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What Kevin Durant left behind in Oklahoma City

IT'S BEEN SEVEN months and six days since Kevin Durant made his decision.

The Oklahoma City Thunder have moved on, or so they say. The city hasn't, at least not entirely, as aftershocks -- T-shirts that read "35-35=0" or the occasional No. 35 jersey with Durant's name changed or crossed off -- still reverberate around town from time to time. As much as there's celebration and appreciation for Russell Westbrook's historic run, a trail of smoke lingers.

All roads, and conversations, find their way back to Durant.

His presence was everywhere in Oklahoma City for eight years -- he lorded over the city as its global ambassador. It reached a crescendo in 2013 when Durant put down a physical landmark of sorts, partnering with a restaurant group to open KD's Southern Cuisine in Bricktown, less than a mile from Chesapeake Energy Arena and right next to Toby Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill.

Durant's restaurant wasn't the most popular OKC eatery, but it was a tangible representation of how deeply his roots extended into the city's fabric. It's where Durant and many of his teammates would gather after home games in a private room. It's where Durant held charity and fundraiser events. It's where his family ate a couple of days before Durant heard the Thunder's free-agency pitch last summer.

Inside its doors was not only a celebration of Durant but also of Durant playing for Oklahoma City. Cases full of memorabilia lined the walls: jerseys, shoes, signed balls and framed pictures. Instead of TVs tuned to ESPN, most were programmed to run a loop of constant YouTube highlights of the Thunder superstar.

"Oh, I'll be booing, I hope just like everyone else is ... in my Russell Westbrook jersey, too."
Thunder fan George Overbey

When Durant left, he withdrew his stake and the restaurant underwent a rebranding. Its Yelp page took a beating.

Durant's friend, Randy Williams, and manager, Charlie Bell, came back and scooped up all the jerseys, shoes and signed pictures. The restaurant reopened seven weeks later as Legacy Grill, a road map of Oklahoma's history and its important figures. Durant's jerseys have been replaced by those of Barry Sanders, Troy Aikman, Blake Griffin, Sam Bradford, Tony Allen and Adrian Peterson.

There are two framed pictures at each booth, honoring the state's finest from Garth Brooks to Mickey Mantle. There's even one of Chris Paul accepting his Rookie of the Year award when he played in Oklahoma City during the then-Hornets' relocation after Hurricane Katrina.

Three Thunder jerseys hang by the bar -- Westbrook, Victor Oladipo and Steven Adams.

There isn't one thing in the entire place for Durant.


DURANT HAD BEEN gone less than 24 hours and Harvey Sparkman was already calling about the seats.

For eight years, the spot -- directly across from the Thunder bench, right about even with the free throw line -- was home to Team Durant's base camp, where Durant's family sat, where he'd point before the beginning of every first and third quarter, and where he'd go after each game before heading home.

It's where he ran to embrace his mom in the closing moments as the Thunder clinched a spot in the 2012 NBA Finals. Those four seats were an embodiment of Durant's investment in the franchise, with his mom, brothers and friends positioned right on the front row.

Now Sparkman, a local businessman, owns them. He sat a few seats down before, positioned in the corner at the end of the row. But when Durant announced he was leaving to join the Golden State Warriors, Sparkman saw an opportunity to upgrade. After a week of waiting, the Thunder told him the seats were his. He doesn't think about who they belonged to, or the moments Durant's family and friends witnessed while sitting in them.

"I'm here to support Russell Westbrook," Sparkman says. "We're not going anywhere. We hated that Kevin left, but fortunately, life goes on."


THERE WILL BE no tribute video for Durant on Saturday. He'll be recognized just like all other departed Thunder players before him -- Serge Ibaka, James Harden, Kendrick Perkins, Jeremy Lamb or Cole Aldrich. His name will be called in starting introductions along with, "Please welcome back to Oklahoma City, Kevin Durant."

And the fans will most assuredly boo.

"Oh, I'll be booing, I hope just like everyone else is," Thunder fan George Overbey says. "In my Russell Westbrook jersey, too."

Overbey was a student at Oklahoma State in 2011, and when Durant tweeted that he wanted to play some flag football during the NBA lockout, Overbey invited him up to Stillwater for a game. Durant showed up in his van and played some ball, with cell-phone videos going viral everywhere.

It was another example of Durant's connection with the people of Oklahoma, how his down-home demeanor aligned with the state. After Durant left that night -- throwing four touchdowns and picking off three passes, or so he claimed -- he gave a shoutout to Overbey on Twitter. Durant even called Overbey his "new buddy."

"I don't hate the guy, or really even dislike him, but I'm a Thunder fan, and I want to support the players that are here," Overbey said. "That's our responsibility now as fans. He chose to leave, which was his right to do, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."

