OAKLAND, Calif. – As he sat down on a folding chair following a recent practice to discuss with The Vertical his first season with the Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant pensively picked at his scruffy goatee, stretched out his left leg and seemed content with a move that has put him back where he has struggled to return for five years.
Durant was relaxed and chill long before his laid-back personality helped him blend so seamlessly into his current California home. Being in a golden state of ease has allowed him to withstand a season unlike any other in his 10 years in the league – a season in which he was forced to find greater perspective for his purpose and what the game means to him.
Durant has been blamed for much since he made the most controversial free-agent decision since the last most controversial “Decision” – ruining league-wide parity and making the Golden State Warriors unfairly lethal and less fun. And he has been called more unflattering names than he cares to remember – cupcake, coward (with a “K”) and a shortcut-taking, ring chaser piggybacking the easiest path to a title. Durant has heard it all but has also learned that he can’t combat any of it.
Refusing to let the negativity envelop him and make him more combative, Durant has kept his cool. He came to Golden State to play basketball and win games, not appease ancillary critics. Four wins shy of that elusive first championship, Durant doesn’t regret taking his talents to the East Bay and is willing to absorb more resentment to stay with the organization that became the “light years” envy of the league that Oklahoma City was supposed to become when he made his first Finals appearance in 2012. Durant’s home in the Oakland Hills gives him incredible views – including the Golden Gate Bridge on a clear day – and he is already looking ahead to the team’s move to San Francisco, a clear indication of long-term commitment to the franchise.
Q: How would you describe what this season has meant to you?
KD: It was definitely a different year. I mean, I never felt under a microscope this much. I never felt … how can I put it? I never felt this many people just waiting on me to [mess] up. Whether it’s on the court, off the court, waiting on something. But it’s fun, because it’s been cool proving a lot of people wrong, individually. I mean, obviously, we have a long way to go as a team. But I just feel like I’m still the same the person. I work extremely hard. I know a lot of people say I cheated my way … or I skipped steps, or cheated the game. I work hard, bro. I work hard. I really take my craft seriously. If I didn’t do that then I would understand. But I love the game, I love playing for my teammates. And I just enjoy playing the game. That’s one thing I didn’t want people to steal from me, from hearing all types of things about who I am, why I did this, why I did that, how I changed. I didn’t want to take joy away from what’s in between those lines. That’s what’s important. I think this year has taught me to stay focused on what’s really important, in basketball and life in general. It’s a major lesson that I learned. I didn’t think it would take for this to happen for me to realize that.
Q: You say, ‘Prove people wrong.’ What assessment was made of you that you felt was wrong or unfair?
KD: I don’t want to say people didn’t respect my game. A lot of people respect what I do on the basketball court. I don’t want to say, “Prove them wrong.” I just didn’t want them to steal the joy from me. That’s what I mean. I wanted to prove that basketball is going to be about basketball first. Nobody cared what I did when I was 8 years old and first started playing the game. I wanted to take it back there and enjoy it for that, instead of debates about who is the best or all this nonsense that goes on about the game of basketball. I wanted it to be pure again. I didn’t think coming here, switching teams, doing what I did, would make the game as pure as it is to me now.
Q: What has this move meant for your personal growth?
KD: No matter if I stayed, or now that I’m gone, I think I was on the same path I was. No matter what. At this point in my life, at 28 years old, seeing new stuff every single day. Being in Oklahoma City or being in Oakland, I would’ve been here, no matter what. I would’ve been at this place in life no matter who I played for. It’s just a matter of basketball-wise, separating the basketball side from the real-life side. I think that’s what I got here. Realizing how important other people think this is and how much they kind of combine the two. When I separated the two, the light bulb when off, like I needed to separate these two.
Q: You’ve finished in the top five in MVP voting in five of the past six years. (In 2014-15, Durant missed 55 games with a broken right foot.) But this year, people didn’t really mention you in those conversations at all. I understand you got hurt. But did it push you at all knowing you weren’t going to be considered for that award after joining a star-studded team featuring the reigning two-time MVP?
