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Kevin Durant’s Basketball Hiatus

One of the most purely enjoyable basketball players ever to exist made NBA fans dislike him by successfully doing the thing they loved to watch him do. Now he has a chance to make them like him again, by not doing it.

Ryan Simpson

Kevin Durant is the modern identity crisis expressed in basketball-superstar form. Like most of us, he’s one thing in real life and another thing on the internet. Like most of us, he’s online too much. And like most of us, he’s anxious about how he’s perceived, how he’s talked about, and how his self-image is distorted in the prism of online feedback.

Unlike almost any of us, however, he is also the Lord’s righteous flame on a basketball court, the greatest pure scorer of his generation, and a two-time NBA Finals MVP. As such, he’s subject to a near-unimaginable level of public scrutiny, as well as to the obstinately auld-masculine codes of judgment that still prevail within a sport whose culture rewards toughness and stoicism while holding weakness and self-doubt in contempt. For most of us, defensive online ego-fluffing—quote-tweeting our critics to showcase how superlatively Not Mad we are, say, or creating a burner Finsta to lash out at random nobodies a million miles deep in the comments—would be embarrassing. For Durant, who routinely quote-tweets his critics in a “haha you think I’m sensitive my dude?” vein, and who was caught in 2017 using a sock puppet called “QuireSultan” to post things like “Gorillas don’t do that, bitches do that” at individual Instagram haters, it’s something much more fraught. What would be a cringeworthy but basically pardonable insecurity in anyone else becomes, for those of us watching him, a kind of large-scale performance of the impossibility of the internet. The enormity of Durant’s fame and the human vulnerability of his ego combine to exaggerate every aspect of online existence—the pervasiveness of toxic masculinity, the fragility of curated selves—that we’re all trying, and failing, to cope with in our un-famous everyday lives.

Durant is more stressfully online than any other NBA player of his magnitude. One result of this is that even before he ruptured his Achilles tendon in Game 5 of the Finals, he was well on his way to becoming the most complexly sad superstar in basketball history. Everything he does seems strangely mirrored against itself. His triumphs all double as humiliations. His most annoying moments are also his most sympathetic. As the best player on a team that was already one of the best in NBA history before he signed with it, he seems essential and superfluous in weirdly equal measure: He might be the only major athlete in the history of American sports to have lost respect when he started winning championships. Even his catastrophes tend to carry their own topsy-turvy reasons for optimism. After the Achilles disaster, he’s going to miss a year, at least; he may never play at full strength again. (No. 1 on the list of NBA stars to resume their previous level of play after an Achilles rupture is Dominique Wilkins. No. 2 is no one.) But the tone of the conversation about Durant online, which had become overwhelmingly negative as he won trophy after trophy, is suddenly much more compassionate. The Warriors and the media and the structure of the league itself are now being criticized for rushing him back from the calf injury that preceded the Achilles tear. In other words: Kevin Durant, one of the most purely enjoyable basketball players ever to exist, made millions of people dislike him by successfully doing the thing they loved to watch him do. Now he has a chance to make them like him again, by not doing it.

Can you think of any analog for this kind of permanently unsettled, self-undermining doubleness? For this state in which nothing is ever entirely itself—in which the essence of a given situation is always noncommittally floating among several anxious possibilities? That’s right: This is the contemporary experience of the internet re-encoded as a basketball career. It’s telling, therefore, that the first moments of split personality in Durant’s narrative occurred in 2010 or so—around the moment when smartphones became ubiquitous and social media emerged as the dominant platform for life online.

