Is There Really Loyalty in NBA? KD Says 'Ain't No Such Thing' in Epic Interview

Ric Bucher@@RicBucherNBA Senior WriterNovember 16, 2017

OAKLAND, CA - NOVEMBER 13:  Kevin Durant #35 of the Golden State Warriors reacts after the Warriors scored a basket against the Orlando Magic at ORACLE Arena on November 13, 2017 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Kevin Durant earned himself a title by joining the Golden State Warriors last season. Several, in fact.

Snake.

Spineless.

Gutless coward.

Cupcake.

Those were acquired via social media and certain TV debate shows—followed, of course, by a couple more: NBA champion. Finals MVP.

It took acquiring every one of them for Durant to discover that what he went through to earn those titles—yes, every one of themis far more valuable than the titles themselves.

"Once we won, I'm expecting something to take the place of what I thought was empty," Durant tells Bleacher Report. "Now I know. It's cool to do, but the journey is better than the destination. So much happened that got me to this point that means way more to me than a championship. That was my revelation when we won. I had to tell myself it was cool to feel that way. Everything I did led me to where I am."

Where he is, Durant says, is at peace. That didn't seem to be the case over the summer when a variety of stories surfaced suggesting that even after his successful title run, how and why he left OKC still haunted him.

First, there was his response on Twitter, in the third person, when a follower said he only left to win a ring: Durant wrote back that "KD" didn't like the organization, didn't think he could win a ring in OKC and didn't like playing for coach Billy Donovan. He didn't deny any of the statements when asked about them at a subsequent public appearance, but simply called them "childish" and "idiotic." Then there was the San Francisco Magazine story by Jon Steinberg where he revealed that the tidal wave of hatred that hit him after joining the Warriors made him question his decision.

"I'm still learning. That's the best part about it," he says. "As soon as you feel like, 'All right, I got life dialed,' then Twitter happened. Ninety-seven percent of the time I scroll past (posts like that). It's just the one time I (respond), it gets blasted, so it makes it look like I do this on a regular basis. That's a place where I need to just keep growing and truckin', because life is much smoother and greater for me when I don't pay attention to the bulls--t." He shakes his head, a rueful smile on his lips as he absently tugs on a strand of chin whiskers. "It's just part of life, man."

Now, a month into his second season with the Warriors, Durant is raising his sights from insulting tweets to years down the road. He hasn't reconciled with his former teammate, Russell Westbrook, nor his former GM, Sam Presti, and, yes, it also initially bothered him that OKC gave his No. 35 to PJ Dozier, who signed a contract that allows him to play for both the Thunder and their G League team, the Blue. But he says he has let go of his hard feelings, and he is convinced everyone on the other side of the OKC equation will do the same. Eventually.

Though Kevin Durant knows Russell Westbrook and other members of the Thunder would "take a bullet for him," he has yet to reconcile with his former teammate and others in OKC since his departure in 2016.
Though Kevin Durant knows Russell Westbrook and other members of the Thunder would "take a bullet for him," he has yet to reconcile with his former teammate and others in OKC since his departure in 2016.Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

"Those people really mean a lot to me to this day," he says. "No matter if they talk to me or they're mad at me. Whether it's Sam Presti or Troy Weaver or Russell Westbrook or Nick Collison. Whether it's Wilson Taylor or Clay Bennett and his family, I love them from the bottom of my heart. We're not talking, but eventually we will.

"I didn't have that perspective at first. I didn't have it when I went back to OKC. I was like, 'F--k all of them.' I didn't have it when they gave my number away. I was, 'F--k all of them.' My best friend works for the team, I told him, 'F--k all y'all. That's f--ked up.' Then I had to get out of my head, tell myself, 'It's not that serious, it is what it is.' I understand it's not my number anymore, they can do whatever they want with it, but you hand that number to a two-way player, you've got to be, like, 'Nah, we've got too many good memories with this number, man.' But at some point, that thing's going to be in the rafters anyway; it's all good. I did something they didn't like. They did something I didn't like. S--t happens. If I was on my death bed, I guarantee you Sam Presti and Russell Westbrook would come check on me. So I'm going to look at it that way rather than the other way."

