[h2]With a Spot in the NBA Finals and Universal Recognition as One of the Most Talented Players Ever, 23-Year-Old Kevin Durant is Just Getting Started. That’s Fantastic for the NBA and Terrifying for Every Franchise Outside of Oklahoma City.[/h2]
We’re now officially entering the next great era of NBA basketball. With LeBron James and Kevin Durant leading their respective teams into this year’s Finals, a thrilling championship series featuring two of the game’s most revolutionary talents is now upon us.
And it seems aptly fitting that the Heat and Thunder are the names of the last teams standing, as both James and Durant are destructive forces of nature in their own right.
Through the filter of time, it’s clear that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird spoiled us. When Magic jumped center in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals against the Sixers, his brilliant 42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists and three steals propelled the Los Angeles Lakers to the first of his eventual five rings. In 1981, when Bird averaged 15 points, 15 rebounds and seven assists in the Finals as the Celtics defeated Houston, it seemed that talented young prospects could easily step into the NBA and lead their teams to titles. Their rivalry and accomplishments were not merely epic. They also provided the impetus that elevated the game to heights unseen.
Now, more than 30 years later, we can fully appreciate what an anomaly Bird and Magic were at such precocious young ages. Because it has taken that long for us to get such a salivating matchup of the world’s two best young players. With both vying for current and future NBA supremacy, the next ten years or so is stretched before them like a plush red carpet, with its welcoming invitation sucking them into the pantheon of promise fulfilled and legendary greatness.
The Heat, with James, Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade, versus The Thunder, with Durant, James Harden, Serge Ibaka and Russell Westbrook, is a matchup that promises, due to the astonishing skill and unearthly athleticism on both rosters, to make us stutter and stammer like the champ in Harlem Nights.
Other than the magnificent James, there is no greater young prospect in the game today with the combo of length, desire, work ethic and an insatiable appetite for greatness – all of which marinate with a smooth, devastating offensive weaponry – than the Oklahoma City Thunder’s Kevin Wayne Durant.
We are currently eyeballing the ascension of one of the greatest talents the game has ever, or will ever, witness. And the truly exhilarating part is that we’re really at the precipice of his professional breakthrough.
Growing up in Suitland, Maryland, situated in Washington D.C.’s outskirts of Prince George’s County, Durant’s early passion for the game led him to the doorstep of the Seat Pleasant Activity Center.
Sensing his innate drive, Taras “Stink” Brown, who served as the resident basketball guru at Seat Pleasant, became committed to Durant’s development, along with others who exhibited a willingness and aptitude for his boot camp-like program.
Durant worked his way through an endless maze of drills over the years – sprints, crabwalks, defensive step slides, every assortment of ball handling, passing, rebounding and shooting drill imaginable.
Outside of the physical repetitiveness designed to burn the fundamentals and mechanics into his muscle memory, an advanced academics component consisting of video breakdown and required reading was also part of the curriculum.
“Between the ages of 10 and 16, Kevin put in eight-hour days during the summer,” Brown told Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl in 2007.
“Some days I wouldn’t pick up a basketball,” Durant told Wahl. “He’d put 60 minutes on the clock and say I had to do defensive drills the whole time.”
There were also written assignments such as composing, 500 times, ‘Stink’s’ six successive elements of a jump shot – “Square Up, Eyes on the Basket, Jump Hard, Step Back Quickly, Loft the Ball and Follow Through.”
And then, there was the quadriceps-burning, 75-foot incline of Hunt’s Hill and the ensuing backwards jog to the bottom. The drill was completed after 25 up-and-down sequences.
“The average kid wouldn’t do it,” Brown told Jeff McDonald of the San Antonio Express News. “I’ve had kids run it with him. They get to the top and keep on going. Not Kevin. Kevin always kept coming back.”
When he was eleven, he met another neighborhood kid at the gym named Michael Beasely. Durant served as B-Easy’s motivational measuring stick and the two became close friends, even though the new kid did not make the greatest first impression.
“Mike practiced with us one day, and he was awful,” Durant told the Seattle Times’ Percy Allen. “You could tell that he was good, but I guess he was nervous. He was lazy. He didn’t play like he wanted to. And when he left, he stole our pizza. Our big pizza. We had just ordered it, too.”
“Where I lived was not the best area to grow up in,” Beasely told the Seattle Times about the boys’ Prince George’s County neighborhoods. “I didn’t know when the next time I was going to eat was.”
Durant reached his breaking point once with Brown’s military-like demands, while executing a drill at the age of thirteen where he was required to stand for an hour, frozen in the proper shooting form. He’d finally had enough and stormed out. Two hours later, he was back.
KD often took naps at the center. Other kids made fun of him because he ostracized himself in the cocoon of the game, always carrying a ball that often left the dirty remnants of his pursuits stained on his white t-shirts. But he could care less.
“Basketball became my priority,” Durant told The San Antonio Express News. “I didn’t let anything get in the way of that.”
As member of the P.G. Jaguars, Durant, along with Beasely and former UNC-Charlotte power forward Chris Braswell, collected numerous AAU national championships. He also spent some time with the D.C. Blue Devils AAU program, playing alongside another talented neighbor, a jet quick, diminutive point guard named Ty Lawson.
