There's nothing wrong with NBA superstars looking out for their own interests.
There's nothing wrong with the very best in basketball seeking out greener pastures, bigger bank accounts and more enriching opportunities in new and different cities. Any given pro's playing career will only last as long as his mortal coil allows it to. As such, he might as well make the most of his time on the court, whether that means chasing greenbacks, contending for championships or both.
There's nothing inherently wrong with "showboating" or "selfish" play either. In many cases, these characteristics are mere outgrowths of the unusually competitive spirit that drives the world's most accomplished athletes toward greatness. Celebrations are the spoils of success, while a player taking over the game is more often the reflection of a burning desire to win and a supreme belief in one's ability to do so than it is a reflection of purely pompous egotism.
Not that there isn't plenty to be said for sportsmanship, humility, unselfishness and the like. Look no further than Kevin Durant, who's thrived among the league's elite for several years now while cultivating a public persona that runs counter to those of the boldest and brashest of his predecessors.
That persona works beautifully as a blueprint to be followed by the young talents coming up behind Durant in the NBA's never-ending cycle of stardom.
Derek Fisher, Durant's current teammate with the Oklahoma City Thunder, recently served as a reminder of KD's seemingly unique standing within the Association. When asked about the similarities between Durant and Kobe Bryant, with whom Fisher won five titles as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers, the 39-year-old point guard told Ben Jefferson of The Daily Express [bold added]:
The qualities that make the great players like Kobe who they are is just that they’re relentless in their preparation, they’re relentless in their desire to be better than everyone else.
I think Kevin has come back as a better player every single year. From what I’ve seen so far I think he’s better now than he was last season.
What continues to separate Kevin from so many other young guys before him and probably those that will come after him, is that he’s a phenomenal person.
He really cares about the success of others around him and I think that is what will always make the conversation about how great he was, once he’s done, very fun to have because whatever success he has his teammates will have it with him and that’s what he’s always wanted.
In this context, Fisher's comments could be interpreted as derisive toward his former championship chum. By showering Durant with praise for being a caring, communal person, he's implicitly suggesting that Bryant isn't those things...right?
Depends on how determined you are to make mountains out of nonexistent molehills, I suppose.
But to focus too much on what's left unsaid about the Black Mamba here is to ignore the bigger pattern developing on Durant's part. At the tender age of 25, Durant is already a master of something that most famous athletes and celebrities never quite grasp: compartmentalization.
Over the past few seasons, Durant has slowly (but surely) developed a much edgier, nastier persona on the court—he tied for eighth in the league with 12 technicals last season—all the while maintaining his personable, good-natured self off it. As Thunder big man Kendrick Perkins described it to Benjamin Hochman of The Denver Post this past March:
You have the one Kevin Durant who will sign everyone's autograph, take a picture, never turn down a fan, but then when he gets on the court, he's having fun, but at the same time — he loves to win and he takes losing personally. That's when you see that fire come out.
Oftentimes, that very fire spills over into an athlete's dealings with the media—and rightfully so. People like KD are, in many cases, required to answer questions that can be blunt and uncomfortable (as they should be, I might add) immediately before and/or after spending two-and-a-half hours pouring their heart and soul into the very task about which they're being asked.
Durant, to his credit, has thus far done an excellent job of handling himself amidst the persistent sea of blinding lights, clunky cameras and outstretched arms dangling recording devices. In 2010-11, the Pro Basketball Writers Association gave Durant the Magic Johnson Award, which recognizes productive players who cooperate with and accommodate the myriad demands of the basketball media.
This, after a summer in which KD hung back while some of his slightly older peers spent much of their time soaking up the perks of free agency. Before LeBron James revealed his controversial "Decision" during a prime-time special on ESPN, Durant beat him to the punch with a simple tweet announcing his max contract extension:
No flashing lights. No rabid fanfare. No posturing over the possibility of playing in a bigger market. Just 140 characters of distilled sentiment.
The thing is, that fell in with Durant's reputation, even at 21. He's long spoken highly and frequently of the importance of family, with hugs and kisses for his mother, Wanda Pratt, after every game OKC plays. When asked about being beaten to the title punch by his fiancee, Monica Wright of the 2013 WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx, KD suggested that she's the better baller between them:
A smart man, indeed, doing everything to support his future spouse, up to and including downplaying his own greatness to allow her to shine. Durant is widely considered the second-best basketball player on Earth, with three scoring crowns and a 50-40-90 season under his belt, yet he's willing to throw all of that under the bus for his significant other.
This doesn't necessarily make Durant an otherworldly amazing guy, but it does make him human in a way that's relatable for his adoring public. His apparent disposition is rare for someone of his fame, fortune and youth.
So, too, is his understanding of how to obtain the former two and where the latter leaves him. He seems to understand better than most that you don't need to live and play in a major media market to become a global icon. Sure, it helped guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to call cities like Chicago and L.A. home, but what's truly driven the expansion of their respective international brands are their reputations as winners at the highest level of a sport whose popularity defies borders.
LeBron James is in the midst of a similar ascendancy in the earthly zeitgeist, thanks to his tremendous exploits with the Miami Heat. James was maligned for leaving behind the Cleveland Cavaliers for a life on South Beach, though it'd be tough to argue that he did so purely for marketing purposes. According to a number of notable indices, Cleveland and Miami are neck-and-neck in terms of their footprints as media markets.
The point being, the ubiquity of mass media in the modern day has made it easier than ever for megastars to develop their brands from anywhere. What matters, much more than location, is the quality of the product being put forth and the comfort that said megastar enjoys wherever he or she happens to be.
In Durant's case, he seems content to stay in a relatively small sports town like Oklahoma City because he's comfortable with his surroundings, including the organization of which he is such a vital part. He showed his support for the Sooner State in a big way this past May when he donated $1 million of his own money to tornado relief and convinced countless others to contribute to the cause.
As he told Darnell Mayberry of The Oklahoman after re-upping with the Thunder in 2010:
I'm a very loyal person. People say that might hurt me sometimes, but I think it's a great attribute that I have. By them offering me the max, it shows me that they're loyal to me as well. So I was ready just ready to sign right then and there, opt out or not, and start moving forward.
We're building something great here, and I didn't want anything to jeopardize that. I'm happy I'm a part of this organization, and hopefully everybody sticks together.
This isn't to suggest that those players who can't or don't find the same level of comfort in one place or another are somehow "inferior" for that reason. LeBron had every right to leave Cleveland after giving the Cavs seven years to build a legitimate champion around him. The optics may not have played out in his favor, but the reasons underlying his move were sound.
Nor is any of this intended as some backhanded swipe at the stereotyped ghosts of "jocks"—past, present and future. Individuality and attitude are among the many hallmarks of American life that are well worth celebrating.
Those youngsters touted as the "next big thing" shouldn't follow in Durant's footsteps because he doesn't have visible tattoos or because his public persona is so perfectly manicured. KD has tons of body art that's covered up by his jersey and was fined $50,000 last season for this "menacing gesture" against the Golden State Warriors:
He's no angel, nor is he trying to be. If anything, Durant's handlers probably prefer that KD not be so "nice."
Rather, if Kevin Durant is going to be held up as a role model for the NBA's next generation, it should be for his impeccable work ethic, his dogged determination to improve year after year and his wise-beyond-his-years ability to cultivate multiple personalities in a manner that both boosts his Q rating and doesn't divide his psyche to a troubling degree.
And if KD comes away with a championship and/or an MVP at season's end, there will be all the more reason to think of Durant as a great ballplayer who also happens to be an exceptional human being.
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