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
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
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
”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
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