Durant understands that talking in depth about his former home and franchise opens him up to more heckling. He is no more willing to be coerced into silence on that front than he was willing to be discouraged from joining the Warriors.

"I'm a person," he says. "I've got real feelings and I'm not afraid to be vulnerable in front of people who watch us play or that follow the league. It's f--ked up that you're saying that stuff about me, because just a couple months before, I was the greatest thing since sliced bread because I was playing for your team. Your team is on TV every day, playing late into the playoffs and you get to brag about how good your city is to some other people around the country. It was all good when I was doing something for you. It was all good when I was representing you. Now I decided to take my career in my hands and I'm a 'bitch'? That's confusing … because some people that I'd seen that cheered for me, people that I actually talked to, the faces they were giving me, the tone they had when they looked at me, it was weird.

"If I [respond], it's: 'No, you're sensitive. Shut up. You're supposed to take it. Everybody did it. Michael went through it.' I'm like, hold up. Michael Jordan did not go through this. You know what Michael Jordan went through? Reading the paper and it says, 'Oh, Michael Jordan was 7-for-33 the night before, how the f--k is he going to bounce back?' That's criticism. Criticism is not, '_____, you moved to _____, you're a bitch, a coward.' That's not criticism. Criticism is calling me Mr. Unreliable and bouncing back the next night."

Durant is referring to Game 5 of the Thunder's 2014 first-round playoff series, which the Memphis Grizzlies won in overtime to take a 3-2 series lead. In the final 28 seconds, Durant missed a free throw that would've tied the game and a three-pointer that could've won it. Two days later, on the morning of Game 6 in Memphis, the front page of the Oklahoman newspaper's sports section consisted of a photo of Durant surrounded by three Grizzlies with the headline, "Mr. Unreliable."

Durant responded that night with 36 points and 10 rebounds. The Thunder won in a rout and then rode that momentum to a Game 7 victory as well.

"That was a huge moment in my career," he says. "That's something I dreamed about overcoming as a kid. I didn't dream about motherf--kers calling me a bitch on social media because I switched teams. Because that's not criticism. That's actually you being a bitch, worrying about me and my personal life."

The idea that Durant joined the Warriors because he couldn't beat them—and that it was a simple choice—is what still bothers him.

While he says he never seriously considered leaving before he became a free agent, there was a cumulative effect years in the making. Playing alongside Curry and Andre Iguodala on the gold medal-winning Team USA squad in the 2010 FIBA World Championship was among them.

"Seeds were planted," he says.

His first NBA teammates believe motivating factors were sown even earlier. Not only well before the Warriors vanquished the Thunder in the 2016 conference finals, and not only before Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green were Warriors. But before Oklahoma City even had its own team.

Earl Watson, the former Phoenix Suns head coach, played with Durant his first two years in the league, bridging the franchise's last year as the Seattle SuperSonics and first in OKC as the Thunder. He saw firsthand how smitten Durant instantly became with living in a West Coast city perched on the Pacific Ocean.

"He played video games with his neighbor's kids," Watson says. "He was part of the community. I've always wondered why no one ever wrote a piece on why he went to the Bay from that perspective. Because to me, it's the closest thing to Seattle he could find in the NBA."

Former point guard Luke Ridnour played with Durant in Seattle. A three-team deal struck in August of 2008 sent him to Milwaukee and saved him a move to Oklahoma City. He, too, witnessed the instant love affair between Durant and the Seattle fans. He believes the similarity to the Bay might've played a part in his move—along with learning how fickle loyalty is in the NBA, seeing a franchise turn its back on an entire city. His franchise.

"He got to see it right away," Ridnour says. "The city embraced him. He was good, but he wasn't that good, so it wasn't just about being a great player. The worst part is [the owners] were telling everyone they were going to stay in Seattle. But in the locker room, we all knew we were gone. I don't think anybody wanted to go to OKC, to be honest. It's a good city and they have great fans, but c'mon—it's not Seattle."

Durant's embrace of Seattle when he first entered the league is something he was looking to recreate in some way with his move to the Bay Area, former Sonics teammate Earl Watson believes.
Durant's embrace of Seattle when he first entered the league is something he was looking to recreate in some way with his move to the Bay Area, former Sonics teammate Earl Watson believes.John Froschauer/Associated Press

Durant talks as fondly of the drive from his house on Seattle's Mercer Island to the Sonics' practice facility as he does his current view of the San Francisco Bay from the Oakland Hills. He is already scouting San Francisco for a place with similar views in anticipation of the team's move to its new arena.