Some will judge Thunder fans for booing. Some will shame the organization for doing the bare minimum for a player who helped build the franchise, a player general manager Sam Presti dubbed a "founding father" of the Thunder. How could they not appreciate the eight years (nine for the franchise including one in Seattle) Durant gave them?

The general feeling of most fans, as Overbey explained, isn't just that Durant left for another team -- they actually kind of understand that part. They aren't happy with it, but they can at least parse the fact that Durant wanted to play elsewhere.

But it's the who, the what and the why that breeds the animosity. That it was to the Warriors, the 73-win team the Thunder were set to conquer before blowing a 3-1 lead, with Durant shooting 39 percent in the final three games of the series. That the decision was announced with a brief five-paragraph message on The Players' Tribune, with only 192 words spent on the city and franchise that "raised" him. And that after almost eight months, there's still no clear understanding of Durant's reasoning.

It's also about Westbrook. In terms of the level of animosity when Durant returns, the city will take its cues from its point guard. Durant's departure hurt Westbrook personally, but then there was the simple text to inform him of the decision, the sniping through the media from Durant's camp about the duo's fit together and the passive-aggressive comments from Durant that may or may not have been interpreted properly.

"You get knocked down, but you keep getting back up, keep fighting; it's the perfect place for me. The grass isn't always greener somewhere else."
Kevin Durant during his 2013-14 MVP speech, on playing for Oklahoma City.

The two haven't spoken since Durant left, and probably won't for some time. Betray Westbrook's trust and you're dead to him for a lifetime, whether you're a reporter, a coach, a friend or a teammate.

Westbrook's remarkable, historic season has transformed what was expected to be a year of mourning into one of excitement and passion. He has sopped up the sadness, keeping the words "Kevin Durant" mostly out of the mouths of Thunder fans.

Westbrook pledged his loyalty to OKC when he signed his extension -- not booing Saturday night would betray that trust.

"I want Russ to know how much we love and support him," Overbey says. "We have his back."

The Thunder are taking the high road, saying nothing but positive things about Durant and the time he gave the organization. Staffers aren't shy to recognize Durant for helping establish the culture that the franchise is leaning on to push through his departure and contend for a playoff spot. That starts with Presti, who has pointedly complimented and thanked Durant for his time with the franchise.

"We are very appreciative of Kevin's contributions during the first eight years of the Thunder; as we have said, they're a big reason for the foundation that we stand on today," Presti said.

"He, in partnership with many teammates, invested a great deal in helping to build a culture and identity for a franchise in its infancy stages, one whose accomplishments and identity we should all take great pride in representing."

Still, Durant's presence has been scrubbed off everywhere around Chesapeake Energy Arena and the team's practice facility 15 minutes away. His jerseys were boxed up, with one set of each alternate sent to him, and the rest put in an archive at the team's facility. It's what the team does for every former player. The only visible reminders are the banners he helped hang in the rafters of the arena -- a 2012 Western Conference champion banner, and five Northwest Division titles.

His legacy around Oklahoma City, though, was always about something bigger than basketball.

Durant's impact is sprinkled everywhere -- from his investment in the infrastructure, to his donation of $1 million to the city of Moore after a devastating tornado, to the basketball courts he funded at public schools, to the money he committed to a local organization that supports homeless children (to which he recently donated another $57,000). Oklahoma City hasn't forgotten what Durant meant and all the good he did.

They also haven't forgotten what he said.

All professional athletes say it. Every player claims his current team has "the best fans in the world." Durant often went above and beyond that to prop up Oklahoma City. Part of Durant's brand was built on his being a man of the people, the genuine, authentic, humble, backpacking superstar next door.

Oklahoma City lived with the constant fear of Durant leaving because that's what people from Oklahoma do: grow up, get good at something and then move on to a bigger and better place. Durant recognized and understood the city's insecurities, giving locals plenty of reassurance.

"You get knocked down, but you keep getting back up, keep fighting; it's the perfect place for me. The grass isn't always greener somewhere else," Durant said during his 2013-14 MVP acceptance speech.

In a Sports Illustrated article last May, he said of the Devon Tower, OKC's tallest building (completed in 2012): "I look at that building and it's a beacon, reminding me what we came from." In an interview in April 2015, he said: "I'm one of those guys that would love to stick it out with one team my whole career."

He said he wanted his jersey retired in OKC.

When The Oklahoman printed the "Mr. Unreliable" headline after a couple bad games in the playoffs against the Grizzlies in 2014, the paper's sports editor reacted to a backlash by issuing an apology, and a billboard was quickly put up near the airport to be visible when the Thunder returned from Memphis that said, "OKC loves KD."

Everyone worried the same thing: What if he leaves because of that stupid headline?

