At the FIBA World Championships in Turkey over the past couple of weeks the United States not only reclaimed a title it hadn't won in three tries since 1994 but also found a Mr. September—a cool, calm and collected 21-year-old who writes patriotic messages on his shoes and seems blessedly uninterested in the trappings of superstardom.
"Excuse me, please, but is Kevin Durant like this in your country?" a waiter in a Turkish restaurant asked this reporter. "He just shoots the ball, and, poof, like magic it goes in."
Well, Durant, who plays for the Oklahoma City Thunder, did become the youngest scoring champ in league history this past NBA season by averaging 30.1 points a game. And he made almost 48% of his shots, an outstanding number for someone who takes so many of them far from the basket. So, yes, there is quite a bit of magic and quite a bit of poof in his game.
Durant was so relentlessly brilliant abroad—the tournament MVP, the focus of a close-knit team that simply got him the ball when it needed to score, then talked in awe of its star's team-first sensibility—that the possibility arises that he became something else entirely during his fortnight in Turkey:
The new king of the NBA.
Lord knows we're always scanning the hillside for a monarch to come marching over, scepter raised high, and this is a fortuitous time for a fresh one. LeBron James and Dwyane Wade have fallen from grace after the tiresome self-promotion that preceded their union in Miami, and Kobe Bryant, bloodless brilliance aside, will never get the full measure of our love outside of Los Angeles.
So here is Durant, a small-market guy, Steve Buscemi--skinny (perhaps, at 229 pounds, he hasn't grown into his nearly 7-foot height), unassuming, blingless, a gym rat ("Sometimes I think he works out too much," U.S. teammate Andre Iguodala said during the tournament), seemingly uncorrupted by what we consider the me-first culture of the NBA.
Spike Lee, a kingmaker of the first order, spent some time with the U.S. team in Istanbul and plunged right in when asked about Durant's humility. "I met his mom [Wanda Pratt] this morning at breakfast, so you see where it comes from," said Lee, who lunched with Durant this season in Philadelphia, suggesting that he sees something cinematic in Durant's understated essence.
Kevindurant35.com reads rather like the Poor Richard's Almanack of player websites. Its headlines: KEVIN DURANT FUNDS RENOVATIONS AT SEAT PLEASANT ACTIVITY CENTER... . KEVIN DURANT BUYS TWITTER/FACEBOOK FOLLOWER A PAIR OF SHOES... . KEVIN DURANT TALKS ABOUT THE MEANING BEHIND THE NAMES AND NUMBERS HE WRITES ON HIS SHOES. Those names and numbers include 1972 (a shout-out to the players on the U.S. team that was robbed of the gold medal in Munich); 35 (remembering his first coach, who died at that age); and AUNT PEARL (an homage to a beloved relative who died of breast cancer when Durant was 11). Among the messages posted on the site is one from a Dr. Marla M. Dean in Suitland, Md.: "Hello Kevin I am the new principal of your alma mater Drew Freeman Middle School. We would love to hear... ." She left her number.
Let us be careful with all of this, though, and remember that our constructs for king are exactly that—ours. It's often been said that we drape impossibly heroic accessories upon the shoulders of our heroes, only to get angry when they fall off. But it's worth saying again.
I take Durant at his word when he says, as he did after pumping in a game-high 28 points during Sunday night's 81--64 gold medal win over Turkey, that "global marketing and all that stuff" doesn't concern him and that "it's all about basketball." In Istanbul it was. But this is also a young man who is in the middle of a seven-year, $60 million deal with Nike that he signed before his rookie season. He has other endorsements that will keep him safely out of sackcloth, and, almost incidentally, the five-year extension he signed with the Thunder a couple of months ago will earn him an average of $17 million a year.
We desperately want Durant to serve as a foil to James and Wade, who seem to have grown clueless about their self-absorption. But it's important to note that Durant doesn't see it that way. One of the first tweets he sent out (and he sends out a lot) after Sunday's game read, "Shout out @kingjames, @carmeloanthony, @dwadeofficial." Durant doesn't want to be in our club; he's a member of theirs, part of the superstar fraternity.
So as we bear witness—now, where have we heard that before?—to the ascendancy of the new king, let's avoid the temptation to build him into something he is not or cannot become. We can't be sure that five years from now, when Durant is 26 and on his way to becoming the NBA's leading alltime scorer, that he won't decide to, say, podcast to Mars the announcement that he is leaving Oklahoma City. Let's just enjoy it all right now: the talent, the tenacity, the tweets and the fact that, sometime soon, good ol' Drew Freeman in Suitland, Md., will probably be getting itself a famous guest speaker.
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View a photo gallery of the United States' road to gold in Istanbul at SI.com/nba
We desperately want Durant to SERVE AS A FOIL TO JAMES AND WADE, who have grown clueless about their self-absorption.
ILLUSTRATION BY DARROW