Let’s get one thing clear right from the start: This is not another rant against LeBron James.
But it’s sure hard not to root for Kevin Durant and the little city that could from America’s heartland.
James is the best player in the world, hands down, and certainly deserving of his first championship. Rest assured, Commissioner David Stern and the bigwigs over at ABC are sure glad LBJ is back in the NBA finals after the television ratings bonanza he was largely responsible for during Miami’s riveting Eastern Conference victory over Boston.
That said, the Oklahoma City Thunder and their gracious star have shown another side to a league where the big names often come across as petty, selfish and overflowing with hubris.
There’s the glasses and backpack Durant wears off the court, which make him look more like a Star Wars nerd than perhaps the second-best player on the planet. There’s the heart-tugging hugs he doled out to his mom and family after beating San Antonio for a spot in the finals, the humility he shows when talking about his stupendous game, the sense that he truly embraces playing in one of the league’s backwater cities.
He’s the anti-superstar superstar.
“Kevin gets it,” said former player Steve Smith, now an analyst for NBA TV. “The way he plays. The way he carries himself. The way he handles the media. What tops it off is his love and passion for the game. During the lockout, he was just continually wanting to play basketball. That’s a treat for me.
“He’s kind of a throwback player, like those guys back in the `80s and `90s.”
Unlike players such as James, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul, who either joined new teams as free agents or engineered trades by threatening to bolt, Durant seems perfectly content to stay where he is. Never mind that his marketing clout would be much greater in a city such as New York or Los Angeles.
He passed up even a shot at restricted free agency to quietly sign a new five-year deal with the Thunder, a contract that didn’t even come with an opt-out clause _ normally standard operating procedure for someone of his ilk.
While there are players who speak of themselves in the third person and act as though their needs come before the team’s, Durant spends most of his time talking humbly about ways to get better, sounding more like a backup than a three-time scoring champion.
He truly seems to have no interest in the trappings of fame.
“There’s just something about him. He’s got charisma. He’s the humblest superstar,” said Mike Breen, who will call the series for ABC. “He’s a special, special player, but he seems to have that charisma people are attracted to even if they aren’t basketball fans.”
No doubt, it’s easy to get a big head playing in the NBA.
By its very nature, basketball is built on star power. One player can have more impact on the game than any other sport. One player can turn a bad team into a great team, or at least a very good one. Not surprisingly, the small group of athletes who take on these roles can get a very inflated view of themselves, which might lead one of them to, say, hold an hourlong TV special to announce where they’re going to play.