The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Kevin Durant still just wants to hoop. The game demands more.

"I enjoy hooping. It’s simple as that,” Durant says. “I like when the ball go through the rim." (Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
11 min

NEW YORK — The storm of another tabloid-backpage season has again sought to engulf Kevin Durant, but he keeps hunting down the quiet. He finds it in the gym when no one is watching; in packed arenas where his efforts come under scrutiny; and on this night, after another Brooklyn Nets win, in the hallways of Barclays Center, where his signature Marvin Gaye beanie hugs his head like a comforting love song.

He is dressed casually in all black, his outfit lending the impression of someone on a late-night grocery run, even if the price tag of his hooded wool coat, jeans and exclusive Nikes projects otherwise. But that unpretentious appearance, scraggly beard and all, reflects his current attitude toward basketball. He has stripped the career accolades, championships and gold medals down to the why, he says, an adjustment that has given him purpose at 34, in what should be the twilight of his career.

Durant remains one of the most-talked-about players in the NBA, though not always one of the most listened to. His words are dissected for hidden meanings, misinterpreted for clicks and likes. It frustrates him, but he continues to be expressive, sensitive, sometimes surly and, when needed for a quote or for a bucket, available.

“How do I still keep getting up with that enjoyment and that excitement? I had to ask myself that question. Simply put, I enjoy hooping. It’s simple as that,” Durant says. “I like when the ball go through the rim. I like working on my game. I like building with a team. It gives me that joy that I crave — a kidlike energy when I walk into practice, into an arena. So I’m going to keep chasing that feeling. And the second, I guess, that goes away, I’ll call it quits.”

Nearly 16 years after he entered the league as a collection of long, skinny arms and legs, Durant is still able to get 30 a night with relative ease — able to score more, shoot better and dish out more assists on average in Brooklyn than he did during his stints with his previous two franchises. All of that production has come after an Achilles’ injury and after what most would consider his prime.

But the triumph of Durant’s regained and sustained greatness has been overshadowed by the drama. Foremost is the sidelining of Kyrie Irving, for his refusal to be vaccinated against the coronavirus and for his promotion of a film containing antisemitism. But there also was the tumultuous departure of James Harden; the struggles of the player Brooklyn swapped for him, former all-star Ben Simmons; Durant’s trade demand, since rescinded; and the request that the team fire its coach, Steve Nash, which it later did. Meanwhile, last season, Durant’s previous team, the Golden State Warriors, won a fourth championship by defeating the same Boston Celtics team that swept him out of the first round.

The Nets (19-12) have played better since Jacque Vaughn replaced Nash after a 2-5 start and Irving returned, climbing to fourth in the East. Durant was a consistent presence through the downs and ups, providing the kind of leadership that has always suited him — show up, work, don’t overstep your bounds — even if more was demanded from the outside.

“With the pandemic and my Achilles’ injury, I feel like it was a turning point in my career, in my life,” Durant says. “I’m just grateful to be in this position. Obviously, we’ve got a lot going on with our team, but I think that’s just all a part of the journey I’m excited for.”

A ‘family’ reunion

Wednesday night in Brooklyn, Durant will have another reunion with Golden State, his first since the Warriors won last season’s title without him. He has been gone for more than three seasons, but the three he spent in the Bay Area remain a defining period of his career.

Durant is a performer who wants onto every stage worthy of his talent. The Warriors gave him a platform to win two championships, claim two Finals MVP awards and own a winning Finals record against LeBron James, who handed him his first Finals loss when Durant was with the Oklahoma City Thunder. But he was often the center of the storm with Golden State, the leading source of tension with fans and media. Frustratingly, that divide resurfaced when the Warriors’ victory over the Celtics became a reassessment of his tenure.

Despite Durant averaging 32.3 points in nine games and earning MVP honors in Finals wins in 2017 and 2018, the Warriors’ success without him inspired critics to again reduce those titles as cherry-picked, those performances to riding coattails. Hall of Famer Charles Barkley, on the league’s top studio show, “Inside the NBA,” belittled Durant’s achievements by saying he wasn’t the bus driver and was simply along for the ride.

“I hated that,” Durant says. “Riding coattails? That’ll never happen when I’m playing basketball. Either I’m going to step back, so you can go ahead and do your thing, or I’m going to take control.”

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Durant’s name became a piñata.

“I can’t lie: Watching the Finals, I knew so many people would turn their focus on me once they won. I was like, I hate that they won, because y’all not going to make it about them; it’s going to be all about me,” Durant says. “I think it’s just a childish way of looking at that experience. I feel like you can take it all in and appreciate what they did and not even talk about me. I was just sitting at home. But I get how it is.”

