As KD returns, looking back on his OKC exit

ByRamona Shelburne ESPN logo
Friday, February 10, 2017

DRAYMOND GREEN WASN'T exactly dressed for battle as he watched Kevin Durant warm up before the Warriors game against the Los Angeles Clippers on Feb. 2. His black jeans were ripped just above the knees. An acid wash jean jacket covered up the bruised left shoulder that was keeping him from playing in this game.

Unlike Stephen Curry, who draws a crowd as he flies through his warm-up drills like Wile E. Coyote running through the Grand Canyon, Durant glides through a couple of sets of pregame shots from his favorite spots with a pair of noise-canceling earphones on.

The Warriors are three months into an "Avengers"-style science experiment, whereupon the greatest regular-season team in league history adds a 7-foot superstar named Durantula, and we all wait until June to see if they become an indomitable team for the ages -- or an example of gluttony gone bad.

"I still kind of go, 'Wow, is Kevin Durant on the Warriors?'" Green says. "Me and Ian Clark were talking a few weeks ago, and we were like, 'Yo, he really plays with us now!'"

Green was Golden State's most relentless recruiter of Durant in free agency. He developed a friendship with him, kept in constant contact and delivered a closing argument that let Durant know he wasn't alone in this monumental leap. Whatever backlash was coming Durant's way would be felt by all.

The first time Durant faced his former team on Nov. 3, Green made a point of passing him the ball the first few times down the court so he could work through his nerves.

And when they face the Thunder on Saturday, the first time Durant has played in Oklahoma City since he decided to leave, Green will remind Durant of what he told him back in July.

"We all in it together," Green said. "When we go there, they're going to boo all of us, especially me. But just go play. At the end of the day, we out here together."

THIS SUMMER, AFTER spending weeks recruiting Durant, Green felt like the only thing keeping him from joining the Warriors was guilt over leaving Oklahoma City. Durant knew some people would never forgive him. Fans would burn his jersey. His career would forever be linked to both the decision and the costar he left behind, Russell Westbrook.

But Green wondered: Did Durant really have it in him to break hearts?

These have always been the central questions with Durant: Is he too nice? Does he have it in him to be ruthless in pursuit of a championship? Would his desire to be liked keep him from doing what was necessary to win?

Durant still doesn't have the answers to those questions. He might never.

"I used to think ... I felt embarrassed because I didn't know who I was," Durant says after the Warriors finished a late-afternoon practice in Houston last month. Though he'd flown all day and had dinner plans with the team, he seemed to be in no hurry to escape the line of questioning.

"I know where I stand in my core values. How I'm supposed to treat people and how I'm supposed to act in certain situations. But as far as knowing me, knowing what I like and what makes me happy ... I'm still figuring it out, man. That's an ongoing process."

But one thing he knew: After seven years in Oklahoma City, he just felt a yearning for more.

He liked the way the Warriors played, the uptempo, pace-and-space system they run, the switch-everything defense that values length and versatility -- traits that Durant epitomizes. He liked the idea of living in the Bay Area and meeting CEOs of tech companies or bumming around old record stores in Berkeley. It was a risk to his brand, sure. (See: LeBron James and the Heatles, 2010-14). But the desire for more rarely fades away. Once there's an itch, there's usually no salve.

And in Durant's case, he's been chasing more his whole life. In high school, he transferred multiple times. Each stop represented a step up in competition or a bigger stage. Each move meant leaving friends and coaches behind.

A bigger change came a couple of years into his NBA career, when Durant and his brother decided they needed to be out on their own, away from their mother, Wanda Durant. They asked her to move out -- and it did not go well at first.

"Hell, yeah, it was hard," Durant says. "My mom felt like, 'You don't love me no more?'

"Change is hard for people. When you're so used to something and so comfortable with something, it's hard to kind of let it go. ... But in the long run, she's so happy now. She loves what she does. She's finding herself more and more. She had kids at 19 and was raising her kids up until five years ago."

In time, he hopes the relationship with Oklahoma City will mend in the same way.

"Oklahoma City is my home. I grew up there," he says. "They felt that attachment to me, because they've seen me grow up ... so I understand."

The key to moving on with his mother, though, was that she tried to understand, too. The city isn't there yet.

"To say I betrayed you?" Durant asks aloud. "What?"

It's a question he's been wrestling with since the summer. As the months have gone by, it has become easier to separate the guilt he feels at causing Thunder fans pain, from his happiness at Golden State.

"Hell, yeah, I am [happy]," Durant says. "I know ... I'm 100 percent sure I did the right thing. Win or lose.

"[I] feel in control of my life," he says. "In all aspects. I'm still getting my life in order. Not like my life is out of order, but just considering everything and finding a balance and making sure I'm the CEO of my life. I think that's what everybody should be worried about."

This is all part of the searching and the pull toward more, though. Not everything fits perfectly when you try it on the first time, including identities.

What seems different about Durant this year is how completely he owns his existential wanderings.

"I'm 28 years old, and people are looking at me like I'm in my 60s," he says. "I didn't do four years of college. My life wasn't like yours. I'm a little late."

Hence the photo collage of him riding on BART all over Oakland and Berkeley on the Players Tribune at the beginning of the season. Or his tweet in November about the launch of an NBA Academy in India. "May have to check it out!" he wrote.

One day, after a recent practice, general manager Bob Myers walked over to Durant, Curry and assistant coach Bruce Fraser with some news.

