"First off I hope I make the Olympic team," Durant said recently, humorously humble as ever. "But if I do make it, I won't worry about that, man. I think I do a good job of taking care of my body. So if I'm there, hopefully I can push through it and make it a good season and a good summer."
--ESPN's Weekend Dime, Marc Stein, 1/20/12
Gee, reading that quote really brought back some memories! See, I know Kevin Durant from back in D.C. During the lockout he and a couple of his NBA friends would play on a neat pavement court. Being an intrepid, ruthless basketball journalist disguised as a baby-faced 16-year-old, I seized the moment and asked to join the game, right when they were shooting hoops early in the morning.
"Hey, Kevin," I said, casually as possible.
"Hey, kid. What's your name?" Kevin Durant had a really jumpy, curious voice.
"Hi, John. Are you by any chance a point guard on the Minnesota Timberwolves?" Kevin and his friends kind of chuckled at that. As did I. Kevin Durant had jokes.
"Nah, they waived me right before the lockout ended. The Spurs signed me, at a reduced salary, as a mop-boy," This last part was true. Only mopping afforded me the insider journalistic access I sought.
"Yeah, seriously. I'm from San Antone. We be chillin'," I said, briefly putting on my aviator's shades before removing them, slowly, while glaring at Kevin.
"What brings you to D.C., then, John?" Kevin asked, a bit on edge now.
"To mop up the streets. With my intense basketball skills. Game on," Alea iacta est. The die is cast.
"What position do you play?"
"Well, I'll play point guard here, KD. But back in school, I'm the starting center. I take the tip and every play after that I anchor my team on both ends," I said, gaining confidence with every word.
"You can't be more than 5'9'', John!" Kevin laughed.
"I'm by far the second-tallest person in my entire school," I countered.
"What about the tallest?"
"Oh, she blew a calf out in the sand in beach volleyball."
Kevin Durant made a shocked expression.
"I'm sorry to hear that!" he said with such enthusiastic sympathy that I nearly cracked up right there. His eyebrows arched intensely, like he was a character in a cheaply-drawn anime.
"Ah, it's not a big deal. She'll get better in a couple of months. And besides, it doesn't matter all that much because I crash the boards like Rodman."
This line sealed the deal, and with some laughter Kevin told me to wait for a few more players (from nearby colleges, I gathered) to join in his pick-up games.
• • •
When everyone had arrived, we all drew lots to see who would be the first captains. There were only 12 of us, so the players that didn't get picked for one game would be captains in the next game. Simple as anything. Kevin Durant actually drew one of the captains' lots and picked me with the tenth choice, obviously out of sympathy. One of the two that didn't get picked was NBA player T.J. Ford.
Now, T.J. Ford was a gangly, awkward experiment with wireframes that had seemingly tumbled out of a graphical computer at the University of Texas and stumbled to the gym where the coaches realized he was a fully-formed college point guard and a future lottery pick. I knew a bit about him from his college days, and he would actually sign with the Spurs after the lockout, but now he just looked... eerily foreign in person. I felt like a scout discovering Nyarlathotep at a Nike camp or something. He also seemed kind of pissed Kevin hadn't picked him. He brooded on the sidelines and leaned against a chain fence, sitting on the ground.
But now I had bigger concerns: Because of the logic of the matchups, I was guarding a 6'10'' PF from a Division I school. Now, honestly, I'm not sure if this was truly the logic of the matchups or just an excuse for physical comedy, but I'm a big fan of physical comedy anyway, so I went with it. It was pretty entertaining, and - as a journalist - I was discovering empirically why Tim Duncan wasn't quite as fast as he was in 2003, and it wasn't just age. Have you ever been in a (playful but physical) fight where you hadn't been eating but where you had been drinking, and had also been running? Do you get what I'm saying? Well, if you haven't, here's the summary: you feel a little bit sick, but more than that, you feel like you're 70% of the way to unconsciousness, and 110% of the way to fainting. And that's exactly what playing the post on both ends was like. Despite the intensity and height difference, after our 12-minute game I had torched my counterpart for 5 points and 7 rebounds. I mean, my counterpart got 15 points and 20 boards, sure, but... it was progress. I had scored, legitimately, and I held my head up. By the end, I really felt like I could play him to a draw. Then they untied his shooting arm, money was exchanged, and the captains started the second draft.
For the second draft, the captains were still sitting against the chain fence, and so those of us that had just played were just talking among ourselves:
"I hope I get picked. If I do, I think I can do better this time. I think my team will win, if we just put the work in." Kevin Durant said. Everyone just looked at him, some concealing smiles, some rolling their eyes. I was astonished.