"Fifteen minutes, no traffic," he says of the Seattle commute. "There wasn't a nice view from my house, but once I was on the bridge, beautiful. Water, both sides of you. On a good day, you could see Mount Rainier. Once spring rolled around, I was like, 'This is what Seattle is really about.' The Bay is the closest thing."

Initially, he was too excited about simply being in the NBA to resent the move. Over the years, though, the damage hit home.

"To be part of a franchise moving, no player, especially a rookie, expects that," he says. "I didn't even think that was in the cards. Obviously, I wasn't in on the deal, nobody asked me any questions. So as long as we got to play somewhere, it was cool with me. I was 19, I didn't know the effect a team moving had on fans or a city. As I got older, I realized how huge a team leaving a city is, how devastating that must have been for the fans. Every time we'd go to the West Coast, we'd see Seattle jerseys and you'd start to realize that was a huge, huge part of people's lives."

Other, more conventional basketball moves drove home a point that became clear to Durant: Loyalty in the NBA was illusory. James Harden was dealt to Houston. Coach Scott Brooks was fired. Durant didn't complain because he didn't see it as his place, but he took note.

"Ain't no such thing [as loyalty]," he says. "You see disloyalty in different ways, but that's one of the most underrated parts of the game. We scream loyalty, but we don't expect it from the people writing the checks because they're writing the checks. [People say] 'You should be fine with it because you're getting paid.' I liked it better when I was naive about the NBA business, how f--ked up it is. That was better for me that way. … You put money and business into something that's pure, it's going to f--k it up."

Though his feelings for the Thunder are complicated, he credits the organization for creating an environment where, as a young player, he didn't have to think about anything beyond playing.

"They taught us how to be professionals by just bunkering in and being straight about basketball," he says. "That's the underrated part about OKC: It may be a tight-knit, closed-door type of deal, but it's for the betterment of the players. It's for the development of the players."

Durant says his time with the Thunder helped him become a professional "by just bunkering in" and focusing on basketball.
Durant says his time with the Thunder helped him become a professional "by just bunkering in" and focusing on basketball.Larry W. Smith/Getty Images

Oklahoma City also appealed to a certain side of Durant, who is in the running for the NBA's most unassuming superstar. Seeing a familiar face at a recent Warriors practice, he stops to say hello and then notices an unfamiliar face a few feet away. Durant steps forward, extends his hand and says, "Hi, I'm Kevin," as if identifying himself was necessary. When he lists the most memorable moments from the Warriors' championship run, he bookends his first preseason dinner with his new teammates in Denver, where they sat around getting to know each other, with a Bible study at Curry's house the night before they clinched the title.

"There were a couple times we did [Bible study] throughout the year," Durant says. "But that particular moment, I wasn't planning on going. It was just random. I just felt it brought us closer as teammates, as friends. To go through the entire journey with Steph and cap it off with that, it was amazing."

But the moments he recalls on the court are few—well, except for his pull-up three-point shot over LeBron James that essentially clinched the championship and buried the Mr. Unreliable tag for good.

"That was a 'f--k you' shot, for sure," he says. "To everybody. Especially Paul Pierce. I heard him say, 'I guess he don't want to work no more.' That really struck a nerve when he said that. C'mon, man, I put in work. I know what you were going for, but c'mon. One thing I pride myself on is working out and crafting my skills."

Working on his wardrobe? Not so much. Durant's attire for games is invariably a T-shirt, hoodie, sweatpants and a pair of casual Nikes. Curry glanced at KD walking out of the locker room after one recent game and said, smiling, "Hey, dress up for the game one time, bro."

Durant, without breaking stride, said over his shoulder: "Why? I'm playing basketball."

Before he left, if Durant was more popular in OKC than Westbrook—its new favorite son, thanks to the five-year, $205 million extension he signed—it might be because he looked and acted the part of a local. Polite. Personable. Unassuming. Industrious. He routinely engages young fans in direct-message exchanges on Twitter, answering their questions about what it's like to guard LeBron in the open court or the best way to defend the pick-and-roll.

