By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 25, 2009
OKLAHOMA CITY -- Banned from bowling because of a sprained right ankle, Kevin Durant was at the back of a bowling alley here in the Bricktown area of downtown one recent evening, doing what he usually does when he's not playing basketball -- playing the Xbox video game "NBA 2K9." Durant clicked his video game controller and, with the regularity of the falling pins, confused his opponent, 13-year-old Alex Lemcke, by repeating the words, "Slap that."
It wasn't trash talk so much as a way to motivate Durant through what turned out to be a more competitive than expected game. After nervously watching Lemcke's computer-generated Kobe Bryant miss a potential game-tying three-pointer, the real life Durant celebrated his close win by quietly pumping his fist. Then he high-fived Lemcke. The slapping -- Durant's word for "beating" -- was complete.
Durant was doing his part to keep Oklahoma City Thunder season ticket holders engaged and entertained as the team attempted to woo them back with renewal packages. He glided through the bowling alley -- bad ankle and all -- happily signing autographs and taking pictures with fans. He held a brief conversation with Thunder owner Clay Bennett, shook hands with more children, then stepped outside for another meet-and-greet. When Durant heard a live jazz band playing nearby, he immediately broke into a goofy dance.
What else would you expect when the face of a fledgling franchise is barely 20 years old?
"I'm a big kid," Durant, a Washington native, said recently. "I like to have fun."
The 6-foot-9 Durant truly is having fun in his second NBA season -- and his second NBA city -- since being selected second overall in the 2007 NBA draft after a dominant freshman year at the University of Texas. The lighter-than-a-duffle-bag forward with endless arms is fourth in the league in scoring behind Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Bryant at 25.9 points per game. And, he could become the second-youngest player in NBA history to average more than 25 points in a season (behind James, who entered the NBA out of high school).
"He's a monster," New Orleans Coach Byron Scott said about Durant. "If he adds another 10 or 15 pounds of pure muscle and keeps his athleticism and his speed and his quickness, he's going to be tough to guard. Five more years, he'll be close to Kobe and LeBron as far as guys you almost can't guard."
Although the Thunder (20-51) has one of the league's worst records, the team steadily improved under interim coach Scott Brooks, who replaced P.J. Carlesimo after the team started 1-12. With the development of Durant, former Georgetown star Jeff Green and rookie Russell Westbrook, the Thunder has gone 17-22 since starting the season 3-29.
Durant had the best month of his career in February, when he averaged 33.1 points in his first 10 games -- including a career-high 47 points against New Orleans on Feb. 17 -- before suffering a sprained right ankle in Dallas at the end of the month. "I got that confidence like whoever is guarding me, I can score on him," Durant said of his hot February.
Durant excelled during All-Star Weekend, as he set a new scoring record in the Rookie Challenge with 46 points and won the first-ever H-O-R-S-E competition. Texas also retired his jersey with a moving ceremony in which Durant wept as he saw the No. 35 lifted to the rafters. "I tried to keep it in, man. I told everybody, 'I'm from D.C, we don't cry.' But once I saw my number up there -- it was more than a number for me," said Durant, who wears 35 in honor of his former AAU coach, Charles Craig, who died at 35.
Durant missed seven games with his ankle injury, but he has averaged 25.6 points in his first six games back, leading the Thunder to an upset win over San Antonio last week.
Durant won rookie of the year honors last season with the Seattle SuperSonics, becoming just the third teenager in NBA history to average more than 20 points a game (James and Carmelo Anthony were the others). But Durant also heard criticism that he won the award by default -- because Greg Oden was shelved with a knee injury and also because Carlesimo gave him the freedom to be an undisciplined gunner.
"A lot of people may have criticized me and said I didn't live up to expectations, but everybody around this organization could see how I grew as a player and how I'm going to continue to grow," Durant said. "I knew coming in that I would go through lumps. Guys don't know how tough this game is, being guarded by the best defenders in the world every night for 82 games."
Durant also had to deal with constant speculation about the future of the SuperSonics, who left Seattle last summer for Oklahoma City. Durant actually likes Oklahoma City, which he said reminds him of Austin and doesn't offer many distractions other than basketball. "I'm not into the really big cities, even though I grew up in Washington, D.C. Once you've been there for a long time, you get tired of it," Durant said. "As I was growing up, I kind of liked the slower pace. This fits my personality very well. I'm laid back. I'm kind of a slow-moving cat."
Durant lives 10 minutes away from the team's practice facility in Edmond, and his neighbors are well aware that they live near an NBA star. He has returned home from road trips to find encouraging messages written in chalk on his driveway, and sometimes neighborhood kids stop by to play video games with him.
He recently found a new diversion. "We got a little studio, so we rap a little bit," said Randy Williams, one of Durant's roommates. Williams said Durant has some skills on the microphone. "I probably shouldn't have said that," he added. "But you'd be surprised."
Former teammate Joe Smith of the Cleveland Cavaliers dabbles in music and showed Durant how to make beats this season.
"Nah, I ain't got no skills at all; just playing around," Durant said of his rapping ability. "I just make sounds, make beats and stuff like that. I'm not good at it yet. I've done a couple of [beats] that I like, but I know that's not going to be my full-time job one day."
From the age of 8, Durant approached basketball with a workmanlike attitude. He made a commitment to train at an almost professional level with his godfather Taras Brown, an instructor at Seat Pleasant Activity Center.
Durant often wonders why he was so driven to be great, why he shot countless jumpers and ran those painful, 75-yard sprints along that treacherous section of L Street known as "The Hill." He loved the gym so much that he sometimes napped behind a curtain at the recreation center.
"He's someone who has a passion for the game, and one of the things that I think is real admirable about him is he never gets too far ahead of himself," Thunder General Manager Sam Presti said. "With all of the external expectations and pressure that comes with being a high pick in the draft, I don't think he ever lost focus that it's going to take daily focus, consistency and a work ethic to get where he wants to go."
And where does Durant want to go?
"I want to be an all-star, all-NBA team, all of that. I also want to be known as one of the better defenders in this league," Durant said. "As an individual you always want to do well, but I want to be the best player that I can be. If that's one of the legends, I'll live with that. Guys in this league, they want to be winners and champions. That's what I want to do."
For now, he's enjoying being a big kid in a small city, slapping the competition.