LeBron James is one of the few athletes that I would number among my most admired public figures. Since entering the league in 2003—right around the time that basketball started to pique my interest–James has been everything that the NBA and its fans could have asked for. Aside from his transcendent talent, James is thoughtful in his politics, caring in his familial and personal life, composed in his emotions, poised yet charming with the media, and gracious in dealing with the constant criticism that has followed him since his teen years. He is everything as a man that I strive to be in my nascent adulthood, and he sets an incredible example for all young basketball fans (especially low-income Black children, like James himself).
To put it mildly, Kevin Durant is none of those things. In his time with Seattle/Oklahoma City, to which he dedicated the first nine seasons of his NBA career, he was a fairly uncontroversial player, especially off the court. Aside from a few childish barbs at the OKC media, he gave few indications of his maturity or emotional intelligence. Most of the criticism he faced focused on his on-court play and even those were largely deflected by his more polarizing teammate Russell Westbrook.
That all changed when Durant hit free agency, signed with the 73-win juggernaut Golden State Warriors and legitimately altered the course of NBA history. Oklahoma City fans cast the move as first-degree treason. NBA fans and talking heads more broadly cast the move as weak, selfish, and disrespectful to the rest of the league. The NBA already had a severe parity problem, and Durant made the single most parity-destroying move in league history (yes, worse than The Decision). For many fans, including me, the inevitability of a Warriors championship in 2017 cast a shadow of futility over the entire season, sucking the fun and intrigue from a league that had remained highly entertaining even through James’ stint in Miami. These feelings were vindicated by the vanity project that masqueraded under the misnomer of “the 2017 NBA Playoffs,” in which the Golden State Globetrotters lost one game en route to an unceremonious and unsatisfying fifth NBA title.
As a fan of interesting basketball and meaningful games, last year made me mad. Unless you’re a Golden State fan, it probably should have made you mad too. It’s worse that the outlook for next season is almost no better. As I approach the peak of my NBA fandom, basketball grows worse and worse, and the most culpable party is Durant. I’ll never be able to look at him in a Golden State jersey and feel happy for him, as much as I may want to. In short, it would be all too easy to boil the issue down to “F*ck KD” and treat him with vitriol and hatred, which is exactly how most pundits have responded.
In this process, Durant has been thoroughly stripped of his humanity. Our professional athletes are exalted for emotional restraint and are expected to avoid displays of negativity, making it easy to forget that they are humans; the effect is particularly pronounced for stars like Durant, who has fully ascended to the 1b to James’ 1a. There’s a strong case to be made that Durant made a profoundly selfish move. But it also was not made out of malice. Durant’s decisions are informed by his emotional wellbeing, no matter how vehemently I and others may disagree with those decisions. It’s striking how frequently this is lost on fans, despite Durant’s repeated attempts to make this clear.
His quest to reclaim his humanity began subtly, though perhaps not delicately. After the initial wave of rancor—immediately following his signing with Golden State and (it now seems, correctly) touting his decision as “the hardest road”— Durant frequently bemoaned his unfair treatment to the media with a mixture of sheepishness and indignance. He often displayed a shocking lack of self-awareness, but it was always clear that such obliviousness was the byproduct of his thinly veiled, oft-crippling self-consciousness. Recent reports that Durant initially was furious with his agent for allowing him to leave Oklahoma City (“why the f—did you let me do this to my life?”) merely confirm what we already knew about The Slim Reaper’s intensely fragile ego.
Inevitably, Durant’s insecurity has bubbled into resentment as the onslaught of hatred followed him throughout the 2016-17 season. The buildup to each meeting of Oklahoma City and Golden State consistently brought to light another indelicate Durant dig at either his detractors or past teammates. It seemed that his only consolation was the idea of winning a championship as the ultimate trump card. However, when Golden State’s victory only exacerbated the anger of NBA fans, the Durantula became venomous. It started with donning a hat featuring a cupcake with an NBA title ring stuck in it, a shot at Thunder fans who had criticized his fragility by chanting “cupcake” at Durant’s homecoming game. Next came his post-Finals interview with Cari Champion.