The noise couldn’t drown out the memories Durant made with his Warriors teammates. When Stephen Curry was named Finals MVP, he silenced the silly attempts to disparage all he had built with the Warriors. And when he crossed paths with Curry last summer, Durant says, he told his former MVP partner, “The way you played in that Finals is the way I enjoy seeing you play.”

“That’s my family over there,” he says. “I can be a Brooklyn Net and y’all can be the Golden State Warriors, and it’ll still be love. ... When they succeed, I succeed, because I’m a part of that history forever.”

The Warriors’ fourth championship subjected Durant to another debate he finds annoying: that he needs to win on his own.

“I’ve never done anything I want to do on this Earth of significance by myself,” Durant says. “Even if I win on this team, it’s going to be a contribution from everybody. I never made winning about me, even when I was at Golden State. I could’ve easily stepped out and said, ‘Yeah, this is my s---.’ I never did that. I didn’t even come here to prove to people that I could win on my own.

“I can’t put all the pressure on myself,” he says. “I did that before. You want it all, you want to experience it all, but it wasn’t good for my sanity trying to put everything on me.”

‘I’m just a hooper’

The way Durant wants to discuss basketball, and be discussed, is the antithesis of how it goes these days. GOAT this. Top 10 that. Debate shows and social media rants have replaced nuanced and layered conversations. A great player’s legend has a scoreboard, and basketball observers are constantly looking at the score — instead of the floor, where all of the action takes place.

A basketball purist, Durant has begged for a space to just hoop. But fans have convinced themselves that isn’t enough. At times, he has raged against that perspective with clapbacks on Twitter. He has referred to himself as “The God” in response to the most indignant. He is not a villain but more of an antihero whose skill set made him more relevant than his personality ever could. The game outside the game has made him defensive, in part because a part of him does need the adoration.

This conversation is briefly interrupted when an arena worker nervously steps toward Durant and says: “KD, I love you, man. I love your game.”

Durant shakes his hand and gives him a hug. The worker asks Durant to make a video message on his cellphone for his son, CJ. “Hey, CJ,” Durant says into the camera before pointing, “You better listen to this man.” He makes a funny face and again embraces the worker, who walks away as if he has just found money.

Interactions such as that, Durant says, remind him of the way he impacts lives more than some hater with keyboard courage on social media.

“There’s pros and cons to everything. But it’s way more pros than it is cons, being who I am,” Durant says. “It’s like, if I want to nitpick, my life is a little crazy at times. I deal with the constant scrutiny — and I don’t even call it scrutiny, because it’s more love than hate, to be honest with you. I’m embracing that responsibility as a part of my job. And understanding that I have influence. I downplayed that a lot, like, ‘I’m just a hooper.’ ”

Even Durant’s harshest critics would have a hard time finding 15 NBA players who have been better. He once coined the term “unicorn” for Kristaps Porzingis, but Durant was the first player to meet the description — a 7-foot guard who could play anywhere on the floor, whom people have forever struggled to categorize. By the time Durant exits the game in the next five or so years, the best player in the league could be a much taller iteration: Victor Wembanyama.

“I’m proud to be a part of the history of the league and pushing the game forward,” Durant says.

Durant’s time with the Nets ended a run, from 2011 to 2019, in which his teams finished no worse than the conference finals in all but one season he was able to finish. Though Durant is producing at an MVP level and Irving is returning to form, the Nets aren’t considered a title favorite. That doesn’t mean he regrets his decision to play in New York.

“It was another pivot,” Durant says of leaving Golden State. “I just wanted to play ball somewhere else. But a lot of people see it as I’m chasing something. And I think it probably stems when I said, ‘I don’t want to be number two no more.’ I was number two in high school, in the draft. But what I had to explain to people was, I had just lost in the Finals. I wanted to go back and win the Finals. It wasn’t about: ‘I want to be the best ever. I want to be better than LeBron or [Michael Jordan].’ I don’t give a s--- about that. I want to wake up every day and do what I do. If we win, I know that stuff comes with me being the best that I can be.”

Durant says he has enjoyed the collegial vibe of the rivalry between the Nets and the New York Knicks and the challenge of elevating a big-market franchise that has a small-market feel. He has been better positioned to build his burgeoning media empire, making connections in almost every industry that inspires him and always looking to expand his portfolio. His favorite football team, the Washington Commanders, is seeking potential buyers, and Durant says: “You never know what’s going on. . . . But I would love to be a part of that. Whoever out there reads this interview, if you want to put a bid up, make sure you think about me.”

Durant then chuckles to himself.

“It’s so much that you can learn from being an NBA player,” he says. “Life lessons in basketball. The business around the NBA. There is so much to learn here. So every stop along the way is an experience in order for me to accelerate and be better in the next part of my life.”

And with that, Durant shuffles toward the tunnel and heads home, all alone, into the quiet.