OKLAHOMA CITY — The play begins 75 feet from the basket, with a lunge and a steal, the start of a Kevin Durant breakaway. The strange murmurs begin a split-second later.
Durant is dribbling, running, gliding past midcourt, losing his last defender. The chorus starts to rise, becoming his soundtrack.
It's not excitement, not exactly. And it's not a roar. It's not even that loud. It's more like a fretful clamor, a dissonant blend of hope and anxiety and adoration and concern. By the time Durant completes the play, a fairly ordinary right-handed dunk, the crowd at Chesapeake Energy Arena has reached its collective crescendo.
And then, near-silence, a massive exhale.
It is Oct. 9. The game is an exhibition, the opponent is from Istanbul and the results mean nothing. In eight NBA seasons, Durant has completed hundreds of dunks, many more memorable, but probably none as meaningful.
It's been six months since the last of Durant's three foot surgeries, and much longer since anyone in Oklahoma City could feel joy for the Thunder's willowy superstar. For all of those official statements about "successful" surgeries and methodical timetables, nothing is as reassuring as this routine three-second burst of activity.
And for Durant, nothing could be more unnerving than sensing this. The anxious buzz? He heard it, felt it, all the way to the basket.
"I don't like that feeling, though," Durant said afterward. "I mean, I remember when I was in ninth grade, I was one of those bench players that would come in, and the crowd would cheer. I hated that. So no, I don't really like it. I'm glad they're cheering for me, but yeah, that's a normal play for me."
There is nothing normal about this season, not for Durant, not for his team and not for this city.
Normalcy departed last year, the moment Durant's right foot cracked and "Jones fracture" became a household phrase.
Last October, there was a surgery to repair Durant's foot. He missed 17 games. In February, there was another surgery, to remove a troublesome screw. And in March, a third surgery, a bone graft that ended his season.
Three surgeries in 167 days. On a foot. The foot of a virtual 7-footer—and never mind the official listing of 6'9". Teammates and coaches and opponents will tell you Durant is closer to seven feet tall. And the history of 7-footers with foot problems is truly scary.
When these fans last saw Durant, last spring, he was puttering around on a scooter, his health in doubt, his future uncertain. That third surgery was deemed a success, and team officials expressed unqualified confidence in a complete recovery. But that's what teams and doctors are supposed to say. It doesn't always turn out the way the experts hope or expect.
So there is an antsy energy in the air on this warm fall evening in downtown OKC, as several thousand fans filter into the arena known affectionately as the Peake to gauge the health of their local hero.
In the stands, nine out of every 10 fans is wearing a No. 35 Durant jersey, or maybe it just seems that way. There is no time to poll them all, but in the north end zone, 10-year-old Charlie Rico serves as an effective spokesman for the masses.
"I cannot believe it," says Rico, who attends most home games with his father, Jonathan. "I can't wait to see him on the court."
Charlie is predicting a big night from Durant—lots of scoring and rebounds and assists, maybe a dunk or two. Yet even the boundless optimism of a fourth-grader eventually collides with reality.
"Everybody in this building's like, 'What's happening with Kevin Durant?'" Charlie half-shouts, with clear urgency. "Is he going to be good Kevin Durant? Or will he be bad? What the heck will happen?"
What the heck will happen?
Will Kevin Durant be great again? How great? All-Star great? Superstar great? MVP great? How long will it take? How long will it last? Is that foot OK? Can it take the strain?
"Everyone wants to see the first three steps," Jonathan Rico said before that Oct. 9 game against Fenerbahce Sports Club. "No one's going to watch the ball. The first drive, everyone's going to be looking at the floor."
There is no template for this, no precedent for a reigning Most Valuable Player undergoing multiple surgeries, losing nearly a full season and immediately reclaiming his dominance. Durant, who just turned 27, is in uncharted territory. So, what will happen?
These are the questions and doubts that now hover over this franchise. There is much at stake in the answers.
In nine months, Durant will be a free agent, with perhaps a half-dozen teams trying to pry him loose from Oklahoma, selling him on bigger stages, brighter lights and promises of championship parades. No one here believes Durant will leave, and Durant has shown no signs of wanderlust. But there are no certainties in professional sports.
