast. “Whereas I grew up fucked over, always ready to snap, he was middle-class and didn’t live in defense mode.” Durant makes clear that he reveres Curry: “He didn’t have to work this hard, but yet he does.” What he’s saying is that no kid should have to do what he did: put his life on hold for 20-odd years just to have a slim shot at getting out. “I’ve had my guard up all this time, never living my life,” he says. “It’s so hard to unlearn those traits when you get older.”
On his way to the gate, he stops to give pounds to several of the men he met inside. “Y’all taught me so much today. I’m grateful, and I’ll remember,” he says, leaning in to bump shoulders. And then he walks out, the sky blue over his head, stretching wide with the promise and burden of blessings, those realized and those yet to come.
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