"Kevin, you're a marginal MVP candidate in the NBA. T.J. Ford is the second-best player here, and he's nowhere near as good as you. I'm an undersized, underage point guard here that plays small forward in a high school for tiny white people. I am in the 80th percentile, height-wise, in my school. We found out in math class. That's why I'm on the basketball team. Because I am relatively tall at my school. I have played literally one-thousandth the basketball that you have and I'm a foot shorter. You're going to get drafted, Kevin."
"Hmm, I don't know. Wait, did you say small forward? I thought you said you were a center!"
"Nah, that was a joke."
"Was the volleyball girl a joke? With her calf?"
"No, that really happened. She's hurtin' in the calf, definitely."
"Dude, my point is, you're being too humble. You're easily the best player out of the twelve of us! No one here would dispute this! Who among you would dispute this? Why wouldn't he get picked, for real?" I addressed the others. No one answered. I was astonished. Kevin Durant was honestly this humble. He honestly thought he had to earn a starting spot where you just had to be the 8th best out of 10 to get one.
"Listen, I just have to do my best and prove that I can make the team. That's all there is to it. Just go out there and compete, and if I get picked, all the better."
"Alright, just, uh, just don't sell yourself short," I could hear the faint echoes of commentators complimenting Kevin's humility, oblivious to how deep it apparently went. I could only smile and make my eyes wide as the others had done. "Is this guy for real?" I asked rhetorically.
T.J. Ford spoke, "Alright, the red team is ready to select. With our first pick, Red Team picks..."
I heard Kevin Durant whispering, "Please, please, please, please."
T.J. Ford finished, "...John!"
Kevin was incredibly disappointed by this turn of events. I had no words, and the other captain immediately chose Kevin Durant.
Despite his disappointment, Kevin delivered a monologue thanking his captain for the confidence he'd shown in selecting Kevin. "...and team blue shirts are going to win the championship this game if we can just execute and act like a team, from the top to the bottom of the lineup," Kevin pointed at Royal Ivey as his captain chose Ivey with the last pick. "Don't get me wrong: Team red shirts are great. We know they're great. They're tough on both ends. We all know this. But we think that we're better."
• • •
T.J. Ford took me aside after the draft. "I hate that guy."
"You know, that tall guy. Long arms. Anime eyes."
"... Kevin Durant?"
"Yeah, exactly. I hate that guy, kid."
"How can you hate Kevin Durant, TJ?" I said, genuinely curious.
"Ah, I mean, it's not hate. You know, I just don't think he's as humble as he acts. I think it's, like, an act, you know? I'm pretty suspicious."
"Like, a put-on for the media and his team. I know it don't make much difference if it is, but I'm curious. And we're, you know, going to test that, right now. In this very game."
"... What in God's name?"
"Why do you think I came here, kid?"
"To play basketball when your league of professionals is locked-out?"
"Well, yeah. I guess. But also to test Kevin Durant's humility. That's a close second, in terms of goals."
"Come on you guys, we're playing in a couple minutes!" Kevin called to us from afar.
"I want you to play against Kevin Durant... Then..."
"Uh... okay, T.J. But that's a nightmare match-up..."
"Shut the hell up and let me finish."
"First I want to deliver an impromptu press conference, as coach and captain of red shirt team."
"Do you have a microphone handy, kid?"
"Yes. But I don't s--..."
T.J. at this point started talking loudly enough so that Kevin could hear him as he fed me questions from index cards hidden under his giant white headband.
"Mr. Ford, how do you feel about Kevin Durant? How do you plan to match him up with your defense?"
"Well, John," calling me by my first name for the first time in 10 minutes, "I don't think he's a very good player at all, so I will be matching him up with my worst player... John. I have contempt for Kevin's playing ability. Utter contempt. A child could beat him, if that child had ever been in a fight, because that fight alone would make that child tougher than Kevin Durant."
"Is that why you didn't draft KD in the first place for your team, Mr. Ford?"
"No, I didn't draft him because I didn't think he DESERVED to be on a team, John."
• • •
"Well, KD, I guess you learned that you aren't as humble as you thought! You know you're the best player here, and you were just putting on a show of humility."
"T.J., I'm surprised at you," Kevin said, "The difference came down to front office acumen. Blue shirt team knew what it would take to build a contender, and realized that I could be a valuable contributor to that contender."
Ford just shook his head at the insult. I was laughing.
"Well, T.J., if it makes you feel better, that was the best game of my life! I got 8 whole assists."
"Aw, shaddup. You're not even a real point guard, kid."
"Well, to be fair, neither are you, T.J. But you have some good games."
"That's... that's kind of true, actually. Thanks, kid."
Kevin Durant shrugged and untied his right arm. It was time for the third draft.