Kevin Durant Is Just Heating Up
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After his painful exodus from OKC, Kevin Durant reached the mountaintop this June: NBA champion, finals MVP, game-winning shotmaker. GQ’s Zach Baron spent days with KD during his summer vacation in India and watched Golden State’s ultimate Warrior recharge himself to chase ring number two.
First the waiters in Delhi brought Kevin Durant a plate of butter chicken, and then what looked like…a pizza? Then some rice, and a glass of tequila, and then a plate of samosas. “I’m sorry,” Durant said to the waiter bending low over his shoulder. “What is this?” He was wearing a Morrissey “Boxers” tour T-shirt and black jeans and attempting to pretend that he couldn’t see the long line of people trying to see him. He’d landed on a private jet a few hours ago: the first real NBA star in anyone’s memory to come all this way, to India, where basketball is still a novelty. This dinner, out on the roof deck of a hotel in the city’s diplomatic enclave and nominally hosted by the NBA, was in his honor. Well-intentioned waiters kept trying to bring him things. Scotch. An apron, for some reason. Naan. They brought out the biggest piece of naan bread you’ve ever seen. After some conversation, Durant was persuaded to hoist the bread in the air to the upper edge of his seven-foot wingspan, like a man offering a sacrifice to God, so that his YouTube guy could film this moment of cultural exchange for his YouTube channel.
Just six weeks earlier, Durant’s team, the Golden State Warriors, won the NBA Finals in five games. Durant was the finals MVP. In Game 3, with his team trailing the Cleveland Cavaliers with under a minute to go, he hit the shot of his life—a three-pointer, tossed up as casually and optimistically as a wave hello, over LeBron James, his role model and rival. “That was the best moment I ever had,” Durant told me. “I made the game-winning shot in the finals against my fucking idol. Somebody that I really, really, really followed since I was a ninth-grade high schooler. I felt like he was passing the torch to me.”
Even before his Game 3 shot fell, it felt inevitable that the Warriors would win. They’d arrived in the finals without having lost a single playoff game. And Durant, who’d spent the season being cast as a villain for leaving the Oklahoma City Thunder—or at least a man more interested in winning a championship than remaining, for sentimental reasons, on the team that first drafted him—was playing to the full, lethal level of his abilities. It was merciless: 38 points in the first game of the finals, 33 in the second, 31 and 35 in Games 3 and 4, and 39 in the closeout game against a Cleveland team that likely went home seeing Durant’s silky, improbably elegant jump shot in their dreams.
The night the Warriors won the title, Durant walked out of the arena tipsy from the beer he’d had in the locker room, waded through a crowd of fans, got in his Tesla, and was driven home, to celebrate more. After nine often frustrating years in the league, he was a champion, the consensus best player on the best team, and now, in the months that followed, he was enthusiastically exploring what that meant. He went to Vegas to celebrate, and to Hawaii to paddleboard, and to Sicily, where he attended Google Camp with Prince Harry and David Geffen. “I got to meet people I never thought I’d meet,” he told me. “I lived in L.A. all summer. I hung out at Nobu Malibu for July Fourth.” About a year ago, the NBA asked him if perhaps he’d come be a basketball ambassador for them for a few days in India, and he’d agreed—his charitable foundation could use the occasion to build a couple of courts there. He felt like, why not? How hard could it be, to be an ambassador?
Now he was finding out how hard it could be. He stood and greeted the television host Rannvijay Singh, then sat, and then stood up again to take a photo with Satnam Singh Bhamara, a G Leaguer for the Dallas Mavericks, who was also in town. Then he sat back down, only to have a functionary come over and ask if he could meet some “pretty big business owners” here in the Delhi community. For the eighth or seventeenth time this evening, Durant rose to shake some stranger’s hand. “This is bullshit,” he whispered to his agent, Rich Kleiman, but still stood, smiling, gracefully concealing his fatigue. This new stranger was former tennis pro and world No. 16 Vijay Amritraj. Amritraj was impeccably groomed and professionally smiling—gold buttons on his jacket, gold rings on his hand, gold watch on his wrist. He and Kleiman mimed tennis serves at each other. Next up was a kid in a Jordan Brand shirt. “Every morning I watch you,” the kid said. “Appreciate that,” Durant said. Some guy in an iridescent vest emerged with a basketball: “Would you mind signing this?”
