In talking up fairness and politeness, Kevin Durant departs from M.J.-model machismo.
Michael Jordan changed everything about the NBA. You could fill a book with examples, from the heightened role of scoring highlights above all else (even though Jordan was a great defender) to an increased emphasis on conditioning.
Jordan also cemented the longstanding notion there is no such thing as being too macho. Watching on TV, and listening to the testimony of those who knew him best as a player, it's clear that Jordan's modus operandi -- with teammates, referees, opponents and everybody else -- included a healthy dose of intimidation and bullying. And that works! This is a macho endeavor, and many people can be intimidated out of efficacy. (Exhibit A: Kwame Brown, who was an excessively sunny, motivated, polite, skilled and promising young player before he got the Jordan treatment. But I digress.)
The problem with the Jordan brand of mental domination is that effective though it was for Jordan and others, it's not the best approach for everybody. Vince Carter, for instance, is a generally friendly guy. He has been vilified for all kinds of things, but one of them is that he does not play with a Jordanesque scowl. Lots of people are bothered that LeBron James and his teammates goof around in warm-ups. Similarly, did you see the Reggie Miller "Winning Time" documentary? People involved in those Pacers vs. Knicks battles are sickened that today's players do things like greet opponents warmly before game, or help them up when they fall.
The Jordan mentality -- that of a killer -- is, to many, the only right mentality. Belittle, berate, attack, destroy ... whatever it takes. And that's one good way, for sure.
And that's essentially the game that Jordan's former coach Phil Jackson already has under way against Kevin Durant and the referees.
Durant has endured very little criticism of any kind in his high-school, college and professional career. He works hard to be someone everybody likes. When people say he's doing something wrong, it gets to him.
Jackson sensed that opening and dived right in by talking up the big role referees play in Durant's game.
If the mission was to get to Durant, it worked. He's affected. He readily admits Jackson's comment did fire him up more. It remains to be seen if the extra adrenaline will make Durant a more effective player. (Hard to bet against him, though. He took offense to a TrueHoop post last year about his bad plus/minus numbers. He then proceeded to destroy the league.) Jackson has a track record of firing up opponents to make them more aggressive to the detriment of their team, for instance, by making them take more shots or be less thoughtful on the court. On the other hand, other players, like Jordan himself, have mastered the art of converting anger into team efficiency. A fun subplot of the Thunder/Laker series will be to see what Durant how extra motivation from Jackson, and his first playoffs, will alter Durant's approach.
Durant was only one target of Jackson's psychological ploy, however. The primary focus was almost certainly the referees. Here Jackson was doing some Jordanesque intimidation, essentially warning them that he's going to be ready to expose them if they do Durant any favors. They are on notice.
And that's where Durant does something remarkable. Rather than simply destroying Jackson, or ignoring him, Durant's builds a statue to un-macho ideals like fairness, politeness and kindness.
Look at what Durant tells the Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry. First he makes a case for general decency:
I don’t disrespect nobody in this league. I respect every coach, every player, everybody. I never say anything bad about anybody else or question why they do this or do that. So for them to say that about me, I don’t even want to use no foul language.
Then, in what could prove to be a masterstroke, instead of merely intimidating the referees right back, Durant also sends the officials a nice Valentine:
If the refs pay attention to that and change how they call things because of that, that’s terrible. That’s terrible to the game of basketball and to us. If that happens, then (coach) Scotty (Brooks) could talk, too. Or any other coach could talk, too, just so the refs could switch everything up. But I doubt they do that. They’re smarter than that, and they have more skills than that as refs.
Are referees smarter than that? Do they believe in the kind of fairness Durant is appealing to, or can they really be intimidated by Jackson's badgering? Will they use their whistles to thank Durant for putting them in a positive light? We'll soon find out.