Looking back at Durant’s early career in Oklahoma City, you wouldn’t necessarily pick him out as the superstar destined to embody the “Sad on Instagram” era. During that first, euphoric period of the Thunder coming into their own, when Durant and Russell Westbrook and James Harden were nipping at Kobe Bryant’s heels in the Western Conference and people thought they might dominate the league for a decade, KD seemed perfectly at home in Sam Presti’s happy universe. The Thunder were fun to watch and fun to follow; you could imagine them as a bright, zoomy ’70s cartoon, all rainbows twizzling through the opening credits and brass stingers whenever Westbrook passed the ball (so, never, but you know what I mean). For the rest of us, this seemed like a cool, not to mention good, thing to be part of. Durant was initially tagged with a string of personality traits he’d either reject or give the lie to later, but at the time, they seemed to many people like good traits for a no. 2 draft pick to possess—he was soft-spoken, loyal, modest, conscientious, and patient. And then, of course, he was so talented as to be functionally superhuman. When other players might look for quick rewards or easy flattery, Durant had larger aims in view. He was—or portrayed as—the rare NBA star who felt content to play for a small-market franchise and determined to take it to the top.

There were two early moments during his OKC career when the complex doubleness of Warriors-era Durant came into view. The first, ironically, followed directly from what turned out to be the climax of KD’s nice-guy reputation: his 2010 announcement (via a tweet, ominously) that he’d signed a contract extension with the Thunder. KD signing a contract extension would have been news in and of itself, of course, but a quirk of timing gave it added cultural resonance. Durant’s tweet dropped one day before the public debacle of The Decision, LeBron James’s 2010 TV-special-cum-free-agency-ego-bonfire (but for charity!). By announcing his decision in such a decidedly lowercase form, Durant unintentionally made himself the stick talk-radio callers could use to beat LeBron’s runaway hubris. Look at this kid, Mike: NBA scoring champion at 21, unquestioned star of the youth revolution taking place in Oklahoma City, doing things the right way. Who does LeBron think he is?

The nice young man routine played beautifully in drivetime-dad traffic. It played brilliantly to Thunder fans like me. Nationally, however, it maybe wasn’t the brand identity most likely to lure the youths into $95 Zoom KD IVs (“This is streetwear, son … where we respect our elders and put humility first”). So Nike concocted an ad campaign to counteract all the (good) press Durant was getting by stressing his ruthlessness and killer instinct in place of his self-effacing upstandingness. (That Twitter seemed self-effacing in 2010 is, of course, not the least weird aspect of this story.) Suddenly Durant’s face was on billboards and in TV commercials over the counterintuitive tagline “KD IS NOT NICE.”

The fatal weakness of this campaign was also, of course, its genius—namely, that it wasn’t remotely obvious that ruthlessness and killer instinct were qualities Durant actually possessed. His ability to hit clutch basketball shots did not seem to flow from any sort of Jordanesque will to power or sublimated fury at the world. He seemed like a young man with a God-given ability to hit absolutely face-melting clutch basketball shots, true; he also seemed … pretty nice, honestly. The ad campaign worked by gently ironizing both Durant’s conflict-free persona and the typical alpha-wolf story arc modeled again and again by elite basketball stars. (There could never have been a campaign called “Kobe Bryant Is Not Nice,” because no one ever had the impression that Kobe Bryant was nice.) It made him more likable by pretending to make him less likable. It presented, in other words, a double image: We were asked to see Durant as the thing we knew he was and, simultaneously, as the opposite of that thing. Here was what we thought was reality, and here was a curated, virtualized revision of reality, and in between was a credit-card reader.

The complicating factor, of course, was that Durant himself seemed to want us to think of him as Not Nice; you don’t call yourself @easymoneysniper on Instagram if you’re all the way jazzed on rainbows in your opening credits, even if everyone else wants them for you. And there were a few venues when he’d show a harder, edgier—or at least crankier—version of himself. The second moment of split identity that I’m thinking of from around this time was the deeply bizarre semi-feud that subsisted for years between Durant and the media. To some extent, this was the product of the Thunder brass’s misguided (to my mind) strategy of sheltering the team’s young stars from the press, a decision that taught the players to see reporters as adversaries even when they were receiving almost unbelievably favorable coverage. You see the legacy of this choice, for instance, in Westbrook’s ongoing ability to read a question like “How did you find the energy to fight through screens in the fourth quarter?” as a gross personal insult.

