LAS VEGAS — He barely had any time to digest the disappointment, seemingly moving from that tearful embrace with his parents in the tunnel at American Airlines Arena in Miami directly to USA Basketball Olympic training at Thomas and Mack Center on the campus of the University of Nevada-Las Vegas.
After his Oklahoma City Thunder lost to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals, Kevin Durant played just one pickup game in the nearly two weeks before arriving in Las Vegas — which certainly wasn’t enough of a distraction for the noted hoops junkie.
He wasn’t seeking time to recuperate after playing all 66 games of the lockout-shortened regular season and another 20 in the postseason. Having a chance to invest the next six weeks of his life in helping to win his first Olympic gold medal is exactly what Durant needed to avoid countless hours pondering every missed jump shot or questionable foul call (or non-call) that contributed to his shortcomings on the NBA’s biggest stage.
“I definitely didn’t want to think about the Finals all summer,” said Durant, who averaged 30.6 points in the five-game loss to Miami.
Durant does have a constant reminder of his heartache, with former opponent and Finals MVP LeBron James now sharing the same uniform and goal of winning in London. He admitted that playing with someone who just claimed the championship at Durant’s expense bothers him.
“It does. But what can I do? He’s my teammate now. I’m a team player. I can’t let it affect this. It’s bigger than that. I’m going to just get over it,” said Durant, who is also joined by two of his Thunder teammates, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. “LeBron had a great year. He won the title, so I let it go; but for me, I was just upset with us — my whole team and myself. Not because we played bad, but we could’ve had a chance to win and we didn’t.
“I wanted to win so bad. I wanted to win for the city. I wanted to win for, of course, our team, myself,” Durant said. “I wanted to win for so many people and you kind of feel that you let them down a little bit. It’s a learning process. I guess you have to go through that, to get better. Hopefully, it helps us as a team and hopefully, we’ll get back there one day.”
But if Durant needed any reminders that he can overcome career setbacks, he doesn’t have to look beyond his experience with USA Basketball. He played well in scrimmages in 2008, when, fresh off his rookie season, Durant was one of the final cuts from the team that won gold in the Beijing Olympics.
“That seems like 20 years ago, almost. I’ve grown so much as a player in this league,” said Durant, the three-time scoring champion. “I thought I was going to make it. I had plans on making it. I didn’t come just to play, just to say, ‘I was here.’ It hurt, but it’s something I had to go through. I’ve been through it before. It was just a matter of me learning from it and moving on.”
USA Basketball chairman Jerry Colangelo clarifies that Durant wasn’t waived: “We just said, ‘We’ll see you soon — and we did.”
Durant returned two years later and went on to become the dominant individual performer in the FIBA World Championship in Turkey, where he set a scoring record with 38 points in a semifinal win against Lithuania and averaged a record 22.8 points. And as the Olympic team plays its first exhibition on Thursday against the Dominican Republic, Durant is now looked upon as a focal point of a team that features James and five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant.
Durant will have a chance to show his continued growth to his hometown supporters this weekend, with Team USA training in the District for three days and hosting an exhibition at Verizon Center on Monday against Brazil.
“He’s come a long way,” Colangelo said. “He is now the poster child for USA Basketball in my opinion. He represents everything you want in a person and in a player. That is not demeaning anyone else; that is just a compliment for Kevin Durant for being who he is.”
Team USA Coach Mike Krzyzewski helped Durant develop the confidence that he needed to carry the Americans in 2010 and had to occasionally goad him to be more assertive. “When he was with the world championship team, we were younger and he has to be that same guy with LeBron, Kobe and Carmelo [Anthony],”Krzyzewski said. “That’s an adjustment he has to make.”
With the Olympic team lacking much size outside of Tyson Chandler, Durant said he would be willing to play center if Krzyzewski asked him. He certainly doesn’t plan on assuming too much of a deferential role despite still being one of the youngest players on the team.
“I’m going to be me,” Durant said. “I’m not going to go out there and just prance around because I don’t want to step on anyone’s toes. Whatever coach needs me to do, I’m going to do.
Durant, who turns 24 in September, also has the motivation that this could be his final Olympics. NBA Commissioner David Stern has spoken openly about exploring the possibility of following the soccer model, in which Olympic participation is limited to players age 23 and under. Colangelo said he would table those discussions until after London, but Durant doesn’t want that conversation to get very far.
“That would mean this would be my last Olympics,” Durant said. “I’d like to go win another gold medal in the next Olympics, if we can. I want to experience this as much as I can. I hope it doesn’t go that way. This is a lot of fun.”