"I still want to give that insight to the fan because that's what basketball should be about," he says. "There are guys on Instagram that I would DM through the summer and I would school them on basketball. I'm talking about little kids, probably 10-, 11-year-old kids, like, 'What were you thinking when you shot that shot in the Finals?' I don't mind talking to them. That's the good part of having this platform and also being who I am. You can also influence people to love the game."

Westbrook has his share of admirable qualities, but the perpetually curled lip, arm's-length attitude and extreme fashion-forwardness aren't exactly standard issue for citizens of OKC. And chances are pretty good that he's not DMing random fans on social media.

All that may be why Durant's departure was so hard—on him and the fans. When he lists his keepsakes from those eight years, they are deeply personal. Helping Taylor, the Thunder's operations manager, pull off an elaborate engagement proposal to his wife. Philosophical talks with the team's VP of player performance, Dr. Donnie Strack. Being chosen as the godfather to former assistant coach Brian Keefe's daughter.

"That stuff right there is going to last forever," Durant says. "That stuff is way, way more important than a championship. Me and my family didn't just erase those eight years in OKC. D.C. and OKC is where we grew up—my mom, my brother, me. I am OKC. I'm still OKC. That blue is going to be in my blood forever. That place raised me. I have people there who would take a bullet for me and vice versa. But there's a point in a young man's life, just like when he goes off to college, or when he moves to another city to get a job, he's got to make a decision for himself. You've got to make a decision that's best for yourself and you would expect the people that love you the most to say they understand.

"I didn't get it early on. My mom had to tell me, 'These people really loved you so much there.' And I was like, 'Nah, Ma, they don't love me if they can cut me that quick or tell me I'm such a coward or be so happy when someone calls me a cupcake.' I don't know if that's love. But fandom is another level of love. It's irrational, stalker-ish love."

To Durant, the moments off the court with his Warriors teammates left a longer-lasting impression on him than simply hoisting the championship trophy last June.
To Durant, the moments off the court with his Warriors teammates left a longer-lasting impression on him than simply hoisting the championship trophy last June.Andrew D. Bernstein/Getty Images

There was another obsession in OKC—one that has defined Durant's last few seasons, no matter how much he wishes it didn't: winning a championship.

"We get it pumped into our heads that that's all that matters, that's what we're fighting for," Durant says. "But as a kid growing up, I never thought about a championship—I'm sorry, that's just me—I thought about being the best player I could be. When I got to the league, that's when it started. 'Oh, a championship is what I should get next? Cool.' Let me fight for that. I got away from why I started playing, because I was listening to all the noise.

"After we went to the Finals in 2012, it became all about the championship. I was worrying about going to the Finals the first week of the season. You set yourself up for failure because you can't win that early in the season, for one. And if you make a mistake, which happens, it's just heightened. It just mentally messes with me. I don't know how it is for other players. Measuring everything by whether or not I'm closer or farther away from a championship, you can't win a championship like that. It was taking control of my mind. And I'm still going through it. There are times where I'm like, Relax. Take a deep breath. For me, mentally, I have to just focus every day on locking in on my craft and that's what is going to help me get through every day."

Now that Durant has won that elusive title, he dismisses the idea that the ring he received on opening night should change how he is perceived.

"I've always been a champion," he says. "A champion is your approach to your craft every day. It's coming in and you want to get better, that's what champions do. I think people get that confused. Just because you're holding up a trophy doesn't make you a champion. Because there are a lot of bulls--t champions out there, right? They don't care about what they do, they don't care about who they're working with, they don't do it with passion, but they end up winning. That's not a champion to me."

That isn't Durant, and he doesn't care if he doesn't fit the model of the cold-blooded, athletic killer NBA types have come to expect, thanks to Jordan or Kobe Bryant.

"I'm a real person, dog, I don't try to be Superman or a tough guy," he says. "I know I'm not. I know I'm emotional about some stuff. But I can tell you when I get between those lines, I guarantee my teammates know they can talk to me about anything and my coaches can coach me about anything. I'm not going to take it personal."

Everywhere else is another matter. He is comfortable with you knowing that. Durant, as you may have gathered, is comfortable with you knowing just about everything. Even at the risk of you using it against him.

   

Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @RicBucher.