This is Kevin Durant‘s moment. As the eyes of basketball nation are fixed on New York City right now for the World Basketball Festival, Durant is the focal point of Team USA and the unquestioned star of this massive event. In our special all-WBF issue of Bounce Magazine, Durant talks about his meteoric rise to stardom.
THE COME UP
D.J. Augustin knows his former Texas teammate better than most. They played college ball together — Augustin running the point, his buddy on the wing — and were drafted into the NBA twelve months apart. Augustin, now with the Charlotte Bobcats, admits they are like brothers.
“He doesn’t know when to stop,” Augustin described his friend. “I’ve never seen anyone (like that). I think we all love basketball. Every basketball player loves basketball, but I’ve never seen somebody love it the way he does.”
NBA scoring champion. Prince of Barry Farms. Cover subject of video games and national magazines. Olympic savior. 21 years old.
This is the life of Kevin Durant.
Could all this attention, all this love and respect be coming too soon? Name another kid his age who can handle it.
His college coach, Rick Barnes, says Durant can’t walk past a basketball without scooping it up. The Next Big Thing is too busy slaying former Defensive Players of the Year to be sidetracked. Since when did the NBA — hell, the entire country — pin its hopes for global basketball domination on a kid who is 14 months younger than Wesley Johnson? Well, since that kid, err, man, was a machine so well-oiled, so mathematical in his quest to improve, and such a perfectionist that he makes this art comical.
Durant remembers, “Ever since I was growing up I had to wait my turn, and it’s no different here. My time has come, I guess.”
It has, Kevin. There wasn’t much to the wait, though.
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April 30, 2010. Durant and his Oklahoma City Thunder teammates, sauntering off their home floor amidst a standing ovation, had finally succumbed in a surprisingly competitive first-round playoff series against the eventual champion L.A. Lakers. Durant spent the series locked in a tussle, probed and goaded by Ron Artest for all 231 minutes he played. Call it an education in wartime linguistics. During the decisive Game 6 loss, Durant made only 5 of 23 shots.
Still, all of that was a long ways from his rookie year.
That year saw Durant stumble around at the two-guard spot surrounded by no-namers like Mickael Gelabale and Johan Petro. He was getting 20 a night, but doing so with frigid shooting numbers on a team dancing the line between irrelevant and unwanted during their final season in Seattle.
That irrelevancy wasn’t going to last. Durant already possessed a work ethic honed as a kid by hundreds of one-on-one full court games and thousands of sprints up “Hunt’s Hill” in Washington D.C. Some days he was Michael Jordan. Others, he was Vince Carter.
“I think that really did help, because I would go back and watch what those guys do, and try to do it the next day when I was playing one-on-one with my friend,” he recalled. “Basically, I was watching film when I was younger, and slowly but surely, it kind of got into my game. Each player I was watching, I was trying to steal bits and pieces of their game.”
Two years later, Oklahoma City is a 50-win team. Not only do they have the best scorer in the League, but also a future star in point guard Russell Westbrook. Durant has them believing, fast becoming one of the most revered players in the League.
“You can’t just wake up (like that),” Augustin said. “You can say you want to work hard but to actually do it, it has to be in you. It’s in him. He’s built like that and his parents raised him great to be a humble kid.
“He’s always saying, ‘You have to be humble and work hard for everything that you get.’ He just goes every day to the gym and plays like that and works like that. Like I said, that aspect to go along with his ability at his size and with his skill level, he can be unstoppable.”
Everyone always considered Durant a pleasant guy. During a Dime photo shoot in 2007, Durant refused to pose on the cover unless his University of Texas teammates were there with him. If he hears someone elevate him to the Kobe/LeBron level, he’s scolding them. That gravity-affected demeanor has always masked the inner drive to dominate that has seeped into and around his body. Without an extraordinary belief in himself, Durant could never have dropped 25.8 points a game at Texas. He wouldn’t be the youngest scoring champion the NBA has ever seen. He couldn’t be Now. He would just be Next.
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Each summer, Durant returns home to the Washington D.C. area, looking to dig up those roots that made him who he is. That journey inevitably leads him back to the blacktop behind the gates, the Goodman Summer League. This is the same league Gilbert Arenas used to frequent to test himself. Maybe the best summer league in the country, Durant has been lacing the nets at Barry Farms since he was a 185-pound teenager at Montrose Christian Academy. He connected with the scene before he was a college superstar or high school All-American.
To Durant, he’s only doing what he’s always done: find where the talent is so he can get better.
