When he walked into the sweltering high school gym in Northeast Washington on Saturday, Kevin Durant was wearing a plain white T-shirt, basketball shorts, flip-flops and his trademark backpack strapped on his shoulders. Fans inside didn’t swarm him or swoon as the two-time NBA all-star quietly breezed across the court to shake hands and then crack some jokes with Jeff Green, the former Georgetown star and Durant’s former Oklahoma City Thunder teammate.
Durant signed every autograph, posed for every picture, and smiled at every kid that approached him after he finished scoring 44 points and handed out the game-winning assist in a Goodman League victory at Spingarn High School, where NBA Hall of Famers Elgin Baylor and Dave Bing once starred. Most in attendance probably couldn’t afford the hundreds of dollars that it would cost to sit this closely to watch Durant play at Verizon Center, but this is the way the 22-year-old District native can give the people what they want, and can rarely get, for free, at least.
“I just want to hoop,” Durant said Saturday. “I do it for everybody back here that really don’t get a chance to see me that much. I just want to break the barrier. A lot of NBA players don’t do it as often as I do it now, before. Guys may come, play one or two games, but I play all summer, so I just want to break the barrier, show them that I’m regular.”
Durant has been playing with the Goodman League since he was an even scrawnier 16-year-old, hoping to earn a reputation. But even after establishing himself as a superstar, signing an $85-million extension, leading the United States to a gold medal in the FIBA world championship in Istanbul last September, and playing pickup basketball with President Obama, Durant continues to come back home and play pickup games on the blacktop at Barry Farm or Harlem’s renowned Rucker Park or the hardwood at Spingarn or the Drew League in Compton, Calif.
“It feels good to go into different hoods and show them my game,” he said. “People respect it.”
Durant said staying busy with playground basketball has provided a good distraction from the NBA’s labor strife, which is now in day 45 of a lockout that threatens to jeopardize the entire 2011-12 campaign. Durant’s agent, Aaron Goodwin, told ESPN.com that his client has been in negotiations with Besiktas, the same Turkish team that signed New Jersey Nets guard Deron Williams. Durant is also considering possibilities in Russia and Spain. He realizes that he will eventually have to make a decision about where he will play this fall, if it appears the league and its union cannot come to an agreement by the time training camps are slated to begin on Oct. 3.
Durant said that after speaking with Stephen Jackson and a few other players last week, he has decided to set a deadline of Oct. 1. “Once we really know the season is not going to start at regular time, that’s when you make the decision,” he said. “I guess when October hits, it’s really going to get real for me. I don’t want to do it too early and be locked into something, knowing we’re going to play. I’m going to keep my options open.”
When asked if Turkey was his first option, Durant said, “My agent is talking with those guys, but I really don’t know too much about what’s going on. He’s going to call the next few days, keep me in [the loop]. Right now, I’m just trying to get better hooping and we’ll see what happens.”
The self-proclaimed “basketball fanatic” has also added to his burgeoning streetball legend by going to Los Angeles to play in the Drew League, and to New York, where he dazzled fans at Rucker Park on Aug. 1 and an announcer declared, “I…am…the…best,” as Durant dropped 66 points and got mobbed by fans after a flurry of 30-foot three-pointers.
“It was unbelievable, man,” Durant said of his performance at Rucker Park. “Just a great atmosphere, people showed me so much love. It was one of the best moments of my life. One of them zones you get in, like NBA Jam. You get in one of them zones and you can’t miss.”
The next night, he scored 41 points in a Nike Pro City game at Baruch College, silencing hecklers who called him “Baby LeBron” and chanted the name of his teammate, Russell Westbrook. He then scored 29 points in Washington Heights at Dyckman Park. This summer, Durant has also traveled to China (for a Nike-sponsored tour) and the Philippines (for an all-star game sponsored by Filipino tycoon Manuel V. Pangilinan that also featured Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul and Derrick Rose). And, before returning to play in the Goodman League, Durant played at the Melo League in Baltimore and assisted teammate Kendrick Perkins at a camp in Beaumont, Texas.
“People started saying, ‘KD, you’re on a tour.’ Then I thought about it, like, ‘Yeah, I really am,’” Durant said. “I’ve just got to get in the gym, got to get better man. To be honest, I never really looked at it as a tour. It’s just hooping. That’s what I do.”
He will headline a highly-anticipated streetball game this Saturday (Aug. 20), when the Goodman League will host the Drew League at Trinity University. The game will feature several NBA players — including Wizards John Wall, Nick Young and JaVale McGee — a few local playground legends, and will be streamed on the Internet for the pre-order price of $4.99 on www.thebasketballchannel.net. “It’s going to be fun,” Durant said. “It’s good for the game of basketball. Especially with the lockout. I wish these leagues could stay on for as long as the lockout is, but I just got to do it while it’s here. I’ve got to get better man.”
Durant showcased another side of his game this past Saturday, as he played point guard for his team, tossing an alley-oop pass to Green, and setting up Lanham native and former Syracuse big man Arinze Onuaku inside. But he also had the crowd gasping as he hit a contested fadeaway jumper, had them screaming in anticipation as he dribbled up the court after hitting a string of two straight three-pointers.
After he got the third consecutive long range shot to drop, San Antonio Spurs guard Gary Neal, who was watching from the stands, leaned back to laugh and shake his head at the display. Durant was feeling good about the show he provided for the fans, but when he heard that Sacramento Kings forward Donte Greene had scored 51 points in three quarters shortly before he stepped into the gym, he said, “I’ve got to step my game up.”
As he walked out of the gym, backpack again strapped to his shoulders, Durant was stripped down and shirtless, revealing the tattoos that adorn his torso and are never spotted underneath his Thunder uniform. He was in his element, at home, hooping.