How Would Thunder Fans React If Kevin Durant Returned to OKC One Day?

Jon Hamm@@JonMHammOklahoma City Thunder Lead WriterJune 18, 2018

Golden State Warriors' Kevin Durant, left, stands next to Oklahoma City Thunder's Russell Westbrook during the first half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018, in Oakland, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

The sight of Kevin Durant hoisting yet another Finals MVP trophy didn't come as a shock to Thunder fans.

It just didn't happen with him wearing the shade of blue they expected.

When Durant wrote "My Next Chapter," he bid farewell to a passionate Oklahoma City fanbase that had championed him for the last eight years. His returns to OKC since joining Golden State have been far from pleasant. "KowarD" T-shirts. Fans dressed up as cupcakes. Boos that are normally reserved for the likes of Patrick Beverley. Allegations of racially charged taunts.

Cavaliers fans can empathize. In the aftermath of LeBron James' prime-time "The Decision" spectacle in 2010, the idea of him returning to lead the Cavs to four straight NBA Finals seemed as realistic as bouncing a rock off of Mars. While with the Miami Heat, James was similarly unwelcome when he returned to play his former team.

Two NBA superstar legacies are marred by their controversial free-agent decisions. While James embraced the villain label with the Heat, his image and perception have improved since returning to Cleveland in 2014. But Durant is still trying to find an acceptable way to explain his decision to join the 73-win Warriors.

KD may need a new challenge one day. If he does, his next chapter could happen somewhere with a little less cushion. The NBA would be his buffet if he ever did.

If he follows James' career arc, that would logically lead him back to Oklahoma City.

A reunion between Durant and the Thunder isn't realistic, at least any time soon. The two-time NBA champion has already stated his intention to return to Golden State, and Oklahoma City's focus is on re-signing star forward Paul George. Fans have since rallied behind All-Star point guard Russell Westbrook, who has re-upped his commitment to OKC twice since his former co-star's departure.

Durant has given a number of reasons—on purpose and accidentally—to explain his decision to leave Oklahoma City. Most recently, he described a need for validation from his peers.

He may have earned it from some, but others have voiced differing opinions.

Portland Trail Blazers point guard Damian Lillard once said that joining a team like the Warriors was "something I couldn't see myself doing." His backcourt teammate CJ McCollum tweeted during the Finals that Durant "shouldn't have gone there" and that he'd "rather get swept." Phoenix Suns forward Jared Dudley tweeted that he hopes KD goes somewhere else.

If that "somewhere else" was OKC, how would the fanbase react considering they are still applying aloe vera to soothe the burns of two summers ago?

Newly elected Oklahoma City mayor David Holt is a lifelong Oklahoman. He served as chief of staff under the previous mayor, Mick Cornett. The two played significant roles in bringing professional basketball to The Big Friendly. "I am fully aware how Thunder fans have felt since July 4, 2016, because I feel it, too," Holt said. "And I think we'll feel that way forever if the status quo is maintained.

"Yet all KD would have to say is 'I choose you,' and virtually all fans would forgive him."

Gabe Ikard was an All-American lineman for the Oklahoma Sooners. Now retired from football, the longtime Thunder fan co-hosts Franchise Players for 107.7 The Franchise in Oklahoma City. Those dual titles grant him solid insight on the psyche of the fanbase.

"Durant's departure to the Golden State Warriors resulted in the biggest backlash to a player's free-agency decision in the history of sports," Ikard said. "I'm not quite sure he expected that extreme of a reaction. I'm not sure Oklahomans thought that they would react so severely to his decision either.

"But," he added, "no one thought it would be Golden State."

"I find it hard to believe people that say they would not welcome him back," Ikard said. "It's easy to call him a snake and cupcake now. But if he was dropping 40-plus in Thunder blue again, a lot of fans would find forgiveness quickly."

Gabe Ikard attending a Thunder game
Gabe Ikard attending a Thunder gameSue Ogrocki/Associated Press

KOCO sports director Bryan Keating has covered the Thunder for the TV station since 2011. He sees the reaction as one borne more out of hurt than anger.

"People here loved Kevin. They still do," Keating said. "That's why it hurt so badly when he left. He broke people's hearts."

One characteristic of small markets is that there is more of an intimate connection between the fans and the players. "This isn't Philly or New York," Keating said. "I mean, can you imagine how New Yorkers would have reacted if Patrick Ewing signed with the 72-win Bulls? People here would be quick to forgive."

"I think the relationship was so close and deep that it would be difficult for most people not to embrace him once again," Ikard added. "There's no doubt that some people will never understand why he chose Golden State. But he chose what he thought was best for him and his career."

Holt agreed: "There's a reason 90 percent of all pop songs are based on the theme that the heartbroken would take the heartbreaker back in a second. That's just human nature."

Still, the idea of Durant ever resuming his career in OKC seems remote. James was born and raised in Northeast Ohio, a factor that likely played a large part in his decision to return to Cleveland. If Durant followed his roots, he'd sign with the Washington Wizards. Fans not-so-subtly recruited Durant during a 2015 visit, a display that Durant called "disrespectful" at the time.

But Oklahoma City is where KD rose to fame and set the stage for his success in Golden State.

"Fans would find room in their heart again for KD," Holt said. "Not that I'm holding my breath for such a turn of events, but I suppose stranger things have happened."

And for those fans feigning a stiff upper lip and declaring they wouldn't want Durant back?

"He is a top-two player in the NBA," Ikard said. "When it is all said and done, he will be a top-10 player of all time.

"He will arguably be the best scorer to ever play the game of basketball. If you don't want that guy back on your team because he hurt your feelings, then who really is the cupcake?"

Related

    Report: 76ers Failed to Poach Morey

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Report: 76ers Failed to Poach Morey

    Scott Polacek
    via Bleacher Report

    NBA Power Rankings After Lakers Land LeBron

    NBA logo
    NBA

    NBA Power Rankings After Lakers Land LeBron

    Zach Buckley
    via Bleacher Report

    Hart Outduels Sexton as Lakers Beat Cavs

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Hart Outduels Sexton as Lakers Beat Cavs

    Scott Polacek
    via Bleacher Report

    Scores and Highlights from SL Semifinals

    NBA logo
    NBA

    Scores and Highlights from SL Semifinals

    Joseph Zucker
    via Bleacher Report