It was always stranger, though, with Durant. He was so adored. Westbrook at least had the excuse of having been overlooked in his early days; the national and local media would have crawled over glass for Durant. Yet my lasting image from his press conferences of about 2011 to 2015 is that he’d come in, having played brilliantly, and sit at the podium wearing chunky librarian glasses with no lenses in them, and then scowl, very gently, at a room full of reporters who worshipped him, because once, 26 months ago, one newspaper had run an unflattering headline about him. Here was another case when the reality (KD Is Strangely and Temporarily Not Nice) seemed to contradict the curated version of the reality (KD Is Given Rapturous Coverage on SportsCenter). Only this time, all the terms were flipped. Nothing was real; everything was feelings; would you like whiskers in your avatar photo, angry sir?

It wasn’t till 2016, though, that internet logic fully engulfed Durant’s career (also American political institutions and the Earth itself, but that’s a different column). That year, he left OKC for the Warriors. From the moment he opted out of the NBA’s traditional alpha-hero narrative, and instead took the if-you-can’t-beat-’em-play-small-forward-for-’em approach to his rivalry with the era’s defining team, he entered the strange, half-virtualized hall of mirrors from which he posts these days. (Literally, Silicon Valley!) NBA fans hated the move for both competitive reasons and historic narrative ones. On the one hand, here was an all-world talent joining a 73-win team, creating a monster Voltron that would never again blow a 3-1 lead to the Cavaliers; on the other hand, now we’d never get to see whether Durant could lead a team to the promised land himself.

How does an out-of-favor athlete usually find vindication? By playing well and winning, right? But in Durant’s case, playing well and winning only reminded people why they hated the move to Golden State so much in the first place. The punch line of the joke was that there was no escape from the joke: Acting to make things better could only make them worse. Watching him bomb earth-shattering 3-pointers in a Warriors uniform was like the high-art version of watching him pick fights in the comments: Whether or not he scored on his opponents, he was digging himself deeper just by being there. That he was, in fact, picking fights in comments at an alarming rate during this period only underlined the point.

All of this breaks my heart a little because I’m still sure of one thing: Durant is the most beautiful basketball player I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean the best. I don’t mean I’d pick him first in a pickup game for the survival of the human race. I mean he’s the player whose game I can picture with my eyes closed. Do you know what I mean? Try it. Right now: Picture Kyrie Irving taking a jumper. A little blurry, right? Now picture Durant taking one. And there it is, crystal clear, in 1080p: the vertical slash of him; the slightly off-kilter lean; the rhythm, smooth and syncopated at the same time; the perfect construction-crane follow-through. I don’t know how he feels or what he truly wants or why every aspect of his career that isn’t playing basketball seems so vexed. I only know there’s a little leap my heart makes when he’s playing. A player like Zion Williamson makes you jump up and shout, awestruck by an audacity of sheer straightforwardness. That should have been impossible, and yet … ! Durant does something rarer: He makes you sink back farther into the sofa, awestruck by the subtlety with which a total command of the possible reveals itself. That was just … so right. Maybe it’s the difference between talent and mastery. The most thrilling movement isn’t the biggest; it’s the smallest when it has the biggest effect.

Writing this, I realize that I just want to watch him play basketball again, regardless of where he signs next or what happens with the ambient stress of his persona. But it would be great—I almost said nice—if his forced time away could break the circuit of resentment and contempt that’s come to exist between him and NBA fans. I’d venture to suggest, in any case, that the reason we find the self-defeating melodrama of his off- and online identities so embarrassing is not that it’s so hard for us to relate to, but because it’s so easy. And without excusing some of the really frustrating and embarrassing things he’s done, I’d add that maybe it’s not Durant that we’re looking to punish in excoriating them. It’s the part of ourselves that we see in him. He’s the NBA star we’re hardest on because he’s the star who’s most like us.

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