If you’re an athlete, it’s going to take a little extra for you to win over my highest level of admiration and respect. I’m not just going to dish out my loving because you’ve been on SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays of the week a few times. I have standards. I’m no whore.
So basically that means I’d rather spill nacho cheese on Ben Roethlisberger and Roger Clemens (to name a few) than give them a high-five.
Ultimately, I feel a need to respect the person behind the athlete, which means their personality and off-field activity matter quite a bit, and this is especially crucial when talking about athletes on teams that I do not pledge my loyalty to.
I’m assuming there are other sports fans that share these principles, and for those of you who do, I feel an obligation to tell you about how high the newly-crowned world champion Kevin Durant has risen in my book over that last two and a half months.
Being a less-than-intense NBA fan, I never used to think too much about the Oklahoma City swingman. Before this past summer he was, to me, just another young and rising basketball wonder that wasn’t playing on the Milwaukee Bucks.
But for the last couple weeks, he played for the USA in the FIBA World Championships, so my eye was turned and ready to pay attention.
Three days ago, Durant officially signed a warrant to be included in all conversations concerning today’s top basketball players in the world. At age 21, and backed by a squad labeled as the “B-Team” (as if it were a high school junior varsity team), Durant was at the foreground of the U.S.’s first march to gold at the World Championships since 1994.
In Turkey for the Championships, Durant’s performance reigned high over all others at the world stage, averaging 22.8 PPG and 6.1 RPG. The 38-point grenade he lobbed over Lithuania in the semi-finals set a new single-game scoring record for Team USA at the World Championships. He never had an off night in the tournament – converting on 55.6 percent of field goals and 45.6 percent from the perimeter.
His game transcended his experience as well. As if he had a long history of playing in big, important games, Durant remained cool and collected. In the final against host nation Turkey, in front of a boisterously singing Turkish crowd that rivaled any college game, Durant still shot 58.8 percent from the field and converted on 7-of-13 threes.
I wouldn’t necessarily say that Durant carried the team on his shoulders, though. He had tremendous help from Russell Westbrook, Lamar Odom – who played out of position at center – and Andre Iguodala (and much credit also goes to head coach Mike Krzyzewski – the lone returnee from the 2008 Olympic squad). But, I would say that the U.S. would not have won gold without him. He is now the leading average scorer in team history. Take out that element and the U.S. may have lost to Brazil in the group stage, which would have sent the team into a more difficult quadrant of the knockout stage bracket. Durant was named the tournament’s MVP for a reason.
Thus, Durant deserves much credit for the U.S. being the first qualifier for the 2012 summer games and for avoiding another dent in the reputation of U.S. basketball. But all of this came on the heels of something else that had already caught my eye. And the fact that it wasn’t news makes it even more likable and worth mentioning.
On July 1, Durant, coming off an NBA scoring title season in which he and the rest of No. 8-seeded Oklahoma City pushed No. 1-seeded Los Angeles to six games in the first round of the playoffs, eagerly began talks of a contract extension with the Thunder. It was the first day in which such talks could be permitted, and a week later Durant announced his five-year extension on… his Twitter page. And that was all.
Juxtaposed against the deliriously obsessive media frenzy that followed LeBron James, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh everywhere – here is Durant, just as the riches of his talent are about to be tapped, and he doesn’t even release a formal statement through his agent. He didn’t beckon any lights, cameras or money to be paid to charity.
Instead he respected his team and his fans and just took care of the business aspect of the sport so he could carry on with the sport itself. Never mind the attention he could have generated. Durant was no diva; he made no stunts. Instead, he made a commitment to his team – no matter the small market – while James left his behind when they were still willing to do anything to get him a championship.
For me, it was good to know that someone with the star power of Miami’s new Big Three had the decency not to cause a public headache. Every time I see footage of Bosh, James and Wade dancing and flexing their muscles on a stage in the American Airlines Arena with confetti everywhere, I sort of puke a little in my mouth.
And it’s good to see U.S. basketball at the top of the podium with gold medals in another major international tournament.
All thanks to a 21-year-old who keeps his head low and just plays the game.
Elliot is a junior planning on declaring a major soon. What did you think of Durant’s NBA offseason? Tell him about it at firstname.lastname@example.org.