These NBA Finals have quickly morphed into a Kevin Durant vs. LeBron James debate, which was natural and not surprising. Durant has reached the level where people can't help it -- they want to compare him to the best in the game.
Durant's Oklahoma City teammates do it too. They will tell him:
And he says: "No, I'm not."
The question is: Why does he say this?
"That's how he is, he is very humble," said Dexter Pittman of the Heat. "Kevin is one of the most humble guys I've ever met. He's not flashy. You can't even tell that he's in the NBA. He doesn't wear designer clothes. He is always wearing a hat, backpack and shorts. That's how he is. Simple."
Pittman is one of Durant's opponents in this series, but he was Durant's teammate at the University of Texas five years ago, and they remain close friends. Pittman gave the explanation that most people give about Kevin Durant: He is humble, humble, so very humble. This is completely true, but only part of the answer.
* * *
Whichever God is responsible for handing out basketball talents really outdid Himself with LeBron James. Nobody has ever had a hoops package quite like him. He has the size of some of the best power forwards, the skill of some of the best shooters, the passing skills of an All-Star point guard, and athleticism that rivals anybody in the history of the game. The package comes with a single burden: Everybody has seen it from the time James was in high school.
It is impossible for LeBron James to overachieve. How could he? He was on the cover of
James is clearly the most gifted player in the NBA, and was its best player all season. He may yet lead the Heat to this championship with more performances like he had against the Celtics, when the only way to stop him was to pour hail from the rafters. But it's clear by now that the journey has not been as easy as his skills would suggest. James has wrestled his own talents and the expectations they create.
Durant, meanwhile, has 90 percent of James's gifts. He is one of the skinniest stars in NBA history. He is a great athlete, but you could easily make a YouTube video of the best dunkers in the NBA without including him. Ninety percent of James's gifts ... and in this way, he has been lucky.
His thin frame meant nobody could force Durant to play power forward. This allowed him to develop into a one-of-a-kind "monster," as Pittman puts it, -- a 6-foot-9 scorer who tosses three-pointers through the hoop like crumpled-up paper into a wastebasket.
But there is something more. Greatness always seemed one step ahead of him, taunting him, daring him to catch it.
Durant was highly recruited out of high school ... but Greg Oden was considered better. Royal Ivey, a Texas alum who plays for the Thunder now, didn't know who Durant was when he signed with UT. Ivey had to do an Internet search to find out who this Kevin Durant kid was, and what position he played. In the 2007 draft, Portland famously chose Oden ahead of him. In Durant's first NBA season, his team finished 20-62; the next year, 23-59.
Durant has always had to chase. He said Wednesday that his goal, growing up, was to be the best player in the Washington, D.C. area; then it was to be the best player ever from the Washington area.
At Texas, coach Rick Barnes once told him he was the worst defensive player Barnes had ever coached. It was a coach's trick, but one that rarely works, especially with a freshman star destined to be a top NBA pick. Durant got so fired up, and so motivated, that he landed on the Big 12's all-defensive team.
No matter how much Barnes ran his guys, Durant would inevitably pick up the phone that night and call teammates, begging them to join him at the gym.
"I was like, 'Dude, are you crazy? We just went through a hard-ass practice,'" Pittman said. "But that's how he is. He lives in the gym."
So why does Kevin Durant say he isn't as good as LeBron or Kobe?
"It's more mental, more psyche, like 'I'm not the best, I have to keep on working,'" Ivey said. "He says 'These guys have this, these guys have that. I want more.' He really has a chip on his shoulder. He doesn't talk about it. He's not boastful. He is just himself. He has something to prove every time he steps on the floor, and it shows in his game."
Many athletes want to be great, and many want to be seen as great. Kevin Durant is obsessed with the pursuit of greatness.
James is different -- greatness pursued him. At times it has knocked him off his path. He was so good, so early, in the NBA, that after he got there, the Cavaliers never had a high enough draft pick to add another elite talent, like the Thunder did with Russell Westbrook and James Harden. He led teams to 60-win regular seasons, only to have their talent deficiencies exposed in the playoffs, bringing all of the criticism back to him.
Durant would be a star anywhere he played, but he fits especially well in Oklahoma City, which has been called minor-league and not worthy, and is trying to prove a little something itself. It is the civic version of Kevin Durant.
Pittman remembered meeting Durant for the first time, at a summer camp: "He was the guy that was quiet, in the shadows," Pittman said, "and whenever it came time to play at the camp, he was doing what he is doing now: dominating. His whole demeanor, how he carried himself, it was like an I-work-hard demeanor, and 'By me working hard, everything else speaks for itself.'"
Durant doesn't seem to have much use for Finals hype, and endorsements don't motivate him. Fulfillment comes from the games themselves. Last summer, during the lockout, he scored 66 points in a game at Rucker Park. The video went viral and the legend grew. He was asked about that Wednesday, and he called it "one of the best moments I've had so far in my life, playing at the mecca of basketball in New York City, and I hit a few shots." You got the sense that he could play 82 games a year at Rucker Park and be happy, as long as somebody challenged him.
There is an old line that's been used countless times as a joke setup and an advertising pitch: What do you give the man who has everything? We may have our answer now. Here is what you can do for the man who has everything: Take away 10 percent of it, and tell him he has to fight to get it back.