Something's been bugging me for the past two or three months.
The tendency of basketball writers (myself included) to deify Kevin Durant has gotten a little out of hand. We love Kevin Durant, and that's alright, but over the course of three months, it's as though he's become the embodiment of everything that is Good and Right about the game of basketball, while his peers are everything that's Wrong and Evil.
It crystallized for me when Yahoo! Sports' (respected, generally excellent) Adrian Wojnarowski wrote, "Chris Paul had come into the NBA with so much of Kevin Durant’s pureness of purpose: humble, grateful, still the kid who worked summers pumping gas and changing tires at his grandfather’s gas station in North Carolina."
Then he lost his way, Wojnarowski laments.
If only they could all be more like Kevin Durant...
So, I realized: Not only were we projecting these godly virtues onto a 21 year-old kid, but suddenly, he's a rhetorical vessel for condemning others. Not unlike a Republican citing Ronald Reagan's philosophy as the apotheosis of all things conservative, then pointing angrily at a moderate. Or a Democrat citing FDR, and doing the same. Or a preacher citing a politician as an example of someone doing God's work, then pointing at another politician for destroying family values.
If only they could all be more like Kevin Durant...
When we make these mistakes, we're setting ourselves up for, at best, the shattering of our vision for a given icon. Or at worst, a willful over-simplification of a human being, all for the sake of explaining a simplistic morality and demonizing others.
So when I heard that Deadspin's Tommy Craggs weighed in at Slate, I didn't even have to read it to know exactly what was said. All of my apprehension, embodied in two sentences:
We have as much genuine insight into Kevin Durant's head and Phil Mickelson's bedroom as we do into LeBron James' soul and Tiger Woods' underpants. To call Durant humble—over and over and over again—is to look at a passing cloud and swear you see the Vienna Boys' Choir.
But that's too easy.
It's tempting to react to the media rhetoric in the same way Craggs has, citing all the blather and saying essentially, "You guys are idiotic for building him up this way." Because we really don't know Kevin Durant in full. We can never know any athlete or celebrity in full.
The thing is, can you blame anyone for being impressed by what Durant's shown us so far?
That's what's been bugging me—not that Durant's been painted as this white knight by the media, but that even as a devout media cynic and deeply entrenched skeptic of everything, I can't really disagree with the media's assessments on this one. And damnit, it feels so naive. Like I'm setting myself up for exactly the sort of disappointment Craggs predicts here:
He will remain useful in this role for a time, and then one day he'll go and do some Very Bad Thing and shatter all our precious illusions. ... and all the while we'll wonder how we got the last one so wrong. Did we ever know Kevin Durant at all?
And obviously, no human is as perfect as Durant's reputation right now. But... Two key distinctions to remember before we dismiss him as this horrible false prophet unleashed by a moralistic media.
First, Kevin Durant doesn't claim to be a prophet. That's a big difference between he and some of his predecessors atop the media throne. Durant seems uncomfortable anytime somebody tries to contrast him with his peers, talks lovingly of teammates because he doesn't enjoy talking about himself, and rarely offers anything of himself beyond the occasional blog post or tweet. That's not what he's about.
This isn't Brett Favre going out of his way to conform to the image of All-American Good Ol' Boy. It's not LeBron James posing on a f**king throne with a tiger by his side, under a "King James" banner. And it's not Tiger Woods posing for family photos while sleeping with the 18 year-old girl three houses down.
We love Kevin Durant because Kevin Durant loves basketball, not us.
That's the second point. There may be some columnists out there determined to beknight KD for his unfailing humility and impeccable character. On the whole, though, most fans just find it refreshing that in the age of crossover mega-celebrities, Durant really only cares about being the best basketball player possible. That's uncommon these days, and it's hard to chastise anybody for projecting that quality on Durant; if it's not about basketball, he doesn't have much to say to us. So... He must only care about basketball, no?
Craggs says this "offers the moralists a clean bank shot at LeBron." But of course it does. That's because he's the polar opposite of LeBron. That's not some abstract ideal made-up by the media.
Durant has shown no signs of wanting to be the biggest celebrity on the planet. He's fiercely competitive on the court, and deferential among the media. He stayed in Oklahoma City; LeBron left Cleveland. You can debate the merits of hating LeBron James, but it's hard to quarrel with someone that loves Kevin Durant because he's not LeBron James. They seem like two very different humans.
At least for now. Maybe, as KD's profile blooms, the added spotlight will reveal shades of his character that none of us had ever imagined. For now, though, Kevin Durant seems to love basketball more than he loves attention, and that's pretty great.
"Seems," of course, is a pretty important qualifier in all this. Something that cynics might say makes this whole discussion childish. We're talking all about how Kevin Durant appears. Who cares?
But that's the final point here. As fans, we have tendency to project character onto the people we watch on TV, in movie theaters, and at stadiums. As Craggs writes of the Durant fawning, "the primary folly here is trying to divine the motives and innermost feelings of professional athletes."
But to that, I'd ask: What else are we supposed to do? Why even have interviews then? Why even watch the games? We could just read the statistics and find out who's the best. Why pretend that we know anything about any of these guys?
None of this has any meaning without our interpretation of what it means.
Jerry Seinfeld once said sports fans are basically "cheering laundry," and in a literal sense, he's right. But in a literal sense, sports are a complete and utter waste of time. That's Seinfeld's point. Only by taking things to the deeper level, adopting certain guys as heroes and others as villains... Only then does it become something worth going crazy over.
We create this dynamic—LeBron as villain, Durant as hero—because otherwise, they're just two oversized gentleman that run up and down a wooden court 100 nights-a-year, wearing different laundry. Projecting character onto these guys may be naive, but it's also what makes sports fun. And that's the essential truth missed by both Craggs and all the writers lavishing Durant with praise.
If NBA players could all be more like Kevin Durant... Basketball would be incredibly boring.
But today, we love Kevin Durant because no other superstar is quite like him. Just like we loved Iverson when everyone was trying to be Jordan. Just like we'll love someone else when Durant evolves, or doesn't evolve, and we get bored with him.
Is it all evocative of a fundamental naivete and childish outlook on what matters in life?
Maybe, but this is sports. That's sort of what we do here.