Last year, Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Kevin Durant caught fire playing basketball at Rucker Park in Harlem, New York. He scored 66 points in one game, eight short of the park’s all-time record. (Rucker has a legendary basketball history of cultivating tough New-York talent, and players who have eaten elbows there include Wilt, Kareem, Dr. J, Iverson and Kobe.)
In front of 2,500 fans, Kevin Durant also hit five straight 3-pointers, all from a greater distance than the NBA 3-point line. After his fifth one, fans charged the court and celebrated with the Oklahoma City Thunder all-star.
This was last summer, when Durant used a personal street-ball circuit to tune up for the NBA season. ESPN.com tried to get in touch with Durant as he was dominating pickup games in New York, L.A., and at multiple stops in between. The response was “He doesn’t want to talk about it. He doesn’t want any publicity. He just wants to ball.”
That’s pretty cool. Durant looks like he would be pretty cool. He’s tall (listed at 6-9 but probably taller) and skinny, snake-smooth and athletic, with a face that wears the relaxed demeanor of a ninja poker player.
And he loves basketball. He also loves just being an athlete. During the labor lockout that delayed the start of this NBA season, Durant was sitting at home and tweeted this: “This lockout is really boring..anybody playing flag football in Okc..I need to run around or something!”
In nearby Stillwater, a flag football team of students at Oklahoma State was about to play an official game. They invited Durant. He showed up, played quarterback, and threw four touchdowns.
Playing quarterback and corner, Durant stepped in as a surprising celebrity ringer and dominated while helping his team to victory, according to those in attendance. In the process, Durant turned Halloween 2011 in Stillwater into an unforgettable night. A night that folks in a crowd that started off meager but quickly grew into an estimated count of 500 will someday tell their children about. And those who witnessed Durant on the field Monday night left with an understanding the non-believers somehow still lack: Kevin Durant is just a different breed.
Couple things. Firstly, this is why Durant – at 23 already the best scorer in the NBA, numbers-wise – is going to get better and better until he retires one day as an all-time great. To be truly fantastic at something, you have to enjoy it enough to keep doing that thing over and over and over. (Malcolm Gladwell wrote a whole book about this, called “Outliers.”) Durant’s a gym rat who loves the game, and this totally reminds me of something out of David Halberstam’s definitive Michael Jordan biography “Playing for Keeps.”
Jordan had worked a “Love of the game” clause into his contract, which said he could played basketball anywhere, anytime he wanted. Jordan would be driving by basketball courts, see some guys playing, then pull over and join them. (Can you imagine?) This is what one coach told Halberstam about Young Jordan: “He was going to be a great player… not just because of the talent and the uncommon physical assets but because he loved the game. That love could not be coached or faked, and it was something he always had. He was joyous about practices, joyous about games, as if he could not wait for either. Not many players had that kind of love. All too many moderns players… loved the money instead of the game. But Jordan’s love of what he did was real, and it was a huge advantage.”
Durant appears wired the same way, which is wonderful.
The coolness factor is big, too. When he signed his $85-million contract extension with Oklahoma, Durant made the announcement on Twitter. It included “I love yall man for real, this is a blessing!” Much was made of the comparison between that nice, simple statement and LeBron James’s infamously douchebaggy one-hour ESPN show “The Decision,” when he announced he was leaving Cleveland to play with Dwyane Wade in Miami. (Ohio will never forgive him.)
That difference is there, certainly. Durant vs. LeBron could superficially be considered a matchup between selfless baller and soulless self promoter, between a humble guy who says he’s lucky to be in the league and someone who said his top goal is to become a “global icon.”
As ever, the real story is cloudier than the easy narrative. Durant appears in some pretty terrible commercials, and it’s probably easy to stay put in Oklahoma City when the team is so young and talented and deep. I feel like there’s no way LeBron leaves Cleveland if he had the same sort of squad around him there as Durant has now in Oklahoma. And LeBron puts in off-season time on street courts, too, which we rarely hear about.
What we’ve seen so far in this finals series is that LeBron’s the better player of the two – he can’t shoot as well, but he’s much better at defending, passing and rebounding. Durant is younger than LeBron, though, and has the drive and love to keep improving. One day Durant will take LeBron’s championship trophy, and then he might not give it back.