The conventional thinking is that a championship, or even a run to the Finals, would convince Durant to stay. Any other outcome, well, leaves the door open. Of course, it's all just speculation—as are the sporadic rumors of Durant's purported interest in New York, or Los Angeles or Washington—but a title run would surely ease a lot of minds in the Sooner state.
The Thunder have been in contention nearly every year since Durant and Russell Westbrook entered their prime, making three Western Conference Finals and one trip to the NBA Finals. Injuries have been their greatest foe—Westbrook's knee in 2013, Serge Ibaka's calf in 2014, Durant's foot last season.
Here is what the Thunder will tell you about that foot: It's fine. Durant is fully healed and playing without restrictions. Team officials would like to reduce his playing time, not out of deference to his foot, but just to minimize the physical toll in general and extend his career—just as the Spurs and Warriors, two other forward-thinking franchises, have done with their stars. But if the Thunder need 40 minutes from Durant on any given night, he's free to play them.
As for Durant's greatness? His grace? His athleticism? His sublime jumper and his spiderlike dexterity? It's there, all of it—the step-back three-pointers, the sashays through the lane, the dizzying crossovers, the soaring dunks.
You could see glimpses that October night at the Peake, and you could see it, unmistakably, in the Thunder's preseason finale, when Durant artfully carved up the Utah Jazz for 29 points on 11-of-15 shooting.
Is Durant OK? Yes, and he really wishes we would all stop asking.
"How are you feeling?" a reporter asked after a mid-October exhibition in Tulsa.
Durant paused for three awkward seconds, then responded with polite irritation.
"I told myself I'm not answering that question no more," he said.
It's not that Durant doesn't appreciate the concern. It's just that he views this entire comeback narrative as an insult. Reclaiming his greatness? I never lost it. Re-establishing his place in the game? I never left. The comeback? Please, for goodness' sake, don't call it a comeback.
Those who are closest to Durant say they have seen no dip in his abilities, his athleticism, his confidence. But they have all have heard the defiance in his voice.
"I think he's just trying to fix the narrative a little bit," said Brice Plebani, who has been friends with Durant since age 12, when they were rec-league teammates in Seat Pleasant, Maryland.
Plebani traveled with Durant to Los Angeles over the summer, watched him diligently rebuild his game and heard the early notes of irritation.
"I don't think he wants people to feel that this is a comeback year for him. I think he wants to feel like there was never anything that he needed to come back from."
We forget so quickly, all of us. An 82-game season zips by in a blur, and the storylines come at us, rapid-fire. Teams rise, teams fall and the sexiest players of the news cycle seize the headlines and highlight reels. Everything else is quickly forgotten.
By the time the Thunder tip off the new season, Wednesday night against the Spurs, it will have been 252 days since Kevin Wayne Durant, of Seat Pleasant, Maryland, last played in a meaningful NBA game...382 days since the initial fracture was revealed...516 days since Durant last played on a healthy right foot, in Game 6 of the 2014 Western Conference Finals.
A lot can happen in 516 days.
While Durant was hobbling around Oklahoma, dutifully following return-to-play protocols, Stephen Curry was mesmerizing the world with his slick shooting and bullet passes.
LeBron James, the NBA's homecoming king, was powering Cleveland back to the Finals.
Anthony Davis was blossoming into stardom, and Westbrook was morphing into a triple-double machine.
When it was over, the Warriors were champions and Curry was the league MVP, fending off Harden, James, Westbrook and Davis in the most compelling race in years.
When it was over, Durant sat in a Las Vegas gymnasium and proclaimed, matter-of-factly, "I'm the best player in the world."
It was a startling statement, not just because Durant was reduced to a footnote last season, or because Curry had that shiny MVP trophy or because, well, LeBron still exists, but because Durant—renowned (and beloved) for his humility—has never been the boastful type.
Also, the proclamation was entirely unsolicited.
It came after a Team USA workout in August, another step in Durant's return to basketball normalcy. The question posed to him was unremarkable: "Did you have any doubts about coming out here, health-wise?"
As the query unfurled, Durant dropped his head to the left, curled his lip, blinked twice and rolled his eyes.
