Durant should be viewed as an American hoops hero. His talent for basketball is obvious and overwhelming. But his commitment to playing in the Olympics is more important than his abilities. He is here because he cares. For him, this is not a burden. It is an opportunity.
“It brings me a lot of joy,” Durant said Saturday. “I really enjoy it.”
When gold medals are expected — as they are with USA Basketball — joy can be drowned by expectation. Appreciation is fleeting. Yet watch Durant on Saturday — draping himself in an American flag after the United States’ 87-82 victory over France in the gold medal game of the Tokyo Olympics — and the smile is telling. Others stayed home? Fine. Don’t tell me they’re not missing out.
Half a world away, Durant is known for his NBA MVP award, for the two championships he won in Golden State, for the titles he didn’t win in Oklahoma City and has yet to bring to Brooklyn. Debate his place in the NBA, both in its current power structure and in an assessment of his ranking all-time. What should be unquestioned is that his legacy is enhanced — significantly — by the golds he has in three Olympics. Only Carmelo Anthony can say the same.
“Kevin Durant has been one of the great players to ever play for USA Basketball,” said Jerry Colangelo, the organization’s director. “He’s very special.”
Colangelo would have said more, but he couldn’t. He was tearing up.
Among those not draped in an American flag Saturday at Saitama Super Arena: Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson, Kyrie Irving and James Harden. Each can and does have a different reason for not committing to the Tokyo Games, and — particularly in the midst of a pandemic — this isn’t a criticism of any of them. But it is a homage to Durant, who not only sacrificed selflessly on the court en route to gold. He sacrificed selflessly to commit to the program again.
“He’s been there every time,” said Colangelo, who is stepping down after these Games. “I tell the story: I met him when he was a freshman in college, and I invited him to come to [training] camp. He was wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, and he said, ‘I’ll be there.’ And it’s never changed.”
Nor have the results. In the gold medal game in 2012 in London, he scored 30 points and the United States beat Spain by seven. In the gold medal game in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, he scored 30 and the United States beat Serbia by 30. In the gold medal game Saturday, he scored 29 — 21 in the first half — and the United States won by five.
The world is coming, and the Americans won’t always win. It’s fair to say that in this tournament — in which Durant averaged 20.7 points and shot 52.9 percent from the field — they would not have won without Durant. Not without his scoring, obviously. But not without the entirety of the package he brings.
“He’s not special because he’s so talented,” U.S. Coach Gregg Popovich said. “The way he works on his game is more impressive. The relationships he builds with teammates. The respect he garners. The joy he has in playing. It’s like osmosis. It goes into all the other players and allows you to build a camaraderie.”
Without Durant and Draymond Green — the only holdovers from the 2016 Olympics — the Americans had zero chance of building that camaraderie. Casual fans back home will wake up Saturday morning, blink their eyes clear, see the result and think, “We beat France by just five.”
That’s unfair to France, which beat the United States in the tournament opener. But it also dismisses what Durant and his teammates endured to wear those medals — a fluid and coronavirus-compromised roster that received last-minute help from three players who had just grinded through the NBA Finals. The night Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton stepped off a plane, the Americans opened against France — and lost. Durant scored 10 points, fouled out and lost for the first time in his Olympic career.
“But he’s Kevin Durant,” French center Rudy Gobert said, well aware of Durant from the NBA. “He’s going to hit some shots that only him, in the world, can hit.”
Appreciate that for a minute. Durant’s performance Saturday — and really, since that first game — featured every offensive skill a player can have. He dunked. He hit three threes. He pulled up off the dribble to float in elbow jumpers. He cut to the back door. He threw backdoor passes. He led the break. He got out on the wing and ran. He is five players in one.
“He’s the most skilled basketball player ever, and I mean it,” said U.S. assistant Steve Kerr, who coached Durant to those two titles with Golden State. “There’s nobody who’s his size — 6-11 — who combines shooting and ballhandling skills and athleticism. We’ve never seen it before. This tournament was a perfect example of why you need the best players to win it, to win championships. Kevin was the best player in the tournament.”
Celebrate that fact. Durant knows what that means, to be the best player on this stage. It’s why he wanted in from that first meeting with Colangelo. It’s why he was happy to be there as an understudy to Kobe Bryant and James in 2012. It’s why he came here, in the midst of upheaval, as the unquestioned leader.
“I watch a lot of basketball,” Durant said. “I respect a lot of these players in the league. We usually get the best players on this team. So to build the camaraderie with the most talented guys in the world, to play for your country, to represent my little section of the United States, my family — it’s special to come together for a common cause.”
What better message, even as the Games close, than a common cause? When the Americans — up just three with 10 seconds left — had to execute one last inbound pass, Popovich knew it had to go to Durant. His final points came on the ensuing free throws, shots about which there was no doubt when he dribbled, no doubt when he cocked his wrist, no doubt when they slipped through the nylon.
Durant didn’t have to be there, on the line in Tokyo with a chance to choke. But he was, and he’s a basketball hero for it.