All Eyes on KD

Kevin Durant won't return for the NBA's restart, but even off the court, the Nets superstar remains the league's must-watch player.
photo of Leo SepkowitzLeo Sepkowitz@@LeoSepkowitzContributorJuly 3, 2020

The footage is unremarkable, filmed in standard definition, capturing a slightly random moment. It shows nothing to suggest that Kevin Durant will return at full strength and nothing to suggest that he won't.    

All it shows is Durant dribbling slowly, crossing left, running, jumping off both feet and dunking. It does not say, "I'm back." It does not say, "I'm in the best shape of my life." For antsy NBA fans, the tape does nothing at all. What it does is work to slow things down, to give the viewer a sense of the moment. "Put down your swords and your hot takes," it says, "if only for these six seconds. Remember Kevin Durant."

Remember Kevin Durant? No scorer was more frightening as of June 2019—no player was better suited to lead the modern era of basketball, demanding offensive precision and defensive capability from everyone on the floor. The video makes you—or me, anyway—miss KD. And how often does anybody miss anything in the NBA?

This is the league in which nobody ever has to wait. The ball is scored and inbounded right away. The Finals end and the draft begins. The draft ends and free agency begins. A player is traded and 10 more react on Twitter. There is action at 3 a.m., on off days, during periods specifically labeled moratoriums (definition: "a waiting period"), even during a pandemic. On and off the court, basketball is about speed. It's unrelenting. Durant himself has often taken issue.

"I'm trying to play basketball," he once said. He was five months from free agency, but we wanted him to comment now. “Y'all come in here every day, ask me about free agency, ask my teammates, my coaches. You rile up the fans about it. Let us play basketball."

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Often, Durant has been frustrated by this churn, the circus that distracts from the sport and supports it at once. He has said, "Being relevant in the eyes of fans doesn't make the ball go in the basket." He has tweeted at reporter Chris Broussard, a stand-in for the skyrocketing rumor industry, "Cap cap cap....u don't have my number mannnnn."

Lately, all of this has calmed down. Some of that has to do with the fact that Durant is still rehabbing his Achilles, which he tore during the Finals last June. His contract, a four-year pact, helps to keep him out of superteam fantasies, as well. Most of all, though, the league's COVID-19 suspension and the social movements sweeping through the world have rendered discussions about GOATs and max cap space deeply irrelevant.

Many players, Durant included, have shifted focus to social issues. Following the killing of George Floyd, Durant conducted a rare interview, speaking to Marc J. Spears of The Undefeated. Of the nightmarish video that depicted Floyd's death, Durant said, "It's damaging to see another life being taken away from us. Someone with a family. Someone who was a father. A son. A friend. It was just horrible to see, especially coming from people who are supposed to be protecting us. We're really supposed to feel like we are safe all around." Of the Black community's response, he added, “I've seen the care, love and attention we have as a community. With everything going on right now it makes me have a lot of pride. We have a lot of stuff on our back, but we keep fighting through. It's beautiful to see everybody coming together as one right now for what we all believe in, which is equality.”

Durant also discussed the COVID-19 pandemic; in March, Durant himself contracted the virus. (He was asymptomatic and has fully recovered, as he told Spears.) "It's just so all of the sudden," he said. "It's hard to explain with how fast everything [happened] and how we had to quarantine in our homes. It made us all adapt. Going forward, things will change and we will adapt. It's a weird time. It's hard to explain to anybody."

In May, Durant released a documentary, Basketball County: In the Water, about his hometown of Prince George's County, Maryland, and the basketball talent it has produced. Last month, he bought into an MLS team, the Philadelphia Union.

The rumormongers knocked on his door once this spring—asking if he'd return from injury to play in the NBA's Orlando bubble league—and he replied, simply: "My season is over." So direct, so open-and-shut, so un-NBA!

All we get to work with is that blurry workout video, courtesy of an Instagram story posted by his brother, Tony.

There is something about its simplicity that I love. For Durant, it is the perfect form of communication. It is basketball and basketball alone, muting any debate-show conversations around his injury and his career and his team. Of course, in time, all that will circle around again.

Come December, when the 2020-21 season is expected to tip off, Durant will return to the floor. His co-star, Kyrie Irving, who underwent shoulder surgery in March, will be ready, too. Questions abound. Will a third star join them? (Bradley Beal? Aaron Gordon?) Will Jacque Vaughn still be the coach? (Ty Lue? Jason Kidd?) Can Durant perform at 100 percent? How will he get on with Irving? Whose team is it? Will the Nets even exist in the NBA, or will players be chasing Irving's supposed dream of a brand new players' league? Speaking of—did that call really even happen? Was Durant on the line? What did he think?

Questions for another day. Inevitably, Durant will have to face them at some point, much to his chagrin. But for now, there are just five modest statements for us to consider: a slow dribble, a move left, a dive to the rim, a leap, a strong finish. So be it.

Leo Sepkowitz joined B/R Mag in 2018. Previously, he was a Senior Writer at SLAM Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter: @LeoSepkowitz.