The evening humidity of India in July bore down. In the background, just out of sight, a pair of DJs played nationless house music. “That’s it,” Durant said, beseeching Kleiman, as more people milled around in the middle distance. He crouched behind the giant naan that was still in front of him, hiding.
Finally the trickle of dignitaries dried up, and Durant ordered a glass of Pinot Noir, “biggest glass you have,” which turned out to be a wineglass the size of my forearm. We all got one. Durant visibly relaxed. He offered up his glass for a toast and then took a photo of all the glasses clinking, the cool red wine sloshing around. “I kind of like the vibe here,” he said, exhaling. It was late, and though there was half-hearted talk about going to a second location, we wound up instead ordering more wine to Durant’s suite. Someone found a portable speaker. Durant lay flat on a daybed, his legs as long as a compact car. Then Jay-Z’s “Lucifer” came on, and Durant sat up to rap, word for word, the second verse, about triumph and its cost:
Yes, this is holy war
I wet y’all all with the holy water
Spray from the Heckler-Koch automatic
All the static, shall cease to exist
Like a sabbatical, I throw a couple at you, take six!
Spread love, to all of my dead thugs
I pour out a little Louis, to a head above
Yessir, and when I perish, the meek shall inherit the Earth
In the calm of his hotel room, Durant told me that he related to Jay-Z. Not only the younger, defiant Jay-Z now on the speaker, but the present-day, 2017 Jay-Z, the guy who just made 4:44. The older, more vulnerable, confessional artist. “Just the honesty,” Durant said. Durant has been signed to Jay’s Roc Nation Sports for years and is friendly with Jay-Z. But there was something about listening to 4:44. “The openness,” Durant said, putting his finger on it. “You could tell he had something he wanted to get off his chest. And it can be hard when you got so many people watching you. So I feel like you got to build up that courage to just say: ‘Look, man, this is how I do things.’ ”
The off-season—even an off-season as full of opportunity and good feeling as this past one—has always been a complicated time for Durant. “In between, when I’m not playing, I’m just chilling, waiting for my next game,” he told me. “When I’m in the summer, I’m waiting on my next game. These meetings and these corporate events I gotta go to, I’m waiting on the next game. I’m just like not even in the mind frame to think anything else is important. And that’s a fault.”
When I first met Durant, in 2015, he was 26 and trying to make up for lost time. His childhood had been a lonely one, and basketball—a socializing force for many of his peers—had isolated him further. Unlike LeBron James, who’d grown up in the spotlight and had years to get used to an unsettling level of fame and attention, or Steph Curry, who’d grown up wealthy, in a family that passed along a measure of security and knowledge about life off the court, Durant was learning as he went. “I wasn’t no phenom growing up,” he told me. “It was just my mom, my brother, my godfather, and my grandma. My games wasn’t packed out in high school. I didn’t even play at night. So this shit is all new. As it’s happening, I’m experiencing it for the first time. I wasn’t taught a certain way to be growing up. I got taught right from wrong, and how to be fair. Anything else, I had to figure out.” At the time we spoke, he was playing out the penultimate year of his contract with Oklahoma City and full of a growing curiosity about the world: about food and wine, about travel, about clothes, about all the things that everyone else around him already seemed to know. “What’s the craziest place you’ve been where you had to taste, like, a piece of their culture?” he asked me then.
His decision to sign with the Golden State Warriors last summer was about basketball: He looked at the team, the coach, and the players, and wanted to join in what they had. But leaving Oklahoma City also felt, to Durant, like personal growth. “I chose to take control of my life, and I think that was a huge step for me personally, and I felt really proud,” he told me.
The championship he won in his first season with the Warriors was confirmation that he’d made the right choice. But he also found, away from Oklahoma City, that his world kept getting bigger in ways he hadn’t anticipated and didn’t always know how to deal with. In Game 1 of the finals, he was at the free-throw line when he heard a woman heckling him, shouting “Brick!” as he released each shot. It was only when he looked over that he realized the woman was Rihanna. This was not the kind of thing that regularly happened in OKC. “Rihanna never came to my game before, unless we were in L.A. She didn’t come to a home game of mine before. Jay-Z and all these people who come…that amount of attention for me is like, you ever seen Hancock? You remember when he had to walk into that event and all these cameras were flashing, and he just didn’t know how to smile? That’s me sometimes. I get a little overwhelmed at that shit. Because, man, I can remember me cooking up as a kid by myself. Now millions of people are watching me play? That’s an adjustment, bro.”
