NEXT No. 1: Kevin Durant
It's time for Durant's next act: that of becoming a superstar
This story appears in the Dec. 14 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
In just a few minutes, Kevin Durant will be running scared. For now, though, he is smiling wide from the top of the world. "Man, it's a beautiful day," he says, bending down to look out his living room window at the November sunlight bouncing off his pool. "Let's go for a walk." He slips a pair of swim shoes over his giant, battered feet (size 18s that Nike has paid $60 million to wrap in blue plastic high-cuts) and glides down his front walk. He's wearing baggy tearaway pants and a blue T-shirt that reads "YOUNG & RECKLESS" in big, block letters. Young, Durant has down; he recently celebrated his 21st birthday at a club in his native Washington, D.C., just a few struggling whiskers poking out of his chin. Reckless? Not so much.
Durant steps off his manicured lawn and shuffles down the street, his narrow 6'9" frame casting an even longer shadow. He lives in a Spanish-style house in a gated community named Rose Creek, which touts itself as "Oklahoma's Premier Family Community," its wide streets lined with polished sedans and golf carts. Energy barons and retired surgeons wave to him as they drive by. He waves back, his hands extending so far from his shoulders (his wingspan measures nearly 7'5") they seem like satellites. He is walking and waving and talking about how fortunate he feels at the start of his third pro season, here with the looming Thunder, with his Spanish-style house and this wide street to walk down. "It's a perfect situation for me," he says. "I feel bless -- "
Suddenly a dog barks.
Durant stops on the balls of his feet.
It isn't long before he spots the culprit, something resembling a Labrador coming around the side of a big house. But the dog isn't running at him, because the dog is ancient, gray around its muzzle. It isn't even walking, exactly, because sometime over the course of its long, well-fed life, the dog has come to resemble a walrus: Charles Barkley if he had eaten Oliver Miller. If anything, the dog is merely waddling in the general direction of Durant.
But all Durant sees is a dog, and right about now, all that dog sees is Durant's skinny ass hustling up the street. "Shoot, I'm so scared of dogs," he says, looking over his shoulder. He says he was chased by dogs when he was a kid in DC, and he still remembers feeling the heat of a dog's breath on the back of his legs as an 8-year-old. From that memory, he's not far removed. Despite his height, despite his money, despite his burgeoning fame, Kevin Durant is still a kid with a kid's instincts. (When his mother calls his iPhone, the caller ID reads "Mommy.") If it's a beautiful day, that means he should go for a walk. If a dog barks, he should run like hell.
And this guy is NEXT?
On Nov. 6, the night before his encounter with the walrus dog, Durant and the Thunder are in Houston, playing the Rockets. The lanky forward is guarded most closely by Shane Battier. If Durant seems like a kid, Battier has always seemed like a man. And even though Durant will finish with 27 points, Battier and the Rockets keep the Thunder co-captain from reaching his full potential. Durant doesn't play scared, but he plays tentatively, as if he's still feeling his way -- which, of course, he is. The Rockets win easily, and afterward the 31-year-old Battier leans satisfied into his locker, ice packs on his knees, his feet in a bucket filled with even more ice. He has on a white dress shirt for the cameras, a picture of experience and all its burdens and joys.
"No matter how talented a young player is, his first year is sink or swim," Battier says. "Can he survive in a man's league? Obviously Kevin did, and he did pretty well." (Durant was named the NBA's Rookie of the Year after his first season, 2007-08, his team's last in Seattle.)
"Year 2, the hurdle is, Can I bring it every night?" Battier says. "Can I average double figures? Can I be consistent?" (Durant improved in nearly every statistical category last season, his first in Oklahoma City. His three-point shooting percentage jumped from .288 to .422, and he averaged five more points per game, 25.3, and two more rebounds, 6.5.) Battier continues. "The next level is, Can I be dominant? That's Kevin's final step. He's shown flashes of dominance, but can he be dominant every single night? The great ones -- Kobe, LeBron, Garnett -- had to pass through that fire. Kevin still has to run through his flames."
And from fat, old dogs.
