Kevin Durant really is nice, and DeMarcus Cousins is not

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Kevin Durant earned his first ejection on Wednesday. But don't believe the ads: he's truly quite nice. DeMarcus Cousins, on the other hand ...

Back in December, Nike launched one of Wieden + Kennedy's more humorous recent campaigns. The campaign is an attempt to convince us that Kevin Durant is not nice despite the fact that he's totally nice. It seeks to differentiate the player from the person. The campaign trumps up KD's off-court decency while trying to convince that on the court KD is as nasty as Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony or any other deadly scorer.

But it's a lie, and Wednesday showed us why. Durant earned the first ejection of his career as the Thunder lost to the Nets, losing his cool on a pretty standard moving screen call. And now we have a GIF of sweet ol' Kevin Durant saying "F--k you" to a referee.

My first thought: Dang, Nike is really going all out on this campaign. They even convinced KD to be not nice for one night!

But here's the truth: KD is nice. An ejection and a four-letter word wouldn't be notable otherwise. If the world noticed every time any NBA player -- no, athlete -- was caught cursing on camera, this website would be called F.U. Nation. (I'm going to keep that pitch in my back pocket.) This moment captured above is so utterly un-KD that it appears more an exception that proves the rule than some deeper truth about Durant's spirit.

All it shows is that KD is human. Humans get frustrated. Frustration is a gateway drug to anger. In pro sports, with the heavy air of pressure, high expectations for perfection and all the human error that is unavoidable, that anger boils over into F-bombs quite frequently. Even angels succumb once in a while.

What's more troubling to me is the idea that we need to be convinced KD is not nice in order to respect him more. The W+K bit is all pretty tongue in cheek, but there is a constant undercurrent in sports that associates niceness with weakness. We give the true jerks like Kobe a wide berth to be terrible teammates (so long as they're winning); we question the will of players who aren't kicking Gatorade jugs after a loss. If you Google hard enough, you'll find basketball writers arguing that Durant won't win a title until he stops being a nice person. Seriously.

No, KD is in fact nice, and that's OK. He can be a champion, an MVP, a G.O.A.T. candidate while being perfectly decent and kind. It's allowed. Jordan, Bird and Kobe aren't nice. Bill Russell wasn't nice. LeBron James isn't known for being particularly nice (though that's a whole 'nother basket to unwrap). KD is nice, and that's just fine. We don't need to be convinced otherwise.

***

DeMarcus Cousins, on the other hand, is not nice. Like, really. And that's OK too. He's been back from his latest suspension for four games now. The Kings are 3-1, despite being without Tyreke Evans for all of them and without Marcus Thornton for two of them. During the stretch, Cousins is averaging 16.5. points, 12.5 rebounds and, stunningly, 5.8 assists. The span includes his first career triple-double, which came Sunday against the Celtics. In that game and in Wednesday's win over the Cavaliers, Cousins iced the game by passing out of double teams. In Cleveland, he hit John Salmons in the corner for the clinching three.

Cousins has had five or more assists in three of the four games since his return; he had just two such games in his first 23 of the season. It's hard to pin it down properly, but it should be noted that in the two games Cousins missed due to team suspension the Kings passed in the ball beautifully (even in defeat), racking up their two highest assist rates of the season to date. When Cousins returned to the lineup, he had a mandate to a) be a better teammate, and b) make sure the team couldn't afford to keep him off the floor again. So he's been passing much more frequently. It's worked.

Will it last? I wouldn't advise you to hold your breath. But this is the thing about Cousins, which is basically the reverse of what we said about Durant: DMC is not nice, and that's OK. We don't need to be convinced otherwise. Plenty of jerks have been NBA stars. But they were all incredible players. Cousins needs to worry about being an incredible player. If he is, he'll be indispensable on the court. Stars get away with a lot more than scrubs would.

As a Kings fan, that thought process kills me. Reading reports that pretty much all of the other players on the team hate your star is painful, especially when the team stinks. But it's who Cousins is and, as I said, it's not like he's the first jerk in NBA history. KD is a nice person, that's who he is, and that's not going to hold him back from anything. Cousins is not a nice person, that's who he is, and it'll only hold him back if he lets it. In both cases, it's really not any more complicated than that.

The problem, of course, is that being a jerk or not being a jerk does matter in most career paths, and I think we'd all prefer if our children had temperaments closer to that of Durant than Cousins. So glorifying a personality like Cousins, as Charles Barkley argued decades ago, is problematic. Trying to convince everyone that someone like KD is actually a jerk when he's at work is moreso.

Unfortunately, "KD really is pretty nice and you should be too" is a terrible way to sell sneakers.

***

The Hook is an NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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