Nothing brings out the strangeness of professional sports or modern communities better than when a franchise player walks away from his team for a better chance at winning a title. In the aftermath of Kevin Durant’s decision to join the Golden State Warriors, fans of the superstar and the NBA have responded with burned jerseys and Crying Jordan memes. But for those outside of Oklahoma, or even outside of Oklahoma City, it may be hard to understand just why a professional athlete’s choice to play for a different team matters so much.
Kevin Durant’s skill set and body have always set him apart. His incredible wingspan and height combines with strong ball handling skills like no other. There was nothing like watching the lanky 6’9 forward crossover smaller, more agile guards and knock down a 3. His demeanor was just as unusual. He was confident on the court but soft-spoken, generally humble and fiercely loyal to his friends. Few superstars could coexist so peacefully (relatively speaking) with the mercurial Russell Westbrook. And despite all the commentators’ assertions that the two stars could never win a championship together, they both dramatically improved over their years together and were within a few minutes of making it to the Finals this year, where they were favored to win it all.
I think his demeanor that played a role in the tremendous local support he received because there was something Oklahoman about it. The long-running knock against Durant was he was too “kind,” but it was that kindness and humility combined with his toughness and elite skills that made him fit in so well in Oklahoma, a place where toughness and neighborliness are virtues. This kindness appeared in his interviews and press conferences, but more so in his commitment to Oklahoma City as his home. Nothing typifies this better than his response to the tornado that ripped through Moore, OK, a city just south of Oklahoma City, leading one local to remark about Durant and his family, “They’re not Oklahomans, but they sure act like it now don’t they?”
You’d think that living in Oklahoma your whole life would get you used to tornadoes, but if you talk to someone who lived through a devastating one like the EF5 that went through Moore you learn that it’s not something you just live through. It scars you. You see homes and schools completely leveled, like Plaza Towers Elementary School, and know the names of people, like the seven school children that were caught in its wreckage. You know you can never bounce back; even with good insurance, it can take months or longer to begin rebuilding. And then there’s the reality that every spring you will be reminded of your tragedy when tornado season returns. The trauma all comes back.
In the aftermath of the Plaza Towers , Durant acted immediately, donating a million dollars, heading down to the scene of the disaster, speaking with families and children. During that visit, Durant told the press “We’re not just here to play basketball. We really are embedded in the community, invested in the community.” That might sound like empty sympathy, but it wasn’t, at least not to Oklahomans. Later, he narrated a video about the tragedy, comforting those who died while speaking for Moore, and Oklahoma City, and the State. Durant belonged to us not because of some contract, but because he gave himself to the city. The city gave itself back to him.
When I first moved to Oklahoma, I was struck by the fact that you couldn’t go anywhere without seeing somebody in a Thunder t-shirt. One of the things you’ll hear people in Oklahoma and outside say about Durant is that he and the Thunder “put Oklahoma City on the map.” It’s a demeaning statement, considering that OKC is the state capital and has a long history, but there is some measure of truth to it. Since the Dust Bowl, many Americans have thought of Oklahoma as a place you escape from. But Durant helped to change that. Oklahoma City was becoming a vibrant city just as Durant and the Thunder came to town. The revitalization of the city made it an attractive destination, enough so that when I chose to move here and take a job, Kevin Durant’s presence affected that decision.
Being a deep part of the community seemed to come naturally to Durant, and for years he has talked glowingly of his relationships and home being here. But this also seemed to be the Thunder’s intention: They wanted people in Oklahoma to not just support the team, but to identify with it, and especially with their young star. For many people, you can’t think of OKC without thinking of Durant, and vice versa, in a way that is simply not true of most NBA greats. For example, I will always think of LA when I think of Kobe Bryant, but the opposite is not even close to true. And Durant, the Thunder, and the NBA benefited from OKC’s deep relationship to their superstar. It was great for jerseys, shoes, tickets, and television. Most of all, it was great for our community.
This point is critical to understanding why Durant’s move means so much to us: We spent the last eight years being persuaded by him and the team to identify Durant with us and our city. We were encouraged to become emotionally attached to him. He wasn’t just some dude who played basketball in our gym, he was one of us, and he seemed proud of it. In other words, the league cultivated the very relationship between fans and Durant that would make it so incredibly hard to accept his leaving.
You cannot blame fans for reacting with hurt and frustration when they have been urged to identify with Durant for eight years. And yet, in the wake of his announcement, plenty of people were around on social media to insist that Durant was just being a rational businessman and that we should see it the same way.
All of this makes it hard to accept Kevin Durant leaving. He didn’t just leave a team for a better team; he left our city for one of the best teams ever and our rivals. Not because he didn’t have a chance to win a ring in OKC (he certainly did), or because he wanted more money (we offered him more), or because his personal ties to the Bay were stronger. As long-time Thunder reporter Royce Young wrote right after the announcement, this news was hard to take because it went against everything he had said for the previous eight years. Six years ago, even Durant criticized players for using free agency to build super teams instead of cultivating rivalries and competitiveness.
Now, Kevin Durant is following the same route that sent hundreds of thousands of Oklahomans to the Golden State in the 1930s and 40s. We aren’t experiencing a Dust Bowl, but the energy industry has suffered serious layoffs, the state government has a budget crisis, and our schools are now woefully underfunded and staffed. Oklahoma is suffering, but still strong and still fighting. It would have meant a lot to continue to have Durant with us through this time. His absence is felt.
Aside from a few inappropriate responses, most OKC fans were glad Durant had the right and ability to choose what was best for him. The fans’ frustration isn’t about his freedom to work where he wants, but that it never felt like a purely business relationship. It was always more than that, and that “more” was by design.
So, if Durant’s love of the city made his personal decision to leave all that much harder to bear, does that mean it was a mistake? Do we want to encourage NBA players to keep their distance from their communities, to restrict their acts of kindness to discrete, well-photographed, official NBA-Cares events, where mercy and neighborliness require corporate branding and matching t-shirts? No.
This tension Thunder fans feel between deep love and betrayal speaks to something deeper about our communities, about the fact that we have so little that ties us together, that gives us hope, that we can communally be proud of. I’m not just talking about OKC here or even Oklahoma. Cities across America struggle with this exact problem. What glue remains to hold us together? What shared hopes? What images, signs, and words? What shared festivals and holy days? Maybe part of the ache we feel at the loss of Kevin Durant is the fear of coming apart, of losing the shared excitement with your neighbors when Durant would set some scoring record or make some unbelievable shot. As we have fewer and fewer reasons or opportunities to stop and talk with our neighbors, we should mourn the loss of one man who helped us speak to one another. That’s a fine thing to mourn. But it’s sadder still that we needed someone to help us at all.
I hope Durant loves the Bay like he loved Oklahoma City. Lord knows the Bay has its own problems; and no matter how hard the Warriors are pulled toward Silicon Valley and its tech-industry prosperity, Oakland has plenty of challenges facing it, plenty of opportunities for a selfless player to invest his time, money, and love to help a community.