Keidel: If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

By Jason Keidel

After agreeing to a two-year deal with the Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant has opened himself up to unprecedented scrutiny. He’s sliced open an artery of dialogue and debate among sports fans.

One side sees this as gripping, soap-operatic TV, high-end theater, a team of balletic basketball players teaming up with one of their own. Durant may not have been a Warrior all these years, but he seems to play with the tempo and tenor. He is the third Splash Brother.

But for those of us who remember the Bad Boy Pistons, Jordan’s Bulls or any team that slowly chiseled their way to the top, toppling their tormentors rather than joining them, this isn’t a cozy moment in sports history. Imagine the Lakers recruiting Larry Bird, or the Celtics clamoring for Kareem, Magic or Worthy.

Maybe the NBA doesn’t have baseball’s historical prerogative as our pastime, or the NFL’s singular dominance over six months of Sundays. But no sport trades on rivalries more than the NBA… Wilt vs. Russell, Bird vs. Magic, Celtics vs. Lakers, Celtics vs. 76ers, Pistons vs. Bulls.

Hard as it is to picture, the Knicks were actually relevant at certain moments in history. During Michael Jordan’s singular career, he often had to elbow his way through Manhattan to get to the NBA Finals, and the forest of meaty limbs of Pat Riley’s Knicks. And while it’s been two decades since the Knicks were at the epicenter of the sport, there were a few years of glorious bloodsport between Gotham and the Windy City.

It had all the hallmarks of a rivalry… Pat Riley and Phil Jackson; Jordan and Ewing; John Starks’ iconic dunk; Scottie Pippen constantly battered by the car wash of Charles Oakley and Anthony Mason. Though His Airness broke the Big Apple more than once, no New Yorker waxed romantically about Jordan in orange and blue. The goal was to conquer No. 23, not recruit him.

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Durant is implicitly saying he’s not good enough to beat the Warriors, a solemn concession from someone we assumed was bubbling with confidence. It’s also a myopic view considering he was up 3-1 in the Western Conference Finals, with three chances to close the coffin on a 73-win season.

Let’s not forget the Oklahoma City Thunder, Durant’s only team during his opulent, nine-year career (with one year spent in Seattle), was even better this year. Durant and Westbrook would have been in their respective primes, playing for a bank-bending contract, and the beneficiaries of the trade that brought Victor Oladipo to OKC.

Durant issued a platitude-laden statement abut being a better player and person. Then his relationship with Russell Westbrook was parsed into 1000 parts, as if they were the hardwood iteration of the Hatfields and McCoys.

Maybe the answer is so simple we refuse to concede it. Maybe Durant has an alpha name but not an alpha game. Maybe he doesn’t want to be Bird, Magic, MJ or LBJ — the monolith of a team, town and sport. Rather he wants to fit into a great team with a selfless ethic. Sounds cozy. But then Durant better not expect to hear his name among the immortals. Ever.

Stephen A. Smith, the NBA’s ultimate insider and preeminent provocateur, called it the weakest move ever by an NBA superstar. It’s all subjective, of course, but Smith remembers a more competitive time in pro basketball, when players weren’t part of a larger, social media group hug.

There’s also the fact that Durant questioned LeBron James when he made his “Decision” — an apocalyptic PR move that, burnished by history, doesn’t look as bad now. LeBron didn’t leave a team that could easily have won the NBA title, nor did he flee to the team that thwarted his championship crusade. So the comparisons between the two moves are myopic, at best.

And beyond Durant’s age, wage or new location is the resounding sadness that comes with breaking up something special. There’s a reason the NBA has the Bird exemption, and allows teams to pay homegrown players more than other teams. We are drawn to the homegrown, homespun narrative, the pastoral tableau of the local kid done good, the idea that Oklahoma City, so far from the lights of Los Angeles and the noise of New York, can rise to the top of major sport and global enterprise.

Kevin Durant had a chance to not only plant his flag and leave an epic legacy, but also alter the stereotypes of places like Oklahoma City, so often dismissed as flyover country. Blowhards from Manhattan — where yours truly was born and raised — really take to that iconic cover from The New Yorker magazine. There’s NYC, the Statue of Liberty and then wasteland.

Durant has every right to play for whatever team will sign him at whatever price he can get. But he will now be seen as soft, unwilling to battle his foes with his guys and conquer his failures where it all began. Michael got it done in Chicago, Magic in L.A., Bird in Boston. Even LeBron, who had his vocational spring break in South Beach, came home and made it right.

Perhaps Durant will feel the same way about OKC, and bring a forlorn franchise its ring. Don’t count on it. Kevin Durant is not really from Oklahoma. And he just made that abundantly clear. Adopted sons clearly aren’t native sons.

Jason writes a weekly column for CBS Local Sports. He is a native New Yorker, sans the elitist sensibilities, and believes there’s a world west of the Hudson River. A Yankees devotee and Steelers groupie, he has been scouring the forest of fertile NYC sports sections since the 1970s. He has written over 500 columns for WFAN/CBS NY, and also worked as a freelance writer for Sports Illustrated and Newsday subsidiary amNew York. He made his bones as a boxing writer, occasionally covering fights in Las Vegas, Atlantic City, but mostly inside Madison Square Garden. Follow him on Twitter @JasonKeidel.

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