“You never wanted to be the guy that’d bring a basketball, and everyone would use it while you just sat on the sideline,” Durant said about the blacktop growing up. “I didn’t want to be one of those guys, and I always worked on my game and when I got out there, I started to get mean and that’s how I developed into the player that I am today.”
At Barry Farms, Durant is still the NBA All-Star with the crowd, bringing an aura of excitement every time he comes walking through the gates. But to the local players, he’s just another dude, albeit a 6-10 one. Already this summer, Durant was on the receiving end of a 37-point performance by playground star Omar Weaver.
“(There are) a lot of dudes like that in D.C. that could’ve been great, but one or two things may have held them back,” Durant said. “I think playing outside made me into the type of player that I am today. You never wanted to fall on the ground, and you never wanted to leave the court on a loss.”
Miles Rawls, the emcee at the Goodman League, never wavers in his praise of the homegrown talent.
“The crowd loves him,” Rawls says. “He loves the up-close vibe and loves that microphone when I’m announcing the games. Nobody gives him that ‘NBA star’ treatment. Everybody goes at him and tries to play him like he is a regular guy. He takes that challenge.”
Last summer, Durant went head-to-head in an epic, two-game battle against former Loyola (MD) University player Gerald Brown. Rawls called it the best matchup he had ever seen. Durant finished with 62 points.
“He loves it here inside the gates, and the gates love him right back,” Rawls warned the crowd after one game this June. “Enjoy him while you can because he’s gone come August. He got some things to take care of overseas.”
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Ah yes, the real highlight of Durant’s summer. His first memory of USA Basketball was Vince Carter’s mind-altering dunk in the 2000 Olympics over Frederic Weis. One of his latest memories is failing to make the 2008 national team roster.
That summer, he was more a casualty of numbers. Everyone could see the talent; Durant played so spectacularly in the pre-Olympic camp that he had superstars like Kobe and Carmelo wondering aloud how he was so good. The kid was 18 at the time.
The next summer, Durant found himself back in Vegas again, this time competing with the younger group of Team USA hopefuls at the national team mini-camp. Up until that point, Durant was considered perhaps the best young scorer in the league, the second coming of George Gervin. He was an interesting talent, the type of cat someone could win a championship with someday. But, he was still just a youngster. Then it all changed. He took himself to another level and was clearly the best player in the gym. USA coach Mike Krzyzewski concluded that Durant looked like he was on a mission at the time. And he was.
By the end of the mini-camp, Durant was no longer the NBA’s next big thing. He was now.
After witnessing the complete domination by Durant over the course of three days of drills and scrimmaging, longtime NBA scribe Sam Smith was heard saying that maybe this string bean of a kid could one day be better than LeBron.
With Bryant likely out this summer for the World Championships because of health concerns, and with James and Dwyane Wade taking the summer to sort out more pressing matters like where they plan on living for the next five years, Durant will be the one people look to.
And he’s been waiting on this opportunity for a long time.
“Hearing about and reading about the Dream Team, I wanted to be a part of something like that,” he said. “I’ve seen how much players sacrifice to be on teams like that, how they minimize their roles, how they play like a team and egos go out the door.”
Durant wants to usher in the same aggressiveness that the Redeem Team owned.
“In ‘08, I was there for a week practicing against those guys, and it was like they weren’t friends or even teammates,” Durant recalled. “I like to be competitive like that, especially during practice.
“That’s only going to make me better as a player and make our team better. That’s when we’ll really see who wants to be a starter and who wants to be a 6th man. I’m excited to just get in that gym and play for USA Basketball and it’s going to be a great challenge.”
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Kevin Durant is a killer, forgive the cliché. It’s why Augustin can only admire him, his combination of skills so incredible that only names like Kobe and Michael can be used in comparison. It’s how an All-Star making millions ends up at Barry Farms in D.C. going at dudes named Omar and Gerald who don’t cash NBA paychecks. Thunder head coach Scott Brooks may not like it, but that doesn’t matter. It’s why Jerry Colangelo and the rest of Team USA are sending him in to general them through the world field this summer.
“It’s a dream come true for me to be a part of something like this, and I’m so blessed and I’ve just got to continue to be thankful for it and continue to keep working,” Durant said about the Team USA opportunity.
“Hunt’s Hill” knows. Augustin knows too. He saw it last summer back at Texas. Durant would get up earlier than everyone else for a daybreak workout. Then by the afternoon, when fellow former Longhorns like T.J. Ford and Royal Ivey were finished, Durant would still be going. Shot after shot after shot. Repetition. Perfection.
The fate of this year’s USA Team is in his hands. So maybe it’s a good thing when Durant unrepentantly points out, “I’d rather win a gold medal than an NBA Championship.”