KD: No. Because I knew what it was for. I knew it wasn’t because of my game. And other players had statistically better years. That’s just the truth of the matter. But it wasn’t because of my game. It wasn’t that I dropped off as a player or just because guys had better numbers than I did it meant they were better players than me. My name is still in the conversation as one of the best players in the league, but that doesn’t even matter. I still feel as though I still have a huge impact, no matter who is on the court, no matter who I’m playing with. But as far as MVP, that’s all narrative. Before I even put this jersey on, I wasn’t in the conversation in the NBA, no matter what I did. I would’ve had to do something – like average a triple-double – to be in the MVP race. And that wouldn’t have happened here. I wasn’t even worried about that. I was just worried about getting better, playing my game and trying to help this team win.
Q: I know we talked earlier and you said this move wasn’t about a ring chase, it was more about how you want to play basketball for your career. How do you feel it has played out for your game, in terms of maybe shots coming easier? Because it seems like you’re getting your points, but it’s not as much of a grind. Am I right in saying that?
KD: Uh, yeah. Obviously, when you’ve got a better, when you’ve got a deeper team, you’ve got guys that can handle the ball, you’ve got shooters, you’ve got guys that can finish at the rim, it just opens it up for everybody. I think we just work well together. I scored a lot of points before I came here. I did a lot. This is not the first time I shot 50 percent from the field. It’s not the first year I averaged 25 points a game. And I’m not doing it because I’m here with these guys. I’ve done it before. It’s just the fact that when I get my shots – and it’s not as much as I got before – but I’m in position to be efficient. I may get in transition a lot more than I did before. I may get it in space more, so I’m allowed to catch and make a decision whether I want to shoot or drive. Simple stuff like that, that’s the difference. But I had some great years before I got here. It’s just a different way I’m getting my points now. It’s not much of a grind. But it’s still a challenge.
Q: You said you expected some resentment when you left. The only other comparison to a player being hated for switching teams would’ve been LeBron [James] when he left Cleveland with “The Decision.” Did you ever speak to him or anybody about what to expect?
KD: Nah. That’s certain stuff you’ve got to experience on your own. And on top of that, this is not really that serious. I’m not going to waste LeBron’s time, or anybody else’s time away from what they’ve got going on to ask them about some basketball, whatever goes on in this NBA bubble. It’s really not that important. Something I just experienced day by day. I knew the backlash was coming. I knew how many people would “hate” me – put that in quotation marks! People would “hate” me for … I don’t even know. People that would be upset for no reason. Because I’m sure none of this affected their life in any way. I understood that this was like a fantasy – a real-world fantasy. It’s real for me, but it’s like a game for everybody else. You’re not affected at all by this. I’m the only one who had to go through this decision – me, my closest friends, family. But I had to go through this decision. For everybody else, it’s a topic of discussion. It’s just barbershop talk. Just [expletive] to text your friends about when you’re bored. It took me a while to really think about that. So I’m not going to sit here and say, “LeBron, how’d you feel when they called you a coward?” It doesn’t even matter and it’s not even that important. I take the good with the bad. I just really know that nobody has ever disrespected me in person. So once I had to go through that, it’s like, this person is walking past me and not going to call me, “You snake! You coward!” Once I got past that, it’s like, “Oh, it’s all online, it’s all in the cloud, it’s a fantasy.” Once I wrapped my mind around that, it made it easier.
Q: With that said, it had to be disappointing or upsetting when you returned to Oklahoma City the first time and heard that reception from those fans, with the boos and “cupcake” chants?
KD: I’m not from there. That was a two-hour time slot in those people’s lives where they got some entertainment for the day. And they were going to go home and get up the next day and go to work. It’s all it was. I didn’t take it personal. I don’t hate anybody that called me any name there. It’s entertainment. That’s what they look at it as. It’s not life or death. I didn’t walk into their homes and do anything to them personally. I’m sure most people, the same thing they did on July 3, they did the same thing on July 4, July 5 and leading up to that game. Their lives didn’t change based on what I did. That two-and-a-half hour time slot where they watched the game and called me names, they forgot all about it when they went home at night and still had to live their life, just like I had to. I have no hard feelings. It was all fun and games for me, too.
