By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 28, 2010; D2
Given Kevin Durant's rapid career trajectory - he's leaped from rookie of the year to all-star to scoring champion to second in the NBA's most valuable player voting in just three seasons - it may come as a surprise to some that he is not too far removed from one of the most humbling experiences of his young professional life.
Durant had yet to play a professional game, but only a few weeks after the Seattle SuperSonics selected the Washington native second overall in the 2007 NBA draft, he put U.S. men's national team Chairman Jerry Colangelo and Coach Mike Krzyzewski in the difficult position of making him the last player cut from a team that went on to qualify for the Olympics in the FIBA Americas tournament.
A year later, Durant had to deal with what amounted to a demotion, as he was part of a select team asked to scrimmage with the Olympic squad as it prepared for Beijing. Leaning back in a chair, arms folded, and wearing a pair of plush slippers after his task was complete, Durant looked around a gym at Valley High in Las Vegas as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony and the other stars of the eventual 2008 gold medalist loaded up duffle bags with sweats and shoes, getting ready for the long flight to China.
"I wanted to be a part of it bad. I prayed every night that they would pick me," Durant said two years ago. "Only the best guys get picked, so I got to work to be one of them. Hopefully before I'm done, I can be on an Olympic team."
Durant, 21, now finds himself in a different position: He's the best player on the team hoping to earn an automatic berth for the 2012 London Olympics by winning a gold medal at the world championships in Turkey. Looking back recently, the Oklahoma City Thunder forward said his rough introduction to international play "added a little more fuel to the fire," but it didn't change his ultimate focus.
"I'm always hungry," Durant said. "I want to be the best."
The Americans haven't won the world championships since 1994, but none of the big-name stars from the 2008 Olympic team returned this summer. And with the NBA facing a possible lockout in the summer of 2011 - a situation that would keep its players out of next year's FIBA Americas tournament in Argentina - there is a hint of added pressure on the current team to deliver when play opens Saturday against Croatia.
"Of course we want to go over there and win it," Durant said. "A lot of the big-name guys aren't here and people are counting us out. So we have something to prove."
As the only first-team all-NBA player on a patchwork American team, Durant has been promoted as its reluctant face. He has batted away that assertion in the same fashion that he ended a tense, 86-85 exhibition victory over Spain by blocking shots by Ricky Rubio and Rudy Fernandez in the closing seconds.
"Everybody says I'm the face. I'm just happy to be a part of this team," said Durant, combating claims he has to serve as this team's Kobe or LeBron. "It's not like that on this team. One thing that's good: Once we step in that locker room on the bus, nobody thinks like that."
Colangelo said that it is unfair to expect Durant to carry the team by himself, with veterans and NBA champions Chauncey Billups and Lamar Odom around to assume leadership and other all-stars, such as Derrick Rose, capable of assisting.
"I don't think people should put that kind of pressure on him," Colangelo said. "That's not his personality, so to speak. Just let him be Kevin.
"No one can change their stripes, their colors. They are who they are. And Kevin leads by example. And the more he performs the level he's capable of playing, that's the leadership we'll get out of him."
Durant said winning a gold medal in Turkey would cap off a productive summer, one in which he signed perhaps the league's last five-year, maximum-salaried extension under the current collective bargaining agreement - an approximate $85 million deal he quietly announced on his Twitter account. He also saw his $25,000 donation last year finally lead to the completion of Durant's Den, a gaming room and lounge at the Seat Pleasant Activity Center, where he spent countless hours honing the skills that helped him become the youngest scoring champion in NBA history.
"It's pretty cool," Durant said of his higher profile. "Something I never really dreamed about. All this stuff is kind of surreal to me. . . . I didn't think I'd be in the league or none of that. It was making it to college. That's about it."
Earlier this month, Durant was surprised when he didn't get an invitation to President Obama's infamous White House pickup game featuring James, Bryant, Wade, Anthony, Rose, Billups, Chris Paul, Magic Johnson, Grant Hill and former Wizard Etan Thomas. But as evidence of his increased status, Durant was recently invited to meet with Obama at the White House after the world championships, according to a person with knowledge of the situation.
Durant understands he can no longer remain under the radar, with the Thunder slated to be on ABC, TNT and ESPN 15 times next season.
"They going to come harder, but I'm looking forward to that. I'm a big competitor," Durant said, adding he hopes to improve on the team's first-round exit last postseason.
"Our best years are only ahead of us, so we got to continue to keep pushing," he said. "If I continue to just get to the playoffs every year, I guess you could say I arrived, but right now I'm just trying to find my way."