"There was some story about dissension between Kevin and Steph," Fraser recalls. "So Bob came over and said, 'Well, looks like you guys aren't getting along. We're going to have to move one of you. Maybe both. And then we're going to have to get rid of [Fraser], too. Where's he going to go?'"

Durant and Curry were cracking up. Myers knew he'd teed up Fraser perfectly.

"And I said, 'I'm going to the University of Guadalajara, coach basketball there,'" Fraser says. "K.D. was like, 'I'm coming with!'"

Durant wasn't entirely kidding. They'd been talking about Fraser's surfing trips to Mexico for a few weeks, and Durant kept saying he wanted to go. Fraser's still not quite sure how serious he is -- NBA superstars are generally pretty busy during the offseason -- but he's starting to believe him.

"I think he's a seeker of life experience," Fraser says. "I don't mean to make that sound romantic, but I think that's a bit of who he is in a good way.

"I think that had something to do with his decision. He wanted to see more, try more. I think he saw the potential of the team and the fun that the team had. He's told me before that he didn't just come here to win a championship. ... That wasn't his biggest reason to come here.

"He came because he wanted to experience more. That's not a knock on Oklahoma. It could've been anywhere. He felt like there was more in the world that he wanted to see."

As for the summer surf trip, Durant sounds pretty serious about it.

"I have a '69 Volkswagen bus," Durant says, like it's totally something you'd expect him to say. "It's kind of like a beach car. A camping car. I got one of those buses at my house. [Fraser] said he had one of those in high school because he was always at the beach, and I was like, 'I'd love to go with you some time.'"

So, you know, they might be bumming it around Mexico this summer. Blowing with the wind, beach to beach, looking for new spots to surf.

"I haven't tried [surfing] before," Durant says. "But I'd love to learn. Take a fall or two and just learn."

THIS IS ALL something of a bodacious adventure for the Warriors too. I mean, who messes with a 73-win team with incredible chemistry that was one game away from back-to-back NBA titles?

"It's a lot easier to get it wrong than right," Myers says with a laugh.

Then again, who says no to the chance to add Kevin Durant to their team?

It was a hell of a question to have to answer right after losing in the NBA Finals. What would Durant's presence mean for Curry, the Warriors' unquestioned leader? How would they fill out the roster without enough money to match the offers for veterans like Leandro Barbosa, Marreese Speights and Festus Ezeli?

For head coach Steve Kerr, it was a no-brainer. He'd been a part of teams that won multiple championships in a row as a player (Chicago and San Antonio), and he knew how much harder it was to get back to the Finals each successive year.

It helps to have a fresh challenge and new blood to work into the mix, he says.

"I think coming back, we just wouldn't have been that good because we would have been bored," Green says. "This year, you've got stuff to figure out. You've got different lineups. Every night's a different challenge for us. I think that's definitely been good for us."

Take, for instance, a rare noon tipoff in a recent game in Orlando. Golden State basically slept through the first half, committing 12 turnovers. This was a classic trap game, the kind of game even the best teams lose. But the Warriors had been working on lineups -- with Durant and Curry playing together for longer -- and on integrating center JaVale McGee into different sets. So it gave them different things to work on in the second half, rather than just playing the random Saturday matinee, and they promptly outscored the Magic 68-48 for a 20-point win.

Curry doesn't quite agree with Kerr's argument.

"I've heard him say that, and I get what he's saying," Curry says. "I agree to a certain extent. But I kind of think, had Kevin decided to go somewhere else, I'm pretty confident we'd have been right back to where we were and adjusted to whatever struggle it would've been to get back to that level.

"I gotta feel like that as a player. We would be there regardless."

According to Kerr, after a disappointing loss on Christmas Day, of all the Warriors players, Curry had to make the biggest adjustment to his game after Durant's arrival. For a while, it showed: In the first half of the season, Curry's scoring, shooting and assist numbers were all down from the year before. It was hard to put your finger on the main issue except to say he just didn't seem to be making the same kind of magic he did during his MVP seasons.

Lately, though, he's been sublime. The flurries are back. The combination punches Curry lands at the end of scoring runs that send the crowd into a tizzy and inspire all manner or shoulder shimmies and salsa sashays from him. The 35-foot daggers he pulls up out of a fast break to take, just because he's about the only shooter on the planet who can make them consistently. It's all back.

"He's aggressively hunting shots now," Fraser says. "So if you give him any space, he's shooting those. He wasn't doing that as much before."

It took a bit of time, sure, but by January, Durant and Curry were both in a groove -- named co-players of the month, averaging 27.4 and 27.8 points, respectively -- and the Warriors won 12 of 14 games.

"I can't tell you how," Green says. "But in some odd way, it just works when everybody's aggressive."

DURANT SAID HE'S been thinking about this return to Oklahoma City for about a month. Then he clarifies: He's thinking about it as something that will happen and will be emotional. But not about what he will feel or even how he should handle it. That's too much to feel ahead of time.

"I've always felt like if I plan stuff or think about anything in advance, I always end up doing it the wrong way," he says. "I'm just going to let it flow. Whatever happens ... how I'm feeling that day is how I feel."

There will be a sense of guilt, yes. He will be nostalgic for what was and could have been if he'd stayed. But there is no pang of regret.

"I can't hide my emotions," he says. "If I do, I end up doing the same stuff, and I end up breaking because I'm not happy."

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