It’s June 1, 2017.
There he stood.
Isolated against his muse, Kevin Durant looked LeBron James in the eyes as he dribbled. At center court, as Oracle Arena erupted into a frenzy, Durant knew that five years after James had robbed him of his glory, the only thing separating him from finally wrapping his long, slender fingers around the Larry O’Brien trophy were 78 seconds.
Durant attempted a crossover, but trembling with excitement, he nearly lost control of the ball. He regained it only momentarily before being stripped by LeBron. Still, with the Warriors ahead by 11 points, his final turnover of the game would ultimately become just a meaningless footnote in the throes of Durant’s to this point tragic history.
On the ensuing play, after a Kyrie Irving miss, with arms heavy as lead, Durant’s heart raced faster than Russell Westbrook on a breakaway.
As he crossed halfcourt, with tears streaming down his face, Durant wiped his eyes with his jersey before doubling over.
The game he’d given everything to had finally repaid him.
It took a tap on the back from Andre Iguodala to remind Durant that the game was still going on, and before he knew it, Stephen Curry’s final made three-pointer caused him to raise his arms to the heavens.
The confetti rained and the champagne showered. After winning his first NBA title, Durant would eventually make his way to the podium cradling the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy.
Seemingly a tad nervous, he meekly asked a strange question.
“Can I sit this right here?”
After he’d received approval, Durant, the 2017 NBA Finals MVP, nodded appreciatively of the fact that he didn’t have to let his trophy out of his sight.
From that moment forth, he told anyone who’d listen his story.
From nothing, he’d come. A lack of self-confidence and uncertainty of his supremacy, Durant silently and begrudgingly existed in the shadows as an inlier. He watched Kobe Bryant and LeBron James get the adulation he’d longed for and grew weary of the shadows cast over him by Stephen Curry and even Russell Westbrook, his own teammate.
He eventually took his backpack, a pair of Nikes and the enormous chip on his shoulder to Oakland in search of validation and vindication. Now, on this day, 11 months later, he’d found it.
“It was 55 seconds left,” Durant said in 2017.
“I went over to half court and I bent down. I’m like, ’Is this really happening?’ And Draymond was like, ‘Keep playing to the end.’ Andre is like, ‘Keep playing, we have like 50 seconds left.’ And I’m like, ‘Bro, we’re about to win the title…’
“You can call us a super team, but it’s been a lot of super teams that hasn’t worked. We came together and we continued to just believe in each other. We sacrificed, and we’re champions now.”
His voice raised slightly as he finished his thought.
It had a nice ring to it.
As Durant looked around the room at some familiar faces and many new ones, he probably thought that this was something he could get used to.
Just one year later, it’d seemed he had.
* * * * * *
History often repeats itself, but nothing is perfect, not even the basketball gods.
Game 3 of the 2018 NBA Finals was no exception.
The Warriors, despite struggles from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, were improbably leading the desperate Cleveland Cavaliers by three points.
As LeBron James darted into the paint with a minute remaining in a game his team had to find a way to win, Durant stood within an arm’s length of Kevin Love, who was helplessly relegated to floor-spacing duties on the right wing.
Durant watched James put his season in the hands of Tristan Thompson, and when Thompson failed to deliver in the biggest moment, Durant again found the ball in his hands. Again, he was staring James in the eyes. Tired and badly beaten, though, the 33-year-old king was only a remnant of the superhero we’d grown accustomed to witnessing.
As Durant instructed his teammates to clear out and allow the duo to go one-on-one, he got the satisfaction of knowing that LeBron wanted no part of him.
Rodney Hood did James a favor and switched onto Durant. Without hesitation, Durant took one dribble to his left and drilled a three-pointer from downtown Cleveland.
Those final three points weren’t the last ones scored in Game 3, but they were the last ones that mattered.
As Durant clinched Game 3 for his Warriors, he was apathetic. He exhaled and began to slowly walk toward his bench as Stephen Curry and Draymond Green danced around him like a totem pole.
One game later, after completing the sweep, there were no tears of joy. As Durant accepted the Bill Russell Finals MVP trophy yet again, he slapped hands with his teammates, but his body language was unmistakable.
Been there, done that.
Somewhere from that time to his visit to the podium shortly thereafter, Durant must have lost track of his MVP trophy. Unlike the year prior, when he carried it around like a loaf of fresh baked bread, this time, he discarded it like an empty eggshell.
As the two-time MVP took his seat, Draymond Green retrieved the trophy and plopped it on the table in front of him. He looked at it, smiled, and used his left hand to slide it away.
“When you experience something for the first time and you do it again, those emotions aren’t going to be there as they were the first time,” Durant said during his press conference.
He touched on a range of topics before providing an answer that was truly insightful.
“Two years in a row MVP. How are you feeling about that?”
“It feels great to go out there and win a championship with these guys,” Durant said.