Durant was the number two draft pick in the 2007 NBA draft. He won Rookie of the Year. He’s a four-time scoring champion and a former league MVP. He’s won two Olympic gold medals. But for most of his career his time in the league was, relatively speaking, quiet. He played in Oklahoma City, in front of adoring but unglamorous crowds, and though he had an occasionally adversarial relationship with the local press there, not too many stories they wrote made it outside the city. But the past year and a half with Golden State had been a rude lesson in how many things the NBA, and the media eco-system that has sprung up around it, required of him outside of and beyond basketball.
The next morning in Delhi, Durant woke up bleary-eyed and dressed for the day in long track pants and a red Nike basketball shirt. The plan was to go to the school where his foundation had built the new basketball courts and then to drive south, out of Delhi, to Noida, where the NBA had started a basketball academy. There, an NBA functionary explained, Durant would help the academy’s students break the Guinness World Record for “biggest basketball lesson,” capped off by a VIP-only dinner at a resort nearby. The dinner, arranged by the music executive Steve Stoute, whom Durant and Kleiman have known for years, was to be hosted by two young Indian plutocrats—one an executive in a company specializing in construction and arms dealing, the other a concert promoter who’d just successfully pulled off Justin Bieber’s first show in India. A day of being a professional basketball player, without an actual basketball game anywhere in sight.
The morning traffic in Delhi was dense with taxis, guys on bikes, rickshaws, everyone driving like running backs seeking contact. We stopped first at the Ramjas School, where Durant inaugurated the courts he’d built with an arcing shot from the top of the key, and was then swarmed by the little bodies of students. Then, as the humidity rose, we were back out into traffic, making our way through a slow drip of cement trucks and buses, southeast through the city, and then out of it into a cloudy green haze. After about an hour our caravan came to rest at the Jaypee Greens Integrated Sports Complex, in Greater Noida, where the NBA was holding its academy. For the next two hours, Durant was put to work in an increasingly surreal set of tasks. First he joined a clinic, downstairs on the basketball court, helping the NBA’s coaches run their teenage students through drills. Then, upstairs, he gave a press conference. Finally Durant was led back downstairs, to break the Guinness World Record for…something. The explanations kept differing as to exactly what.
Carlos Barroca, the NBA’s associate vice president for basketball operations in India, was onstage, in front of a gym full of children. Four large screens showed four other gyms in Hyderabad, Bangalore, Chennai, and Kolkata, also full of students. The lesson began. Barroca, in a polo shirt and Britney Spears headset, invited Durant to stand next to him. Then Barroca began chanting:
“One, two, three, stance.”
All the kids in the gym crouched and extended their arms, raptor-like.
Barroca looked at Durant, and Durant looked back at him. Then, belatedly, Durant, too, got in his stance.
“One, two, three, defense.”
The students slapped the floor, then spread their wingspans again, and Durant, reluctantly, did this too. Then Barroca asked the assembled children to run in place, and so Durant ran in place.
“I need to know how you become a champion,” Barroca said to his assembled pupils. “Do you play like a sleeping cat?” he asked. “Or like a tiger?” He asked his pupils to roar and they roared. On one screen, kids were absentmindedly trotting around in Bangalore; on another, Chennai had temporarily cut out.
Barroca was now fired up. He pointed at Durant. “You want to see him do the tiger?”
The kids yelled back their assent. Durant took a deep breath. Then he got down in a crouch, legs bowed, each hand outstretched and curled, like a tiger.
Kevin Durant Tells the Tale of his Legendary 66-Point Game at NYC’s Rucker Park
The next time I saw Durant was in San Francisco, in September, on what he described as one of the worst days of his life. He’d invited me to come see him dedicate another court his foundation had built, this time in Menlo Park. The following day, he and Kleiman were scheduled to speak at TechCrunch Disrupt about the investment fund they’d started together—a local rite of passage. But the morning of the court dedication, Durant had been caught doing something embarrassing: After a user on Twitter had asked him to explain his decision to leave OKC for Golden State, Durant responded in the third person, leading to speculation that he maintained other, phantom accounts on Twitter but accidentally replied from his own. “He didn’t like the [Thunder] organization or playing for Billy Donovan,” Durant wrote about his former team and coach in a tweet that he soon deleted. “His roster wasn’t that good, it was just him and Russ,” he said, referring to his former teammate Russell Westbrook. Then he followed up the post with a second one: “Imagine taking Russ off that team, see how bad they were. KD can’t win a championship with those cats.”
