On Thursday, word came out that Kevin Durant decided to pull out of the World Championships. He was slated to be the team’s unquestioned leader and its main focal point offensively. Durant’s departure (and Paul George’s injury) has created a bit of a vacuum at the top of the World Championship team hierarchy. James Harden has the most tenure, but do you really want him being the leader of the group? They’ve brought in Rudy Gay to replace Durant’s scoring punch, but c’mon, it’s Rudy Gay. In seeing all this, many media members piled into Durant for abandoning his USA teammates, even throwing out words like selfish and entitled.
In reality, the kid that would play anytime, anywhere, decided to put himself ahead of basketball for the first time. And that completely shocked people, including myself. This is Durant we’re talking about. Go to your local Y or gym. Durant is the kid with the Nike backpack, high socks, and slides on his feet, walking around waiting for a game to kick off. He loves the game so much that he is willing to play it at any under any circumstance. Rucker Park, sure. Drew League, why not. Goodman League, let’s go. USA Basketball, hooping and patriotism put together? Hell Yeah!
But maybe it’s not Durant that’s being selfish. Maybe it’s us. We want our heroes to be there when we want them. Whether they are athletes or superheroes, we want them there at our beckoning. Every time we send the NBA signal into the sky, we want to see them play. Nine months out of the year isn’t enough. Summer league, USA basketball, preseason. We want our heroes at all times. But what we don’t realize is that heroes break down. One of the major themes in the superhero movies of today, is the physical and mental toll the superhero faces as the movie franchise progresses. Whether it’s Batman breaking down in Dark Knight Rises or Iron Man showing his mental and physical wear in Iron Man 3, this theme is one that resonates with almost everyone.
The common fact is that we break down as we age. We aren’t necessarily afraid of the number associated with our age, but with the inevitability that as that number increases, our bodies will never be the same. So then why do we chastise a player for taking control of his body and choosing not to expend any more energy than he has to? It’s not like this is Durant’s first foray into international basketball. He was the MVP of the World Championships four years ago and was one of the best players in the Olympics two years ago. Both times, he helped the United States win gold. More than likely, Durant will be there in 2016 leading the United States to gold in the Olympics in Brazil.
If anything, this is a sign of Durant maturing. He is no longer this boy wonder that wants to experience everything that is basketball-related. He is now a seasoned vet that is missing one final piece in the puzzle of his career. It’s the hardest one to obtain and one that usually takes heart-breaks and lessons learned to reach. As far as legacies are concerned, Durant has been a stat stuffer in his seven year career: 1 MVP, 4 scoring titles, 1st Team All-NBA 5 years in a row, Rookie of the Year, etc, etc. The championship is one that still eludes him. After reaching (and losing) the 2012 NBA Finals, it was almost a foregone conclusion that the Thunder would be participants in multiples Finals after that. Their core was young and only going to improve, and they just experienced the agony of defeat. But the James Harden trade and injuries in playoff games in consecutive years to Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka, have left the Thunder on the outside looking in of the last two NBA Finals.
Durant is looking at the bigger picture now. He knew he was tired heading into the playoffs last season. It isn’t Durant’s fault the injury bug bit the team hard this past season or that Scott Brooks doesn’t yet know how to manage his superstar’s minutes. But this is the Durant we know. He never complained, never shied away from the challenge. He just put the team on his back night in and night out and led them to the second best record in the league. In the process though, he played the most minutes in the NBA and probably sapped most of his energy reserves that were needed in the playoffs.
And that’s not even looking at the cumulative effect Durant’s career minutes had on last year’s postseason. In his career, Durant has played in 97% of all possible regular season games. In addition he’s played in 77 playoff games and countless pre-season games. When you begin to add international play, you start to get a picture of the toll Durant’s career is starting to have on his body. And its at this point, that Durant probably said, “Enough!” Durant still loves the game. It has been his provider, his refuge, and possibly, his best friend. But at some point, Durant needed to start looking at his most valuable asset (himself) and protecting that. Because, hopefully, he has many more years left in the league and more “stats” to add to that legacy.