The Complexity of Kevin Durant's Villainy
Updated: Oct 16, 2018
In every superhero movie I’ve watched growing up, there is a scene in which the viewer is first introduced to a series of events that culminates into the creation of a villain. Central to any movie plot is the antagonist. Picture them in their laboratory, or workshop tinkering with their tools and ingredients. Whether we think of the Joker, The Green Goblin, even Darth Vader, there’s a single moment in which the plan eventually comes together. The pieces fit. The suit or the serum is complete. And then there’s a moment of silence for the viewer to embrace what’s about to happen. Some evil laugh, even just a smile. Some indication that all sh*t is about to break loose.
The NBA equivalent of this scenario played out two seasons ago when Kevin Durant signed for the Golden State Warriors. A similar plot had been written even earlier when LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers, but for several reasons this particular move carried more weight. Durant had failed to bring a championship to the Thunder and one of the best players to ever play basketball was leaving to play for the team that had just finished with the most wins ever in a single NBA season. His move to Oakland unsurprisingly left millions of fans heartbroken; matches and lighters in hand, as jerseys with the number 35 began to shoot up in flames.
Soon enough jerseys with that same number 35 were reborn onto the backs of fans, except this time in blue and gold. As Kevin Durant draped his own blue and gold jersey across his back, the deafening boos began to fill the arenas. Posters of snakes and cupcakes surfed the crowds as fans yearned to see the Warriors lose on a nightly basis. They rarely did.
Although a hyper extended knee would keep Durant out of 21 games that same season, he eventually returned to the NBA Finals in his first year with the Warriors. Kevin Durant’s performance in the 2017 NBA finals would go down in history as one of the best individual performances in Finals history. He averaged a ridiculous 35.2 points per game in the five Finals games.
Kevin Durant’s three pointer in Game 3 of the Finals was his one forceful reply to the posters, the heckles, the tweets and the insults that built up throughout the season. And it worked. The Warriors would go on to defeat the Cavaliers in 5 games to win the championship. Arms raised in the air, one holding a Finals MVP and the other the Larry O’Brien Trophy, Kevin Durant embraced his role as the villain. Fans across the league, non-coincidently a large concentration in the state of Oklahoma, had hoped to see Durant fail, ready to ridicule his choice of “taking the easy way out,” dusting off the old tweets which were once aimed at another special somebody during the 2012 NBA Finals.
The following season, Kevin Durant embracing the role of the league’s antagonist would lead the league in ejections with 5 on his way to a second championship and a second Finals MVP. He became an unstoppable, polarizing force in not only the NBA, but the culture surrounding basketball as a whole.
A quick google search for “Most hated player in the league” lends no favors to Durant as his name comes up at the top of most lists time and time again. There is rarely pushback on this unanimity of hate towards Durant coming from anyone other than Warriors fans and Kevin Durant burner accounts.
There is however an evident complexity to Kevin Durant and his villainy. It arises when we begin to observe his persona off the basketball court. This touches upon an important question which is seldom discussed amongst NBA fans. Is it necessary or even possible to separate a player on the court from the person he is off the court? Many argue that it is.
Let’s find out.
I want you for a moment to consider the following charitable contributions made by Dallas Mavericks power forward and future hall of famer Dirk Nowitzki. In 2018, Dirk was the recipient of the 2018 NBA Cares Community Assist award. In 1 year alone, Nowitzki pledged more than $13 million to various organizations mostly in the realm of education. He donated $10 million over 10 years to College Track, an organization dedicated to sending high school students from low income communities to college throughout America. In addition, Dirk Nowitzki made a $3 million donation to his alma mater and its Center for Sports Leadership and Innovation. He has helped American Red Cross with its aid following Hurricane Harvey and Dirk’s own Charity Foundation BUILD IT AND THEY WILL BALL has helped refurbish basketball courts around the world.
Dirk Nowitzki is one of the most liked NBA players in the league having spent 20 seasons with the same franchise. Would it be fair to say that his attitude on the court speaks directly to his contributions off the court? Many would say that it does. The things he does when he is not playing shine a light on the kind of person he is and thus correlate to this career as a whole as well as his perception in the eyes of basketball fans. We can all agree that there is in fact no difference between the player he is and the person he is. There is no need for such a distinction. In fact, there is no distinction. He is Dirk Nowitzki.
Now consider Kevin Durant. All the community involvement and donations I just listed about Dirk Nowitzki are actually one’s made by Durant. I simply switched their names.
(Disclaimer: this isn’t some knock on Dirk Nowitzki who could very well be a very charitable player. I simply chose to use him as a placeholder of a well-liked NBA player. Mike Conley could have also worked well.)
Nevertheless, it is Kevin Durant who won the 2018 NBA Cares Community Assist award. He has donated upwards of $13 million dollars to the organizations mentioned earlier and even following his departure from Oklahoma City, Durant has annually donated to Positive Tomorrows, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing elementary school education for homeless children in the state of Oklahoma. He made significant donations to Hurricane Harvey relief and his own foundation, which is one of the most charitable in the NBA, has helped build basketball courts all over the world.
Let’s ask the same question. Would it be fair to say that Kevin Durant’s attitude on the court speaks directly to his contributions off the court? The question has now become seemingly more difficult to answer since there is an apparent mismatch between the two. On the one hand we have the idea of Kevin Durant as a villain, as someone who betrayed his Oklahoma City fanbase in order to chase rings with the enemies in Golden State. On the other hand, we have one of the most charitable and benevolent athletes not only in the NBA, but the world. This makes it necessary for us to once again create that distinction between player and person in order to reconcile it with our own emotions towards his decision to leave Oklahoma City. This distinction shouldn’t exist, or if it does, it is an unfair one since our attitudes are not reflective of it.
Kevin Durant’s willingness to give back to his community and help millions of individuals throughout the country should not be bracketed and separated from our overall attitude towards Kevin Durant when he is on the basketball court. It would be an injustice to the work he has done. Furthermore, it is extremely rare for someone to say that they have a strong disdain for Kevin Durant when he is playing, but admire the person he is when he is not. One side of this coin often irrationally and emotionally dominates the other especially in a sport such as basketball. I have yet to see any posters with “Kevin Durant sucks” on the front followed by “But thank you for helping send kids to university” on the back. If we are more than willing to have both Dirk Nowitzki’s actions on and off the court grouped into one idea of him as an individual rather than saying “I like Dirk Nowitzki both as a person and as a player” then we should offer Kevin Durant the same courtesy.
Yes, his decision to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder was not favourable, but his role as an upstanding citizen, influencer and an ambassador of basketball should be worth significantly more in terms of like-ability for hist may critics.
Ultimately, I believe it would do the NBA and its fanbase much good to look beyond the confines of the basketball court when evaluating our disdain and bitterness towards players.
Avel Ivanov is a columnist at The Bench. He can be reached on Twitter at @av3ll.