All summer, Durant had been forging a new and unexpected reputation as one of the most honest athletes in sports, engaging with fans on Twitter—often in rude, hilarious ways—and sitting for loose, freewheeling interviews. Maybe he still didn’t know exactly what to do with himself when he wasn’t playing, but he was more confident about his opinions than he’d been before, and he was having fun sharing them. He gave candid assessments of other athletes; he publicly criticized the president, something the younger Durant never would’ve done, saying he would not visit the White House if invited. (“I don’t respect who’s in office right now,” he explained to ESPN.) “I know right from wrong,” he told me. “You call bullshit like you see it. You just call bullshit.”
But now perhaps he’d been too honest. The Internet was alive with a gleeful debate about whether Durant had a second, secret Twitter account. That wasn’t the case, he told me. He did write the posts, but on his own account, he said. He described it as a dissociative episode: He woke up from a nap, and “it just felt like I was on the outside looking in at a conversation. I had to walk in and just be like, ‘Nah.’” Either way, he appeared thin-skinned and a bit disingenuous, inexplicably absorbed in criticism during the pinnacle of his professional life. Even worse was what he’d actually said in the posts: After a year of maintaining a scrupulous, respectful silence about his old coach and his old team, he’d finally let slip what seemed to be the truth about his feelings regarding the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The next 24 hours of Durant’s life unfolded in a miserable procession. At the court dedication, held at the Menlo Park Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, he arrived in a Pink Floyd T-shirt, his face in visible pain. Every 30 seconds or so, he checked Twitter. Condoleezza Rice, who is on the advisory council of the BGCP, appeared in a red blouse; zombie-like, Durant posed for a photo with her, and then wandered away. As part of the ceremony, he was interviewed on a makeshift stage by two high school students. One of them asked a seemingly innocuous question about who had helped Durant believe in himself and be self-confident. “I still struggle to feel confident in myself,” he responded. “I still struggle with seeking approval from others sometimes, not realizing that I’m winning in life. Sometimes I tend to go backwards. But that’s just part of life. Don’t feel down about it. Don’t feel upset. Don’t feel embarrassed, even though you are embarrassed at times…. I’m having a bad day today. But you guys are giving me life.”
After the interview ended, he wandered back over to Kleiman: “Anything new on Twitter?” he asked.
At TechCrunch the next day, inside a giant warehouse on a San Francisco pier, Durant looked exhausted. “I didn’t eat yesterday,” he told me. “I wanted to go disappear. I didn’t even feel like that when I switched teams.” He’d come to terms with what he’d said, but he was still struggling with the embarrassment of it. The TechCrunch moderator, Jordan Crook, came backstage to prep Durant and Kleiman and preview her questions. What do they invest in? How do they protect their investments and keep themselves safe from sharks? “And…I’m going to have to ask about the Twitter thing yesterday,” she said apologetically. “You don’t have to answer. But I have to ask.” Durant sighed and then nodded in resignation.
Onstage, he gamely answered the question. “That was childish,” he said. “That was idiotic, all those type of words. I regret doing that. I apologize to him for doing that.” Finally he climbed into a car to go back to his home, in the hills above Oakland. On the way, he said he was relieved to have dealt with the episode. He leaned back in his seat. Today and yesterday were a step backward, and he admitted that. But he was trying to forgive himself. “Everybody has those times when they go back. They relapse a little bit. You know what I’m saying?”
It was a fleetingly bizarre moment in a summer otherwise spent in the gauzy high of winning a championship: from superhuman to all too human in less than three months. From afar, the spectacle was riveting, even endearing: a guy this talented and self-possessed who nevertheless bled, who was petty like the rest of us could be petty, who seemed to be figuring things out at the normal 29-year-old rate, even though he was otherwise nothing like a normal 29-year-old. But living, and making mistakes, in public was wearing on Durant. By the end of the summer, he was eager to return to doing what he was actually paid to do. “I really thought that each level I go up to is more and more just hoops,” he told me. “There’s less and less hoops! And that’s a rude awakening for a basketball player like me.”
In late September, the Warriors finally began playing basketball again. This was a relief to Durant—at last, a constant, familiar thing that he knew all too well how to do. When in Oakland, Durant lives in an airy, spacious house on the side of a hill overlooking the San Francisco Bay. His home is sparsely decorated, with a few personal touches: a photo of his mother on a mantel, next to one of Durant and Barack Obama in basketball shorts. His house is not far from the Warriors’ practice facility; the team will move to a new arena in San Francisco in 2019, and Durant, at the moment, plans to move with them.