"Man, I'm not coming out here unless I'm 100 percent. I'll never have no doubts in myself," Durant said, his indignation rising. "I feel like I'm the best player in the world. That's [how] confident I feel. No disrespect to no players here. But I always got that confidence."
For emphasis, Durant repeated the sentiment four weeks later in Spain: "I'm still the best player in the world."
It caught people off guard, even those who know Durant best. Modesty has long been his calling card.
This is the superstar who famously devoted his MVP speech to building up others—teammates, coaches, family—and telling his mom, Wanda Pratt, she was "the real MVP."
This is the star who, as an 18-year-old Texas freshman, refused to pose for a Dime magazine cover unless his teammates were allowed to join him (they did), and who, three years later, made the same demand of Sports Illustrated, insisting on a cover shot with Thunder teammates Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic.
Bravado hangs uncomfortably on Durant, as if it might slip off those narrow shoulders the next time he does that charming shimmy at the foul line. He is as driven as any NBA star to dominate, to stake a claim among the all-time greats. It's just that braggadocio doesn't seem to come as easily to him as it does to so many other stars.
He doesn't do the Kobe Bryant death stare. He doesn't do the Westbrook sneer. He doesn't do self-aggrandizing proclamations.
But circumstances have changed.
The Western Conference is thick with contenders and superstars. The Thunder, with a new coach (Billy Donovan), a remade rotation and lingering uncertainty surrounding Durant, are almost an afterthought.
Maybe Durant needed to remind the world of his greatness. Maybe he needed to remind himself—a bit of psychological rehab to match the long days spent working on his body.
"I think it's just coming from people doubting him," said Thunder guard D.J. Augustin, a friend of Durant's since their freshman year together at Texas. "He's kind of like, 'Man, well s--t, now it's time for me to stand up for myself and say how I feel. All these years I been humble and been quiet and just kind of proving on the court what I can do. But I'm not going to let people attack me anymore, say I'm not this and not that.'"
Augustin added: "I think it's just time for him to stand up and be a man for himself. And that's what he did, told everybody how he's really feeling."
Or maybe this is just another step in Durant's evolution.
Something else happened two months before Durant proclaimed himself the best in the world. James, with his team trailing in the Finals, said the Cavs could still win "because I'm the best player in the world."
James and Durant are both friends and rivals, and they take notes on each other, influence each other. What James says matters.
"I think that once he heard LeBron say all those things this year during the Finals, Kevin's like, 'I'm buddies with this guy. I'm in the same league with this guy. I'm now kind of the same age when he really stepped into his own,'" Plebani said. "And he has that kind of confidence that there's not a big difference between [them], if any. So he absolutely should believe that.
"It's the kind of thing I'm sure he believed before, but just didn't say as much."
No, Kevin Durant has never been known for braggadocio. But then, Durant has spent most of his life chasing greatness, not assuming it.
When Durant was a sixth-grader in Seat Pleasant, he was unranked by the publications that, yes, rank the nation's top sixth-graders. It would be years before he even cracked the top 100 in his class.
At age 12, Durant wasn't even the best player on his recreation-league team, a group that also included future lottery pick Michael Beasley. That team won a national championship, but Durant wasn't the MVP. He was, however, the team's hardest worker.
On weekends, eager young basketball players filled the Seat Pleasant Activity Center gym run by coach Taras Brown, known to everyone as Stink. But Stink began midweek practices with one-mile "bear crawls"—players on all fours, tromping around a sandy grass field at Kenmoor Middle School, a mile from FedExField. They wouldn't touch a basketball for 30 minutes.
Maybe three kids would show up on a typical Tuesday afternoon. Durant was a fixture.
"Kevin would show up just because he wanted to get better," Plebani said. "That was one of the most unique things about Kevin, even from like 11 or 12, when kids have so many other things they can do. Basketball was his thing."
Durant was already about six feet tall, and the physical tools were all there—the quickness, the wiry limbs, the dexterity. He could dunk. Yet while his peers worked on flashy moves they had seen in AND1 mixtapes, Durant worked on his elbow jumper, his fundamentals. He soon claimed the title of best player at Seat Pleasant.