Last season, the Thunder lost 24 games before winning their third, against the Raptors, on Dec. 19. In fact, the only thing they did with any consistency was lose. It wasn't easy for Durant, who spent his only year in college developing a taste for big-size success while sweeping nearly every Player of the Year award as a Texas Longhorn. He became accustomed to leading SportsCenter's highlight reel and to being coveted by every NBA fan whose team needed a savior. "That was the best year of my life," he says. Durant was loved and famous then, probably more famous than he is now, having endured two seasons hiding in basketball's hinterlands and at the bottom of the standings.
But in some ways, losing has always been the plan in Oklahoma City. From the top down, the franchise was rebuilt on the premise that people learn best from mistakes, that a new team in a new city with a new coach and new players will mature, grow and eventually win as parts of a whole. There are giant billboards dotting the Oklahoma prairie featuring Durant and the words "Rise Together." Surrounded by other young first-rounders, Durant is being cultivated here like a crop. His star will brighten not solely on his wide, bony shoulders, but on the broad backs of one of the NBA's most talented young squads. "You know, it feels like a college team," says second-year guard Russell Westbrook. "So long as we put the work in, you never know where we might end up."
The Thunder's chief architect, not surprisingly, is only 32 years old. His name is Sam Presti, and he's a Rhodes scholar who believes in the logic of numbers, who believes especially in the power of addition. Three weeks after Presti was named the team's general manager, he handed David Stern a slip of paper with Kevin Durant's name on it. The No. 2 pick in the draft behind Portland's Greg Oden, Durant would be the first constant in every equation that Presti drew on his office whiteboard from that moment on.
Presti's office is in the Thunder's practice facility, a renovated roller rink on the outskirts of town, across from an empty field. Through a wall of windows, the GM is watching Durant and his teammates, including three other top-five draft picks -- Westbrook, Jeff Green and James Harden -- practice the morning after the loss to the Rockets. When practice ends, Durant is the last man on the floor, at the far end, shooting jumpers. He has a delicate touch for a player so tall. Guys with his build (those size-18s support 230 pounds) normally have trouble navigating around furniture, let alone NBA defenses. But Durant is graceful, fluid, beautiful to watch.
"He's unique," Presti says. "But I wouldn't limit it to the fact that he's able to get to places on the floor the way smaller guys do. I find his work ethic more rare. The shots he made against Houston last night -- he understands those shots are easier because of the thousands he's taken in DC, Austin and Seattle."
Presti watches Durant take more shots. Then he tells a story. "I deal with realities," he says. "I don't deal in hypotheticals. So I can't tell you how good Kevin will be. I can't push a button and make him 28, which is when I think he'll hit his prime. But I can tell you that one night in training camp, after a double session, everybody else had left, except there was a light on in the players' lounge. I walked by to see who was in there, because it was getting late, and Kevin was in there with a plate of food. He was exhausted. I could see how tired he was just from how he was barely able to pick up his fork. I remember thinking to myself, This guy got better today."
General managers always tell stories about how hard their pampered young millionaires work, and those stories often make them sound like defense attorneys. The NBA's definition of hard work is looser than in most industries. But watch Kevin Durant practice, and he really does look like a hard hat. He shoots from a particular spot on the floor until he gets the feel for that spot exactly, and then he makes that same shot dozens upon dozens of times until he is sure his muscles are weighed down by the memory. Then he'll step six inches to his right and start again. When Presti tells the story of Durant's sitting hunched over his dinner, there's not much doubt that he got better that day, and that he got better yesterday, and again this morning. Without fanfare, in a tiny market out of the NBA's spotlight, he has quietly been spending his days and nights in this old roller rink, shooting basket after basket, waiting for his chance to run through the same fire that forged Kobe, LeBron and Garnett. Consistency is a simple machine that way. It's about repetition. It's about addition. It's about math. Consistency isn't an accident of genetics or the end game of good luck. It's about working so hard that you're too tired to pick up your fork.
Of course, conventional wisdom dictates that greatness requires a different utensil: a knife. Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan because he looked at a nice guy like Grant Hill and still set out to break his ankles. Peyton Manning has never met an opponent he wouldn't humiliate. Running up his wide street, looking over his shoulder, Durant doesn't seem to have that instinct in him. He doesn't have arms covered in ink. He doesn't scream after every dunk (though there is the occasional scowl and chest bump). Then again, kids aren't usually killers.
"No," he says softly, after finally escaping the Demon Walrus of Rose Creek. "I can be mean. But it's like I flip a switch. I chill at home, sit on the couch and play video games or whatever, and then I turn it on that night when I need to."