Durant was inducted into the Oklahoma Hall of Fame in the fall of 2015, a 27-year-old from Maryland who played at Texas, alongside the likes of Oklahoma legends Will Rogers and Woody Guthrie. It reeked of desperation but seemed sensible because of Durant's impact and the way he felt about the city and state.

Westbrook has never made those kinds of statements. He never talked about having his jersey retired. He never talked about tall buildings or wanting to visit new arcades. He doesn't have a restaurant downtown. His family isn't front and center at every home game. His connection has always been more organic and understated.

But it's become his city now. Then again, maybe it always was.


THE DATE WAS Dec. 29, 2011, and Westbrook was playing horribly against the Dallas Mavericks. It was a night after maybe his worst game as a professional, an 0-for-13 performance against the Grizzlies that included a reported altercation with Durant on the Thunder bench. Westbrook was 4-of-11 against the Mavs late into the fourth quarter with seven turnovers, and he was struggling in just about every way.

Late in the fourth, then-Thunder center Kendrick Perkins poked the ball away from Dirk Nowitzki and Westbrook scooped it up. He raced to the rim for a two-handed dunk, putting the Thunder up two -- and Jason Terry fouled Westbrook on the dunk. As he walked to the line for his free throw, the arena erupted.

"Russ-ell! Russ-ell! Russ-ell!"

It's a moment that has stayed with Westbrook, the city picking him up at one of his lowest moments.

"It's amazing what these fans will do for you, man," Westbrook said that night. "I love this city and my teammates. I'm just thankful."

A month to the day after Durant left for the Warriors, Westbrook signed his extension with the Thunder. When it was announced, thousands gathered on Reno Avenue outside the arena to welcome Westbrook at his news conference.

"There's nowhere else I would rather be than Oklahoma City," Westbrook said that day. "You guys have basically raised me. I've been here since I was 18, 19 years old. You guys did nothing but great things for me.

"Through the good and the bad, you guys supported me through it all, and I appreciate it. Definitely, when I had the opportunity to be able to be loyal to you guys, that's the No. 1 option. Loyalty is something that I stand by."

In nearby Midtown, a banner hung above a street with Westbrook's personal motto, "Why Not?" And when the sun set on the first day of a new era for the franchise, the words stretched down the 50 stories of that beacon of progress, the Devon Tower:

"Thank you Russ."


INSIDE THE THUNDER locker room, the hole left by Durant isn't just a symbol -- it's actually tactile. Before every home game, Westbrook sits in his chair, earbuds in, humming along to some Taylor Swift or Katy Perry song, with two empty chairs to his right. About 10 feet away is rookie Semaj Christon, but between him and Westbrook are two empty lockers, their blonde, pine doors closed and their nameplates empty above.

Those two lockers used to belong to Durant and Harden, the Thunder's budding big three all lined together on the west side of the room. In the four years since trading Harden, the Thunder never filled his locker.

There's a metaphor there for the taking, but the official explanation was always far less fun: Because of the media swarm around Durant and Westbrook after each game, anyone in that locker would be fighting through constant traffic just to get dressed. Durant's locker was briefly occupied by Ronnie Price, but the Thunder waived the veteran point guard during training camp.

Its doors haven't been opened in months, Harden's in years. Inside them are the ashes of a dynasty in the making, locked away as one of the great what-ifs in NBA history.

Now, Westbrook sits alone, the last remaining starter from the 2012 Finals team. There's already chatter about his future, even with his pledge of commitment to the Thunder and OKC. There was shock that he re-upped at all, with many believing his interest in fashion could drive him in the direction of New York or his hometown Los Angeles.

But what if the team doesn't get back into title contention? Will Westbrook be OK with mediocrity? Just as Durant cast a shadow over everything, so does Westbrook. It's pretty clear to almost anyone who knows the two, though, that Westbrook and Durant are wired quite differently, and making any assumption about either has proved to be unwise in the past year.

Recovering from a departure of Durant's magnitude is typically a multiyear plan. The post-LeBron James Cavaliers, the post-Chris Paul Hornets, the post-Dwight Howard Magic -- all bottomed out upon losing their franchise players.

The Thunder are recovering on the fly, poised to remain in the playoff picture the season immediately after. Sure, the Thunder have an advantage all those other franchises didn't -- they didn't have to spend time looking for another franchise player. But that's kind of the point. Durant didn't just leave any team; he left Westbrook and a team able to absorb his loss and still remain in the playoff picture.

The city and franchise have rallied around Westbrook, his triple-doubles and MVP chase. The team isn't as good, and may never be, but Oklahoma City fans feel they have their hero. This is his town, his team.

But no matter what, Durant will forever be a part of their story. His jersey tucked away in the archives, his name in the state Hall of Fame, the culture he pioneered, the city he helped build. It's inescapable.

Like at Legacy Grill, where every trace of him was boxed and shipped away, but the phone number still ends in 3535.