"He never needed to prove himself by scoring 50 points," Plebani said. "He would always do a little bit of everything."
Two other Durant character traits were evident from the start: his modesty and his kindness.
Plebani was the only white kid in the gym at the Seat Pleasant Activity Center—"the only white kid that I think a bunch of the kids on the team had ever met," he said. "Kevin, the first practice, immediately was one of the most welcoming, inclusive people that was around—adults, kids, anybody."
When Plebani and Beasley got into a fight, it was Durant who sat them down and played mediator.
As a high school freshman, Durant still couldn't crack the top 100 in his class. Future stardom was far from a given. Clarity arrived at age 15, in a national tournament in New Jersey.
Dwight Howard, of Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy, was the featured star of the event, the one scouts all flocked to see. Durant, then about 6'5", was a little-known forward playing for National Christian Academy, of Fort Washington, Maryland.
Everything came into focus in a single game, against St. Patrick of New Jersey, led by top prospect Derrick Caracter. Durant exploded, his full arsenal on display.
"All of a sudden he's making his shots, he's making one-dribble pull-ups, he's going to the basket, he's running the floor," Taras Brown recalled. "They're trying to use smaller players to stop him.... He's able to get around them and make good decisions."
"And I'm sitting back, like, 'I envisioned this, but not this soon.' It was shocking to see him put it all together."
The final stats, according to Brown: 21 points, eight rebounds. At one point, he had outscored Caracter 16-4—"He just couldn't run with Kevin."
Until that moment, Durant was an unknown, "even [in] the hometown," Brown said. Now coaches and scouts were descending toward the gym floor, each asking the next the same question: "Who is this skinny kid doing this?"
By the time the tournament was over, Brown said, Durant had leaped to 30th in his class, from 115.
"You're going to end up No. 2," Brown recalled telling him.
No. 1 was already locked up, because talented big men always take the top spot. And there was this kid from Indianapolis named Greg Oden who had the college coaches drooling.
On their first day as University of Texas freshmen, the new class of basketball recruits got the full campus tour—where they would eat, sleep and study. When the tour was over, 18-year-old Kevin Durant went straight to the gym, to shoot.
His new teammates were stunned.
"As kids," Augustin notes, "that's not the first thing you think about when you step foot on a college campus."
The general description of Durant had not changed: quiet, humble, easygoing. No one would have pegged him as a vocal leader. But something funny happened that first night on campus, after Durant went to the gym: Augustin and the others followed.
When stardom struck, and the folks from Dime magazine came calling, Durant's reply was simple: "I don't want to be on the cover; it's not about me." So the final cover featured the entire starting five, Durant flanked by Augustin, A.J. Abrams, Damion James and Justin Mason.
"He always put us first," Augustin said.
You can guess what Durant's first day as a Seattle SuperSonics rookie looked and sounded like: Talent, evident. Demeanor, quiet. Ego, indiscernible. Greatness? Possible, but yet to come.
What P.J. Carlesimo, then the Sonics' head coach, remembers most is not what Durant said or did, but what Carlesimo heard: a ball bouncing on the practice court, outside his office, at two in the morning. Sometimes after a game. Sometimes after a road trip.
"I didn't even have to look out the window," Carlesimo said. "I knew who it was."
The path to greatness is rarely obvious or linear. There are no givens, even for the most gifted individuals. If Durant seems unusually modest for his talents, perhaps it's because he never took stardom as a given. If he seems unusually defensive—defiant even—perhaps it's because he worked so hard to achieve the greatness that he now sees threatened.
Those foot surgeries have not fundamentally changed Durant's game, his mechanics, his intellect, his drive, his ambition. While others are looking for signs of regression, Durant is pushing forward.
"He's not trying to see if he can do the same stuff he's been doing," said Westbrook. "He's trying to expand his game and be better."
Doubts? Yes, even Durant had them at times, and who wouldn't after what he's endured? But he never withdrew from his teammates, never let his head dip in their presence. They could see his frustration, but never despair, even as the Thunder struggled to stay in the playoff race without him.
