Understanding Kevin Durant

I've lived in the New York media market since 1991 and if you only read the local papers you'd assume that over that time the Knicks have been clearly the most important and best (or sometimes absolute worst but uniquely fascinating regardless) team in the world.

Meanwhile -- brace yourself for some crass generalizations -- the Knicks have been resolutely middling, cap-stifled and poorly constructed almost that entire time. Without "New York" on the front of the jersey, this team is a stronger candidate to be the 30th most interesting team than the first.

The big exception: Right now! They're playing beautifully, and beating everybody. This might be the best week in, essentially, forever, to put the Knicks on the cover of a magazine.

And you know what's funny? The New York Times Sunday magazine, which typically delves into things weightier than sports, this week made an exception. This time, the big picture on the cover of the magazine is about that little-team-that-could that everybody just loves.

That's right. This weekend's cover story is about ... the Oklahoma City Thunder.

For real! And I was thrilled to see it. Writer Sam Anderson showers us with insight into what really is one of the NBA's most interesting teams. The Thunder are like a fairy tale, and it feels important to understand what in this tale is real and true and what is storytelling hocus pocus.

And on that, Anderson offers what I feel is tremendously valuable insight into the nature of the Thunder's star, Kevin Durant:

Growing up, Durant told me, he was a sore loser. That all changed one day when he was 11, after he got destroyed by his father in a game of one on one in the driveway. “Of course I knew I was gonna lose,” he said. “He was so much bigger and stronger than me. He was backing me down, dunking, pushing me. He was screaming, talking trash. I scored like one point.” Little Kevin was so upset by the loss (and, presumably, by the bullying) that he burst into tears, ran into the house, locked the door and refused to let his father in. The intensity of his own crying surprised him and, after a while, inspired some self-reflection. “I sat back and thought about it and was like, What am I so mad at?” Durant told me, and in that moment, he said, he made a decision. “It’s good to be passionate, it’s good to hate losing — but I’ve got to channel it the right way,” he said. “You know what I mean? And after a while I just started to learn to leave it where it’s at, get rid of it. Once you’re done and you’re off the court or out of the venue or whatever, go back to being you.”

Durant’s story touched on something I’ve thought about often while watching him play. If there’s been one consistent criticism of him, it’s that he’s not aggressive enough — that he fails to use his unearthly skills, as Jordan or Charles Barkley or Kobe would have done, to destroy everybody in his path. There are times, during games, when he seems almost removed from the action, simultaneously there and not there. I always figured that this detachment was just a byproduct of his smoothness: it looks so easy for him, when he strokes four consecutive 3-pointers or tosses in a little half-hook over two defenders, that it’s tempting to imagine he’s thinking about other things the whole time — that the real Kevin Durant is watching from a little viewing platform deep inside his own head, reading a magazine and clipping his nails, ready to re-engage fully when things get intense. But now I suspect that that uncanny stillness, that sense of remove, is the outward manifestation of Durant’s internal control, a sign of his fluency in moving between worlds: aggressive and relaxed, nasty and nice.

Occasionally you can see Durant moving between those worlds, and the transition is jarring. There are moments, for instance, when he dunks and in his excitement begins to stare down his opponent, showboat-style, and you think, No, no, no, no, Kevin Durant, so much of my worldview depends on you not being the type of person who stares people down after dunks. And then, inevitably, a second or so later, he seems to catch himself and jogs back down the court to give all the credit to his teammates. You can see the impulse and the correction — the (to get Freudian for a second) ego and the superego.

This turns out to be a useful way to think about the Thunder.