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Does Kevin Durant Understand Fandom?

An investigation into the NBA metagame

Getty Images
Getty Images

Does Kevin Durant understand fandom? I ask because of KD’s comments to The Vertical about whether casual fans, aggrieved by his move to the Golden State Starkiller Base, might ever be won over.

Kevin Durant is apparently a basketball aesthete. I get his point. And considering his perspective — as someone who emerged from desperate beginnings to become one of the three best basketball players on earth in part because of a deep love and appreciation of the game — it’s a fair one. Last season, Durant averaged 28 points on a .634 true shooting percentage, to go with 8.2 rebounds, five assists, and a 28.2 PER. He’s joining a team that won 73 regular-season games, that almost (and, if not for Draymond Green’s lack of impulse control, would have) won the title, and put up a net rating over 11. Durant will take the place of Harrison “Black Falcon” Barnes in a lineup that was already so good it was named after the cessation of life. The 2016–17 Warriors will be a basketball team in the same way that the Grand Canyon is a hole. KD recognizes beauty when he sees it.

The issue here is that Durant seems to think his job is about perfecting a craft, not about public performance. The NBA is an entertainment product. The “drama and everything that comes around, the narratives, the comparisons and the rankings” are very much part of the game. Or, more specifically, part of the metagame — i.e., anything that happens outside of a game and the structure of its rules — that influences the outcome of a contest.

The way the old-time Celtics would use their topographic knowledge of the Boston Garden’s rickety parquet to steer opponents onto its dead spots was metagame. Their exploitation of Wilt Chamberlain’s unwillingness to foul out was part of the metagame. Trash talking is metagame. Trying to influence the referees by complaining about calls is metagame. Home-court advantage is a quantifiable expression of the metagame. NBA titles are mostly won by the teams that manage to accumulate the most high-quality players, therefore, a GM’s facility with the salary cap is metagame, as is the mysterious thought process that leads Vlade Divac to draft random Greek big men.

The relationship between Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan — the way that it created a culture based on the suppression of egos and made Pop’s voice the only one that mattered — was metagame. “You can’t rebuild in New York” is metagame. Jason Kidd, the player, driving the ball into Mike Woodson to draw a technical foul was a metagame move.

But Jason Kidd, the coach, purposefully spilling a soda on the floor wasn’t.

Metagame exists outside of the rules, but it does not contravene them. And fans are the most crucial part of the metagame. Fan attention made the salary cap go up, and it creates pressure that causes big men to miss free throws.

There is a landmark 1971 book called The Study of Games. In the chapter on games as a social science, authors Brian Sutton-Smith and Elliott Morton Avedon define “the essence of game” as involving “decision-makers with different goals or objectives whose fates are intertwined. … Although they may have some control which will influence the outcome, they do not have complete control.”

This perfectly describes the NBA’s metagame dynamic. The player’s goal is to win games and make money. The team’s goal is to acquire players capable of winning and make money. The league’s goal is to make this process entertaining and make money, all while painting the whole endeavour in the most flattering light possible. The media’s goal is to tell the story of the league — good or bad — and make money. The fan’s goal is simply a mental vacation from the larger realities of life, which the league and the media both hope involves spending money.

The downfall of Sam Hinkie is the best recent example of the consequences of misreading the metagame. Hinkie — with his famed secrecy and his unwillingness to discuss anything regarding his strategies, both great and small — left the public discourse of the metagame to his critics. This was pretty foolish considering his super-top-secret strategy was to lose a fuck-ton of games for an open-ended amount of years. It’s one thing to argue that the NBA’s rules unambiguously encourage tanking. They do. But the metagame transcends rules. Hinkie’s mistake was conflating things that aren’t easily quantifiable — public opinion, media attention, agents cringing when they see your name on the caller ID — with things that don’t exist.

Sports are entertainment and athletes are celebrities, though we don’t necessarily like to think of them that way. We prefer to think of our celebrities as being motivated, just like Kevin Durant, by an authentic love of their craft, not raw capitalism and ambition. Authenticity, broadly speaking, is based on appearing to not care about the metagame. Call it the Taylor Swift conundrum: Seeming like you know how to play often comes off as calculating. The Spurs turned this dynamic into a gruff, normcore brand, and it’s paid real dividends by smothering controversies — like Danny Green taking a Holocaust selfie or Tony Parker doing the quenelle — before they became a sensation.

I don’t think Durant misunderstands fandom or celebrity, though — not truly, at least. His statements about the media’s treatment of Kobe Byrant were those of a fan. And why else sign with Roc Nation if not to participate obliquely in the glow of Jay Z’s celebrity? If anything, his appeal to basketball’s true fans, and his freshly inked Tupac tattoo (which, apparently, we weren’t supposed to see?), seem like metagame counters to the criticism that he fucked over Russ, threw off the league’s alleged competitive balance, and sent Oklahoma City into a recession. If you can’t appreciate this, you aren’t real.

Maybe KD is just out of practice. Part of the Thunder’s small-market strategy to offset the glow of greener pastures was (is?) to create a bubble of media solitude around its players. Access, after all, is part of the metagame. One of the few times an OKC paper printed a story critical of Durant (the now infamous “Mr. Unreliable”), it promptly apologized.

“I’m actually pretty optimistic he’s going to stay,” said Berry Tramel, the story’s author, to Bryan Curtis last year. “Our publisher, our president, they’re on pins and needles. They believe we might get blamed if Durant leaves, because of the headline.”