Between his freshman and sophomore years of high school, Durant grew six inches, sprouting to 6′7″. After ripping through his first two seasons at National Christian Academy in Fort Washington, Maryland, he arrived at the esteemed Oak Hill Academy in Mouth of Wilson, Virginia.
During his first action at Oak Hill, the summer before his junior year, the 15-year-old Durant was matched up against 18-year-old Josh Smith, a few months shy of Smith’s selection by the Atlanta Hawks in the first round of the NBA draft.
“Kevin didn’t back down at all,” Oak Hill coach Steve Smith told the San Antonio Express News. “He held his own.”
Durant averaged 20 points and nine rebounds as a junior at Oak Hill and then returned to Maryland to play his final prep season at Montrose Christian. Smith was not shy about stating that Durant would one day be better than Rod Strickland, Jerry Stackhouse, Josh Smith, Carmelo Anthony and all of the other prep school greats who’d worn the Oak Hill uniform.
As a senior at Montrose in 2006, Durant took MVP honors at the prestigious McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-American games.
But it was at the University of Texas where his legend began to formally coalesce. He scored 37 points four separate times, blazed for 30 points or more on twenty occasions, and became the FIRST FRESHMAN EVER to win the coveted Naismith and Wooden Awards.
After his signature college performance, a 37-point, 23-rebound masterpiece against Bobby Knight’s Texas Tech team, Durant was not satisfied as he sat at his locker after the victory.
“I can play better,” he told the media.
The king of enthusiastic and bombastic hyperbole, Dick Vitale, described him as, “…the most prolific offensive skilled big perimeter player ever.”
And Durant makes a compelling case, every time he steps foot on the court, to validate those ballyhooed remarks.
Selected with the second overall pick by the Seattle Supersonics, Durant went on to average 20.3 points en route to winning Rookie of the Year honors. But the Sonics lost 62 games.
If you’re just jumping on the Durant bandwagon now, you’re probably unaware that a few short years ago, his first NBA teams were the Charles Barkley dictionary definition of “Turrible!”
He finished his second NBA season, the team’s first as the Oklahoma City Thunder, with superstar numbers, averaging 25 points, seven rebounds and three assists while shooting 42% from behind the three-point line. But the Thunder finished 23-59 and, again, were worse than Eddie Murphy in Pluto Nash.
The national media took the lazy assumption that as a good young player stuck with a dreadful team, KD would get his stats, finish out his rookie contract and bolt for winning team with a corpulent, max contract in hand. But they couldn’t foresee the franchise’s ensuing transformation, a conversion that was more remarkable than Gwyneth Paltrow’s in Shallow Hall.
By his third year, there was no denying that, even though he should’ve only been a college senior, KD had already climbed into the discussion with Kobe and LeBron as one of the NBA’s greatest players in the post-Jordan era. Not only did he become the youngest player ever, at 21, to lead the league in scoring in 2010, but he also led the franchise to a surprising 50-win season, a remarkable 27-game improvement.
They lost to the Lakers in the first round of those playoffs, but the Thunder fought every inch of the way. Durant’s 29-point, 19-rebound performance in OKC’s first playoff victory in Game 3 of that series signaled, to the astute among us, that a paradigm shift in pro basketball was on the horizon.
Last year, after 55 victories and a loss to the eventual champion Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference Finals, we knew that this day was coming soon. And after losing the first two games in this year’s conference final to a Spurs team that looked hotter than Scarlett Johansson, we figured Durant’s time was still a year or two away.
But in the blink of an eye, the Thunder vanquished the Spurs in the next four games, capped by Durant’s cold-blooded assassination of San Antonio, leading his team back from an 18-point first half deficit with his 34 points and 14 rebounds in the decisive Game 6.
He’s been a marvel, and yet, for folks who think he’s arrived, I’ve got some scary news for you. You’re wrong. He’s still just a puppy, a work in progress.
Kevin Durant is actually giving us glimpses of the monster explosion that’s coming in the years ahead. Think about that. And the divine thing is that he’s not satisfied. He yearns and needs to improve. That’s what keeps his heart racing.
With his baby face and slender frame, he utilizes his height, pterodactyl-like wingspan, deceptive strength, sense of purpose, humility and shocking skills to confound even the game’s most astute connoisseurs.
The Thunder are one of the youngest, yet most talented, hungry and exciting teams in the league. With Westbrook, Harden and Ibaka, their youth movement is light years beyond where anyone thought they would be at this juncture. And the centerpiece of their lightning bolt, thunderous shiver being felt throughout the NBA landscape – a bony, 6′9″ 23-year-old kid with teenage whiskers on his face – is not content.
A few years ago, huge billboards dotted the flatlands of Oklahoma, showing Durant with the words “Rise Together.”
Somehow, I get the feeling that the message does not simply refer to the franchise or the state, but rather the global game. So enjoy this year’s Finals, as we march into this next great NBA era. And remember KD’s words, every time someone tells him how great he is.
“I can get better,” is Durant’s constant refrain. My goodness, I can’t wait to see it.
Alejandro Danois, Bounce Magazine’s Senior Editor and a Contributing Writer with Sporting News, is also a freelance sports and entertainment writer whose work has been published by the New York Times, the Baltimore Sun, the Los Angeles Times, the Associated Press and Dime Magazine, among others.