In the locker room, Durant stayed engaged, cracking jokes and offering advice. On the bench, he remained a tireless cheerleader. When the Thunder hit the road, he sent text messages of encouragement.
"He's a bit of an introvert," said Nick Collison, Durant's friend and teammate since 2007. "I think some days were probably harder than others, and we didn't always know about it....He was kind of vulnerable maybe for the first time as a basketball player, and I think that was something he had to deal with."
In sports, the word "rehab" conjures images of casts and crutches, hydrotherapy pools, stationary bikes, resistance bands, ice packs. But reclaiming greatness also requires a resiliency of spirit—a talent that is seldom talked about in a world obsessed with hops and length and killer crossovers.
"There's a fight that's necessary to be really good," said Grant Hill, the TNT analyst and former All-Star. "And there's also a fight necessary to come back from injury. You have to fight it. And it's just as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one."
Twenty years ago, Hill was a version of Durant: a smart, driven, multi-skilled forward who could score, dribble, pass and defend, a perennial MVP candidate. A series of ankle surgeries, over four years, robbed Hill of his stardom, though he extended his career as a role player.
Every injury and every comeback is different, but Hill is one of the few players to experience, in the broadest sense, the extreme highs and the extreme challenges that confront Durant now, to be a superstar threatened by possible irrelevance.
"Now you're not in the mix, you're not playing, you're hurt," Hill said. "You have all those feelings and emotions. And then all of a sudden, all of this praise is for somebody else.... I think that can play on one's psyche a bit."
The comeback theme long ago grew irritating to Durant, and the growing frenzy surrounding his 2016 free agency has made him ever more cautious with the media. He declined an interview for this story, as he has declined nearly all media requests for the last few months.
But those who know Durant best will tell you, yes, the process has been a struggle at times. No athlete undergoes three surgeries in six months and comes out without some mental scars.
Taras Brown said Durant came through the first surgery with his confidence intact. But after the second and third came the natural anxiety: Will my skills be diminished? Will I be the same? Could this be career-ending?
"Ever since Kevin was a kid, he's used self-doubt as motivation," Brown said. "With Kevin, self-doubt is good. It's always been good to him."
It was the third surgery, the one that put a definitive end to Kevin Durant's season that, perhaps ironically, provided the most peace of mind. There was no playoff berth to chase, no team to save, just the lousy feeling of being a helpless spectator.
The bone graft came with a four- to six-month recovery period, but also with more assurance of long-term success. And it left Durant with a definable, reachable goal: to be ready by opening night of 2015.
In the wake of last season's disappointment, the Thunder fired coach Scott Brooks and brought in Donovan, the widely respected Florida coach, who now bears the twin burdens of bringing a title to OKC and keeping Durant from fleeing next July.
Their relationship got an early boost, thanks to the surgery, which forced Durant to stay in OKC to rehab. When Donovan arrived in May, Durant was a daily fixture at the team's training center. They watched a lot of film together, talked basketball strategy, bonded.
"He'd talk about his family, my family," Donovan said. "He's so likable as a person. Developing that relationship wasn't very difficult, because of who he is."
The team Durant rejoins is at once familiar—with Westbrook and Ibaka completing the NBA's best Big Three—and new: He has hardly played with Dion Waiters and Enes Kanter, key role players who arrived in the middle of last season.
The sense around here is that this is the best supporting cast Durant has ever had.
All Durant wants is to feel normal again, to quietly dominate the game, to win another 60 games and play into June, to sprint and soar and dunk without the gasps of concern, or the overwrought analysis.
Moments after that breakaway dunk on Oct. 9, Durant attacked the rim again, this time with a fierce drive down the lane and a ferocious finish. But the breakaway had appeared, well, reserved. Durant did not fly particularly high, or dunk particularly hard. Are you holding back, still measuring yourself, a reporter wondered?
He could only shake his head.
"That's what I usually do. You guys are making me feel like, damn, I'm not supposed to have any bad days or regular dunks. You know, I was doing this before I was hurt. I felt the same, man."
Then Kevin Durant, the gangly kid from Seat Pleasant who became the best player in the world, smiled slightly.
"You won't see a windmill or a 360 from me," he said. "I'm kind of basic."
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.