Q: After Game 1 of the conference finals, you said, ‘Don’t listen to people on Twitter, because they’re irrational.’ Now it was in reference to the incident involving Zaza Pachulia and Kawhi Leonard, but was it sort of you projecting about things you’ve gone through yourself?
KD: That’s just about everything. It’s not just about me and it’s not just about basketball. You give a bunch of people a voice that they didn’t think they had and they think they can talk to the masses, they’re going to say what’s on their minds. Everybody has an opinion nowadays. No matter what the situation is. The presidential debate, politics, to football, baseball, anything. They’ve got an opinion and most of the time, it’s just their opinion.
Q: From a basketball perspective, the knee injury [this season] had to be the lowest you had been since your foot injury, right?
KD: Nah. Nah. I was in a great space.
Q: How was that possible?
KD: Because I had family, friends around me that lifted me up every day. I had my teammates, the coaches, the whole organization lifted me up every day. And my main concern was every day I was getting better. Every day, I was taking a step forward. When I started walking again that was an exciting day. When I started running, everybody around here was excited for me. My friends, my family, my teammates, everybody was excited. When I started moving laterally, everybody was excited. When they first told me it happened, I was like, “Man, not again. Out for the year?” Then when they came back and told me I was good, my whole focus was, “Six weeks to get better, just worry about getting better.” Injuries happen, it’s unfortunate, but it’s just part of the game. Glad it wasn’t worse.
Q: All season, so much was made about your relationship, or non-relationship with your former teammate Russell Westbrook. Were you cool with Kendrick [Perkins] airing out your conversation with Russ on TNT? (On Kevin Garnett’s “Area 21,” Perkins, the former Thunder center, revealed that Durant and Westbrook were back on “talking terms” after Durant called to congratulate Westbrook on breaking Oscar Robertson’s triple-double record.)
KD: I wouldn’t have liked that to happen. But I know Perk. I didn’t hold it against him. It wasn’t like I was upset. That’s my brother. That’s always going to be my brother. And he was with his group of guys. So, I understood, it’s all good.
Q: But was that really the first time you and Russ had …
KD: I’m not even going to talk about that. That has nothing to do with anything. Perk said what he had to say.
Q: What was the biggest obstacle that you had to overcome, in terms of fitting in with a new team that already experienced considerable success without you? Because we talked about the outside stuff and people trying to take away your joy. But fitting in, these guys had a way of play, you had a way of play for nine years.
KD: I don’t even think it was that big of an adjustment. We just went out there and figured it out on the fly. Klay [Thompson] is open, give him the ball. Steph [Curry] is in the pick-and-roll, set a screen for him, get him in some space. If I’m in transition, kick it out ahead. That’s what I’m good at. If I’m open, pass him the ball. It’s really that simple. We run plays. Shaun [Livingston] likes it in the post. David [West] likes it in the post. JaVale [McGee] likes it over the rim. Draymond [Green] likes to handle. We’ve got smart players. My IQ has grown since I’ve gotten to the league and I realize how important all the moving parts are for the team. It was an adjustment as far as me being a new guy and having a certain way of playing, talking about the team and adding me in there. I’m just figuring how to move without the ball, play in space. But for the most part, it wasn’t that difficult as far as the basketball side, it was just the small details that had to get done.
Q: And lastly, what would a ring mean for you?
KD: It wouldn’t mean my life was complete. I’ve got a lot of life I want to lead and I’ve got a lot of [expletive] I want to achieve. So if I win a ring, it would be fun to experience that moment when the buzzer sounds and embracing my teammates in the locker room and all that stuff that comes with it, but after that, what’s next? That’s how I look at it. What’s next for me? But it’s that high. It’s that two-, three-week high, I can tell. You can tell when teams win a championship. I saw last year, the Cavs, they all went to Vegas, they all hung out in Vegas for a night. But that two-week high, I want to experience that, but it’s not going to complete me at all, as far as being a person or what life is all about. At the end of the day, it’s going to be another basketball milestone that I reach, if it happens. We’ll see. But if I don’t do it, I’m not going to ball up in my room and not come out. I’m going to work on my game and enjoy myself.
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