“It’s a transition to a different life,” he said about California. “Every day I wake up, I’m still getting used to living in the Bay Area. And I’m still getting used to playing with new teammates and putting on a new jersey. It’s gonna take me some time. You settle down somewhere for so long, it’s just like, no matter if you just moved, you still gonna feel that adjustment.” But he also enjoyed living where he was living, around Silicon Valley guys and CEOs. “A lot of those people, they just think a little different,” he told me. “They simplify their lives, and they have some clarity. And when you have those two things, you kind of see things for what they are. Some stuff is not as big as you think it is. You’re not as important, or the situation may not be as important, as you think it is. Brian Grazer taught me that.”
Being able to play again was restoring Durant’s perspective in a hurry. “I came here to play basketball in the exact same way I’m playing it right now,” he said contentedly. Over the summer, he’d signed a second deal with the Warriors, for less money than he could’ve asked for, and the Warriors had in turn used the money he saved them to re-sign several of Durant’s teammates. He was enjoying being just a member of a team, rather than the face of it. “Steph Curry is the face of the franchise, and that helps me out, because I don’t have to,” he said. “I don’t want to have to be the leader. I’m not a leader. I’m bad at saying, ‘Stand behind me and follow me.’ No. I’m one of those guys that’s just like, ‘Let’s do this shit together. Let’s just work everybody together. I don’t mind being on the front line with you, but let’s come and do it together.’ That’s my way of leadership. I’m leading by example.”
“We always had the power, as players. We’re just realizing it now. It’s like when you wake up—we woke now.”
He was settling in for his second year on a team that was already, in his first, historically great. Meanwhile, the rest of the league was frantically trying to catch up. Stars like Paul George, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Paul, and Jimmy Butler all changed teams, as general managers around the league tried to counter what the Warriors already had. In perhaps the summer’s most shocking trade, the Celtics unexpectedly shipped their small, pugnacious point guard Isaiah Thomas to the Cleveland Cavaliers in exchange for Kyrie Irving. Thomas, who’d played for the Celtics through injuries and a personal tragedy, was devastated to be traded. On The Players’ Tribune, Thomas reflected on what he’d learned from the experience: “I was thinking about that last year with KD and his free agency—about how people gave him such a hard time for doing what he felt was best for him and his future.” Thomas wrote that his example should make fans wary of judging decisions like Durant’s: “So when players are getting moved left and right, and having their lives changed without any say-so, and it’s no big deal…but then the handful of times it flips, and the player has control…then it’s some scandal?”
Durant told me that he was happy to see that Thomas had mentioned him. “I can appreciate him just kind of having my back a little bit on that,” he said. In this respect, he was happy to lead. With the Warriors, Durant had decided to follow LeBron James’s example of signing one-year deals—two years, technically, but with a player option for the second year—that effectively prevent him from being traded at all. Together, the two men seem to be modeling a future of the league in which players—stars, anyway—control their own destinies. “We always had the power, as players,” Durant told me. “We’re just realizing it now. It’s like when you wake up—we woke now. And a lot of people didn’t want us to be woke. They wanted us to stay in this trance, that we felt like we had to live our life based on what somebody else does. They can move us when they want to, they can sign us when they want to.… We got control of that now.”
LeBron, he said, was the one who “gave me the courage to do that”—first to change teams, and then to sign the deals that he’s signed since. “Now, I could have did a better job studying how he approached everything after that. But I did it my way. And the next guy is gonna look at me as an example. We’re all working together now.” He said that ever since he came into the league, he’d been mindful of James’s way of doing things. He follows it still, in some respects, he said, though he was pleased to have gained some ground on the court. “He’s four years older than me, so he’s still the big homie. But I’m on the same level as a basketball player. Off the court, I can learn a thing from you. But as a basketball player, I feel like it’s 1A, 1B. And that’s an accomplishment for me.”
He said he still thinks about the shot he hit over James pretty much every day. “That feeling was amazing,” he said. “But also, I’m gonna put that memory to the side when I start up again and just go play.” That moment had now arrived; he was letting it all go. “It feels like…it’s a weird year,” Durant said, looking out the window at the still unfamiliar view. “It is weird. But I still had fun. Right? You can have a weird year and still have fun.”
Zach Baron is GQ’s staff writer.
This story originally appeared in the December 2017 issue with the title “The Golden Age of Kevin Durant.”