“I didn’t go [to the Warriors] to make my life easier every day,” Durant said. “I didn’t go so I could stop getting up at 8:30 and [try] to be the first one on the court. I didn’t go there to walk into every game and be satisfied if I have 20 points and shoot 30 percent from the field. That’s just like, in my DNA, that’s just like my blood, that’s what wakes me up. I can’t stand when somebody discredits the work. Like, I actually did that. I actually put that in. Don’t take that away from me.”
Shockingly, this interview didn’t stop people from trying to take that away from him. Durant’s next move was to try and convince the NBA universe that its insults were lost on him, a strategy that he rolled out with his new shoe line. The colorful kicks bare KD’s soul on their soles; the shoe-bottoms list terms of abuse frequently hurled at Durant, with his stats from the NBA Finals superimposed and literally obfuscating the hatred. Unfortunately, Durant’s track record makes it tough to believe him. His status as a champion seems to have aggravated rather than soothed his fragile psyche.
If there was debate as to whether he had overcome his emotional obstacles, it was settled this past month when he was accidentally caught using fake accounts on Twitter and Instagram. Durant used these accounts in the third-person, directly defending himself to internet trolls and criticizing his former Thunder teammates and coaches. In his apology, he claimed that he hadn’t eaten or slept in multiple days since the incident. The veracity of this assertion may be questionable, but Durant’s overarching sense of guilt—for all his actions, the most recent ones included—is not.
This only scratches the surface; the laundry list of times that Durant has put his insecurities on display since last July is epic and ever-increasing. Often he is sympathetic, honest, and vulnerable. At other times he is selfish, inconsiderate, and maliciously misdirects his anger. Above all, he is distinctly and aggressively human. His insecurity should be universally relatable and empathy-inducing, and it’s tough to blame Durant for being frustrated that his cold, removed vilification continues to this day. In the wake of the social media fiasco, Durant made his most direct plea for compassion yet.
“I play basketball, I got acne, I grew up with nothing, [I’m] still figuring myself out in my late 20s, I slide in DMs, I make fun of my friends, I drink beers and play Xbox,” Durant wrote in a now widely-publicized comment on his Youtube channel. “I’m closer to you than [you] think.”
This is the link that can mend the seemingly insurmountable rift between Durant and his detractors. Durant, fundamentally and self-admittedly, is not LeBron James. He is four years younger physically and 10 years younger emotionally. They have different personalities and are at wildly different stages of life; they will naturally deal with criticism differently. Durant will probably never be the role model and consummate professional that James is. Maybe that’s okay. Maybe we shouldn’t assume that because one celebrity whom we incessantly berated handled his critics with grace and tact, every other celebrity should be held to the same standard.
I’m not a psychologist, and I’ll spare Durant the indignity of trying to assess his mental well-being. It’s possible that Durant has an anxiety or self-image disorder, but the attempts by Twitter “doctors” to diagnose his potential mental illnesses have a whiff of ableism and a noxious stench of aloofness. The appropriate professionals should (if needed) treat him clinically. The rest of us should treat him with empathy. He’s done nothing to deserve our understanding other than being a human, but he’s also done nothing that should have disqualified himself from it. He’s not a criminal. He’s an insecure man in his 20s, who seems a little confused about what exactly he wants from his life. All he ever knew was that he wanted to be “The Servant”. We said no, forced him to be The Slim Reaper, and then crucified him when he accepted his involuntary villainy.
I don’t advocate that all sports fans have an obligation to consume the product without preferences, without emotional reactions, and even without animosity towards players or teams. Golden State is probably my least favorite NBA team, Durant is one of my least favorite players on the team, and if anything, fans have an obligation to have these preferences. Sports would die without them.
But we also have an obligation as people to mitigate the suffering of others. Kevin Durant has shown us time and time and time again that our personal attacks cause him pain. We can ease his pain, without sacrificing our own resentment over his transgressions, simply by being less hostile and vitriolic. It’s easy to say ‘F*ck KD.’ But maybe, hopefully, it’s harder to say ‘F*ck Kevin, the 28-year-old who took a job in the Bay Area’. There’s a sweet spot between hoping that Durant misses every shot he takes and being vindictively happy when our comments cause him anguish. For his sake and ours, let’s hope that the Dubs go 0-82 and that we can find the compassion to not assault him for it.
Sam Prescott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.