Last off-season, Kevin Durant made a decision. On Monday night, he won a championship. Let's not overthink this.
Photo by Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports
I was in a bar watching a slightly cockeyed projection of Game 4 of the NBA Finals when LeBron James got caught in the air and flipped the ball off the backboard to himself for what turned into a compound self-oop. The response in the room was the same one-two backdraft that you get from a keyed-up crowd at a horror movie when confronted with a jump-scare moment—a collective seizing gasp, and then release into hapless laughter. The sound in the hall was not Candyman, but a cat.
What James did in that moment, like so much of what he did during these Finals, was astonishing in its own right, but it was also useful in another way: basketball is a lot more fun to watch when you don't let the pomp and heft of the moment crowd out the obvious physical comedy of it all.
What James did in that moment—take the raggediest, goofiest "third quarter of an All-Star Game" move and stuff it in the face of a historically great team—was astonishing enough to earn both the gasps and the laughter it got, but it was also absurd. It was absurd in the colloquial LOLWUT sense, but it was also more broadly absurd, in the way that the word has been used to apply to Sisyphus.
The Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors are way out ahead of the rest of the NBA, and may be there for some time. In these Finals, thanks in large part to the brilliance of Kevin Durant, the Warriors were in the lead by a clear stride or two. It takes nothing away from what James and the Cavaliers accomplished in their Game 4 win to note that it was also absurd; it was heroic and defiant and bold, but the same can be said of mooning a Presidential motorcade.
By the same token, it takes nothing away from what Kevin Durant did over five games en route to winning the Bill Russell Award to point out that it was, among other attributes, not just fun but funny to watch. Not in a pratfalling sense, not at all, but in the same way that James can be even when he isn't abruptly pulling and-one moves in an NBA Finals elimination game.
Durant has always been an implausible-looking player, going back to his one season of spindly superstardom in college. He's not the stick figure he was when he showed up at Texas, but he's still spidery and angular and somehow bigger than he should be in the same way that James is, if not in any of the same dimensions.
James, at his best, looks like a bit of blown video-game animation—a figure out of proportion to those around him, moving with a speed and force that calls the verisimilitude of everything into question. This is true of Durant, too, when he is loping and extending and exploding in the disproportionate ways he does. He is a superstar at his apex, a past MVP and very much a known quantity, but in some basic sense he still doesn't look right.
All of which is to say that, beyond his unreal talent for this supremely difficult game, Kevin Durant is fantastic to watch in every way a basketball fan could want. Laughs, action, convincing tears, and expensive-looking explosions—the dude is a thrill ride. As such, it is not really surprising to see him get the reception that thrill rides get in 2017: fuming takes and counter-takes unpacking secret shortcomings and failures, various bad-faith gripes and grouses, the sort of noxious and aggrieved fanboy partisanship inherent to the type of people that keep and tend long Best Ever lists and private pantheons.
It sucks, and as Russ Bengtson pointed out at Complex it stands in perfect opposition to every delirious and beautiful thing Durant accomplished during this series. But it is very much of the moment. Even the triumphal ad that Nike cut for Durant plays with and plays up this circle of vengefulness between critics real and imagined against Durant, and Durant against those critics.
It's not a bad ad, really, although it is inevitably a sour one. What it is, mostly, is claustrophobic and incomplete. The claustrophobia and cacophony of it isn't wrong, exactly—turn the wrong corner in a conversation with basketball fans and you will find yourself lost amid punctilious Legacy Assessors and feral stans, and you will regret it. But nowhere in this ad is there someone who is watching Durant and his Warriors play basketball with the plain and uncomplicated appreciation that they ultimately earned over this mostly inevitable season.
Golden State's greatness was garish and strident and honestly a little obnoxious; the virtuosity was monotonous at times and somehow all too pure to take. For all the things to appreciate about what Durant did in the Finals, he also broke that monotony, in one startling moment after another.
Durant is one of the best players in the world; he made the choice to join one of the great teams the sport has ever seen. Some people were upset about this, and generally in a way that suggested that they were thinking not of what they would do in a similar situation, or of what Durant might actually have wanted so badly.
The issue, mostly, was that this was somehow cheating, or cheap—not that it further perpetuated the NBA's undeniable imbalance of power but that it was somehow not canon, in violation of some broader narrative rule, and otherwise conduct unbecoming of a hero. There are certainly perspectives from which this could seem true; Durant's decision to write his own story necessarily cut against many familiar sports-narrative imperatives, which as it happens have generally not been written by the players themselves.
This is definitely one way to be a sports fan, just as buying a ticket absolutely entitles you to watch a blockbuster for the continuity errors. At some point, you might notice that everyone else in the theater is laughing. You might wonder why you're not.