Nobody has doubted his scoring ability -- "The guy is nearly seven feet tall and comes off screens shooting like Ray Allen," Battier says -- but in Durant's first two pro seasons, his defense has been suspect. And defense has always been the truest measure of NEXT. In the third quarter against the Rockets, with the Thunder fighting to keep it close, Houston big man Chuck Hayes went in for a routine basket. Durant rose up in front of Hayes, stretched to his full height, and his sinewy right arm swatted the ball violently to the Thunder bench. It was just a half-second of anger, but it showed something. Durant's face had hardened. He looked pissed. With one swipe, he had turned a buzzing Toyota Center pin-drop quiet. "He's got all the ability in the world," said Rockets coach Rick Adelman after the game. "And he keeps getting better."
Durant squints into the sun. "I want to win more than anybody," he says. (His Twitter feed includes pictures of flawless victories over his teammates at Jenga and Monopoly; there's also footage of him winning a slap fight in his living room.) "I want to be one of the greatest players of all time. I want to be remembered. But I don't think you have to be a bad person to be a great player. I think I can be one guy on the court and another guy off."
Maybe he's right. Maybe we shouldn't judge Durant the way we measure Kobe, LeBron and Garnett. Maybe Durant is just special enough as a physical specimen, such a gifted combination of long and quick, that he will be given the freedom to blaze his own path through a man's world, to run through a different fire. Maybe it's possible, in this new millennium, for Kevin Durant to prove that NEXT can happen in the middle of nowhere. Maybe, just maybe, he has it in him to become a new kind of player -- or, more accurately, an old kind -- a breed so rarely seen, you'd think it was extinct: the superstar nobody has the heart to hate.
In Oklahoma City, at least, the worst anyone can say about him is that he's a little unkempt. "He doesn't own a brush," Westbrook says one day in the locker room. "I don't know if he knows what one looks like."
Durant smiles. "When I clean myself up, I look pretty fresh," he says. "But I like to be grimy. I guess I got nappy hair. I got to be me."
Before he signed his sneaker deal with Nike, Durant turned down an offer from Adidas worth $70 million. "That's a lot of money," he says. But when it came right down to it, he just plain likes Nikes better. He grew up wearing them, and they felt good on his feet. The deal made him happy. For him, it wasn't a function of addition; it didn't come down to logic. It came down to hunch. It came down to gut. It came down to instinct. Not a killer's, but a kid's.
As Thunder rookie James Harden puts it, "If you grow up too fast, what's the point? Kevin's not childish. He's just different. He just likes to have fun. He's young, man. We're all young. But we're learning when we can joke around and when we have to be serious."
Learning the difference between joking and serious, between consistent and dominant, is this season's homework assignment for Durant. Once he answers those questions, he'll be on his way to answering all of the others. He'll be able to show us how different he really can be.
There's a hint of it at the Thunder's morning shootaround on Nov. 8. Durant is again the last man on the floor, under the same basket at the far end. He finishes his work, then goes for a stint in the cold tub. He used to be scared of the cold tub, almost as scared of it as he is of dogs. For a guy who doesn't like water or the cold, the cold tub is a scary place. But he knows that the big boys, the professionals, get iced for good reason. And so he has worked to overcome his fears. He began one day in the offseason by submerging his giant feet. The next day, his skinny legs. And finally his entire long self, first for a minute or two, then for five, 10, then 20. It was a logical progression, a measured acclimation. Bit by bit, he made progress. When people talk about growing up, that's what they're talking about. They're talking about math.
Durant gets dressed, goes home and rests, then makes his way downtown to play the Orlando Magic. The combined age of Oklahoma City's starting lineup is 116, good for an average of just over 23. Durant is the second-youngest player on the floor. He logs three steals, scores 28 points, and the Thunder run away with it, 102-74, Durant's contribution equaling the margin of victory. It's their third win of the season. Last year, Durant and his teammates needed 27 games to win three. This year, it took them six. They have many years left to go.
You do the math.
Chris Jones is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.
Together they weigh 975 pounds and stand nearly 31 feet tall. They've claimed dozens of awards and banked millions of dollars (well, except for the college freshman). They've teed up highlights and appeared more than 150 million times on Google. And, crazy as it sounds, they're just getting started. That's why ESPN The Magazine has named the following five athletes NEXT finalists.