“I’m just so happy for Nick Young, Quinn Cook, their first championships. It feels great that we can go out there and give an experience to guys that haven’t been here before, just like they did to me last year…
“It feels great that we can do that. Just the brotherhood that we have in that locker room, and just the family atmosphere that we take on the road, not just the players, but support staff and everybody in the organization…
“It feels good to kind of win it for them.”
In that moment, somewhat contrary to what has been said about Durant, he sounded nothing like a player who felt like he needed to win for himself.
Not anymore, anyway.
“Former players and players now that got a lot to say about what I did, they know how I play,” Durant said defiantly.
“They know exactly what I bring. They know. They know. They understand when they get on the court with me or they check up with me. They know what it is.”
Kevin Durant, two-time champion, looked and sounded every bit like someone who had exorcised his demons. On this journey, though, he’s probably realized that there’s a difference—both in public perception and personal satisfaction—in winning with the deck stacked in your favor versus winning in spite of insurmountable odds.
* * * * * *
Six years ago, in Miami, LeBron James’ eyes lit up as he himself cradled the Larry O’Brien trophy for the first time.
Coincidentally, it was Kevin Durant who he toppled.
Durant sat in the locker room of the American Airlines Arena and sobbed with James Harden and Russell Westbrook.
James, on top of the world, carried his Finals MVP trophy around with him, just like Durant would five years later.
Like a child who’d just met his new puppy for the first time, in Miami, it was Christmas morning. James hugged everyone he knew as he made his way to the podium, and on the way back to the locker room, as he struggled with carrying the heavy hardware, he was asked if he needed a hand.
“Nope, I got it,” James said.
He’d carried all the weight for all these years. It was only fitting he carried the fruit.
The next year, when his Miami Heat defeated the San Antonio Spurs to capture back-to-back NBA Championships, James had grown up. No longer an excited child cradling his newfound puppy, he seemed more interested in simply protecting his turf.
Four years later, though, we saw a completely different scene.
With Kyrie Irving by his side, as James became the first Finals MVP to lead his team back from a 3-1 series deficit against these same Warriors, James collapsed to floor at Oracle Arena and cried uncontrollably.
He embraced Irving and told him he loved him and kept repeating aloud that they’d done it, almost as if he himself couldn’t believe that they had.
“I set out a goal, two years when I came back, to bring a championship to this city,” James said in his teary-filled monologue.
“I gave everything that I had. I put my heart, my blood, my sweat, my tears into this game…
“Against all odds.”
When LeBron met with the media after that Game 7, he was asked whether that championship meant more to him than those won in Miami.
“Absolutely,” he said without hesitation.
“Just knowing what our city has been through, northeast Ohio has been through… Our fans, they ride or die, no matter what’s been going on, no matter the Browns, the Indians, the Cavs and so on, and all other sports teams. They continue to support us. And for us to be able to end this, end this drought, our fans deserve it. They deserve it.
“It was for them.”
It took a circuitous journey for LeBron to learn an important lesson: true victory isn’t just a destination that one needs to get to, it’s every bit as much about the route one takes and the terrain one traverses.
On more than one occasion, Durant admitted James to be the only player he’s met that he considered his peer. The two continue to have a relationship that is every bit as friendly and unique as it is competitive and professionally hostile.
Of all NBA players, James is the only one who faced the level of scrutiny he has and mostly lived to fulfill the gargantuan expectations had of him. He can relate to Durant in ways nobody else can, so don’t be surprised if one day, off on the side, Durant asks him if he’d trade the two championships he won for Miami for the one he won for Cleveland.
Despite what James may say publicly, anyone who knows him knows the truth.
* * * * * *
With two championship rings in tow, Durant trails LeBron in the medal count, and since great players measure themselves by hardware, Durant knows he’ll need at least two more rings to be the rightful successor to the king’s throne.
At that point, should the Warriors have achieved their four titles and have done it anywhere nearly as dominantly as they have these past two seasons—they’ve gone 32-6 in the playoffs—his competitive itch may need to be scratched.
No, the Warriors didn’t ruin the NBA, but they did ruin its competitive balance. And while that might be good for ratings, it’s not good for much else, and certainly not for what true greats need more than anything else—real competition.
To a competitor, succeeding in the face of daunting odds is what oxygen is to fire. It’s necessary fuel. And although there’s no shame in succeeding with the deck stacked in your favor, there’s similarly no joy.
Sure, Durant passed the exam. It just happened to be an open-book test to which he had the answers.
When he spoke of the likes of Nick Young and Quinn Cook—those who hadn’t yet been to the mountaintop—one couldn’t help but to wonder whether he thought of those left behind in Oklahoma City.
We now know for sure that LeBron was thinking about those in Cleveland.
Sure, Kevin Durant may have nothing left to prove, but strangely, something about his second championship seemed off.
Deep down inside, he realized that while there are many routes to success, the easiest isn’t necessarily the most fulfilling.
The next time Durant finds himself isolated with LeBron James, hopefully, it’ll be behind closed doors.
And then, without question, James will reveal to him that this is the greatest lesson he’s ever learned.
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