Kevin Durant wants you to believe that he's "not nice."
He wants you to believe he's a fierce competitor, rather than "just" a silky smooth shooter. He wants you to believe he's a cold-blooded killer on the court, rather than "just" a great, supportive teammate who does anything and everything he can to help the Oklahoma City Thunder win. He wants to be a champion, rather than a runner-up—No. 1 instead of No. 2.
Or, at least, that's what Nike would have you believe, if their recent KD-centric advertising campaign is any indication:
Except, changing who you are and how you approach the game when you're already as great as Durant is won't necessarily have any effect on your place in the NBA's superstar hierarchy. Nor will it land you a place on the altar when you've already been bridesmaid to the Larry O'Brien Trophy.
Especially when you're Kevin Durant, and you know full well that you're trying to become something that you're not (via Lee Jenkins and Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated):
People get it confused and think you have to be a jerk to win. But we all feed off positive energy. I’m a nice guy. I enjoy making people happy and brightening their day. If someone asks me for an autograph on the street, I don’t want to wave him off and tell him, "Hell, no." That’s not me. The last few months I’ve calmed down and had more fun. We can still get on each other, but there’s another way.
That doesn't sound to you like a guy who's "not nice," does it? That doesn't sound like someone who should be making a conscious effort to look like a tough guy, does it?
And yet, Durant's on-court antics would suggest otherwise. He finished the regular season with 12 technical fouls (by far the most of his career) and earned his first ejection as a pro in 2012-13. He also garnered a $25,000 fine for this "menacing gesture" during the second quarter of the Thunder's 116-97 win over the Golden State Warriors on April 12:
Durant's already picked up two more techs in these playoffs, leaving him five short of a one-game suspension.
Perhaps, in the meantime, a shift in attitude would make some sense for KD. After all, OKC is without Russell Westbrook and his trademark surliness for what's likely to be the remainder of the postseason. If Durant's already taken up more of Westbrook's scoring, passing and ball-handling duties, why not fill in for Russ' bulldog mentality as well?
That aside, if Kevin wants fully to grasp the potential pros and cons of creating a new persona for himself, he'd do well to consult with and study the "example" set by LeBron James. Prior to the 2011-12 season, James—who serves as Durant's workout buddy, on-court rival and most frequent point of comparison—admitted to Rachel Nichols (then with ESPN) that his attempt to embrace the part of the "villain" hindered his ability to play the game of basketball with the same joy and passion as before, and to tap into his full potential, as a result:
You may remember that Nike put out an ad in 2010, shortly after LeBron's infamous "Decision," that painted James as defiant, unconcerned with his critics and willing to be the "bad guy":
It's not entirely unlike the Swoosh's latest campaign with KD. Granted, Durant's has more of a comedic feel to it, while LeBron's took on a more serious, self-reflective tone. But the point between the two is/was essentially the same: KD is not nice, and neither was LeBron.
The last line of the LeBron ad could serve as a useful starting point for Durant's own internal discussion regarding his supposed villainy: What should I do? Should I be who YOU want me to be?
Or, in KD's case, should he be who Nike wants him to be? Who he thinks he needs to be to succeed at the highest level in the NBA?
Legends like Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Larry Bird (among others) have long been lionized for being insanely competitive, for attacking their opponents every which way, for pushing their respective wills to win to the depths of sociopathy. Jordan, in particular, has become the modern canon for competitive excellence.
The MJ worship, though, too often ignores some all-important points. For one, the success that Jordan enjoyed in the 1990s set a nearly impossible to standard to which so many have aspired, however futilely. The assumption therein is that, as far-fetched as it may be for any player to achieve what Jordan did under any circumstances in this day and age, one certainly isn't going to do so without a competitive streak on par with Michael's (See: Kobe Bryant, Kevin Garnett).
Likewise, Jordan's myth-inspiring mindset would probably show up in the DSM as a bona fide mental disorder. He was known for going at his biggest rivals in massive games, his teammates in practice and his friends in recreational card games with equal ferocity, antagonism and single-minded focus. We admire that in Michael, but would we really want our friends and family to behave that way? Would we want to behave that way ourselves?
And, of greatest interest to Durant, can you be the very best at what you do, can you reach the pinnacle of your profession, without being a jerk?
If LeBron's play over the last year-and-a-half is any indication, the answer is "yes." James no longer embraces the hatred, nor does he always go out of his way to be loved—unless, of course, there's a courtside celebrity to be greeted or a contest-winning fan to be tackled. Rather, as he told Rachel Nichols at the end of his interview in December 2011, he lets his game "be the villain hat guy."
As should Kevin Durant. He should want people (fans, opponents, teammates, etc.) to fear and/or respect him not for any extracurricular antics or "intimidating" scowls, but rather for the sharpness of his shot, the timeliness of his passes, the length of his spider-like arms and the power of his dunks:
Which is to say, Kevin should just be himself and let the rest take care of itself. He's already the second best player on planet Earth, with an NBA Finals appearance, three scoring titles and a 50-40-90 season already under his belt before his 25th birthday. Barring catastrophic injury, he's only going to get better from here on out, with his day in the sun soon to follow.
When those solar rays arrive will depend as much on Durant's continued rise as it will on when and to what extent LeBron's game inevitably begins to decline. Trying to be something that he's not isn't going to help Durant in this endeavor. Last I checked, basketball is a team game, and it doesn't usually harm a team's fortunes if most of its players enjoy sharing a court with its biggest star, as the Thunder presumably do with Durant. If anything, being a villain will only hold him back and make it that much more difficult for him to realize the true extent of his prodigious talents.
Just as it slowed LeBron's growth into a champion, once upon a time.