Column: Durant is the anti-superstar superstar

Let’s get one thing clear right from the start: This is not

another rant against LeBron James.

But it’s sure hard not to root for Kevin Durant and the little

city that could from America’s heartland.

James is the best player in the world, hands down, and certainly

deserving of his first championship. Rest assured, Commissioner

David Stern and the bigwigs over at ABC are sure glad LBJ is back

in the NBA finals after the television ratings bonanza he was

largely responsible for during Miami’s riveting Eastern Conference

victory over Boston.

That said, the Oklahoma City Thunder and their gracious star

have shown another side to a league where the big names often come

across as petty, selfish and overflowing with hubris.

There’s the glasses and backpack Durant wears off the court,

which make him look more like a Star Wars nerd than perhaps the

second-best player on the planet. There’s the heart-tugging hugs he

doled out to his mom and family after beating San Antonio for a

spot in the finals, the humility he shows when talking about his

stupendous game, the sense that he truly embraces playing in one of

the league’s backwater cities.

He’s the anti-superstar superstar.

”Kevin gets it,” said former player Steve Smith, now an

analyst for NBA TV. ”The way he plays. The way he carries himself.

The way he handles the media. What tops it off is his love and

passion for the game. During the lockout, he was just continually

wanting to play basketball. That’s a treat for me.

”He’s kind of a throwback player, like those guys back in the

`80s and `90s.”

Unlike players such as James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul,

who either joined new teams as free agents or engineered trades by

threatening to bolt, Durant seems perfectly content to stay where

he is. Never mind that his marketing clout would be much greater in

a city such as New York or Los Angeles.

He passed up even a shot at restricted free agency to quietly

sign a new five-year deal with the Thunder, a contract that didn’t

even come with an opt-out clause – normally standard operating

procedure for someone of his ilk.

While there are players who speak of themselves in the third

person and act as though their needs come before the team’s, Durant

spends most of his time talking humbly about ways to get better,

sounding more like a backup than a three-time scoring champion.

He truly seems to have no interest in the trappings of fame.

”There’s just something about him. He’s got charisma. He’s the

humblest superstar,” said Mike Breen, who will call the series for

ABC. ”He’s a special, special player, but he seems to have that

charisma people are attracted to even if they aren’t basketball

fans.”

No doubt, it’s easy to get a big head playing in the NBA.

By its very nature, basketball is built on star power. One

player can have more impact on the game than any other sport. One

player can turn a bad team into a great team, or at least a very

good one. Not surprisingly, the small group of athletes who take on

these roles can get a very inflated view of themselves, which might

lead one of them to, say, hold an hourlong TV special to announce

where they’re going to play.

But again, this is not about being anti-LeBron.

We’re over The Decision, and it’s time for rest of the nation to

do the same (except Cleveland, which is allowed to keep

fuming).

This is about being pro-Durant.

”He’s a superstar player who’s as likable off the court as he

is effective on it,” said another player-turned-NBA TV analyst,

Greg Anthony. ”That bodes well for the game.”

The NBA finals, which begin Tuesday night in Oklahoma City, are

certainly being viewed by many as good vs. evil, a story line that

is largely rooted in James’ 2010 decision to leave Cleveland and

his lifelong roots in northern Ohio to join Dwyane Wade and Chris

Bosh on a South Beach super team. The move represented all that’s

wrong about the NBA: a superstar turning his back on a worshipping

city, three guys gaming the system to get on the same team, a

glitzy franchise trying to ensure itself of a championship simply

by pulling out its checkbook.

Never mind that these sort of tactics have gone on for years in

all professional sports. James certainly deserved criticism for the

way he announced he was dumping the Cavaliers in favor of the Heat,

and the over-the-top ceremony that welcomed the Big Three to Miami

justifiably left the rest of the league seething.

But it’s time to get past it and recognize James for what he is:

the No. 1 player in the game and certain to go down as one of the

greatest of all time. His performance in the playoffs – especially

after Bosh went down with an injury – was beyond spectacular.

Anyone who doubted the heart and willpower of this guy was

apparently not watching games 6 and 7 against the Celtics.

James, a three-time league MVP, stared down Beantown and took

the Heat on his back, single-handedly carrying them to the finals

for the second year in a row.

He is worthy of your admiration, if not your adulation.

”This guy is a great player who plays very hard, very

unselfishly,” said former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, who will serve

as ABC’s analyst in the series. ”If the biggest mistake he’s made

in his life is how he announced that he was exercising his free

agency decision and, then, the celebration that ensued because of

it, I really don’t get (why) for casual NBA fans or fans in other

NBA cities, it provokes bitterness and animosity that’s lasted this

long.

”The way he goes about his business and the way he plays the

game,” Van Gundy went on, ”are models for the way you should play

the game.”

But Durant is just so darn likable.

Sorry, LeBron, but it’s hard to root against him.

Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press.

Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or

www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963