In the year of the mogul, the brand, the global marketing icon, Kevin Durant was just a basketball player. He led the Oklahoma City Thunder from 23 wins to 50, became the youngest scoring champion in NBA history and was voted MVP of the FIBA World Championship. If only he hatched some self-aggrandizing PR strategy, he might have parlayed his success into a few more endorsement deals and corporate partners. He made countless fans, though, by proving there is still a place for modesty and loyalty in the highest reaches of pro sports.
When Durant earned his first trip to the All Star Game in February, he bought his teammates headphones with "Thank You" written on the sides. When he earned his first trip to the postseason in April, he called Kobe Bryant the best player on the court. And when the Thunder fell in six games, Durant gathered them in the middle of the floor and told them they would be stronger for the struggle.
Then, while his peers bolted for bigger cities and easier title shots, Durant signed a five-year extension to stay in the smallest market in the league. He made his announcement the same week as LeBron James, only he required no more than 27 words on his Twitter account. At the time the contract was finalized, Durant was in Orlando, working out with the Thunder's summer league team. "That was like vacation for me," he gushed.
Durant extended his holiday to the World Championship in Istanbul, where he carried Team USA to its first goal medal since 1994, scoring 22.8 points per game on a sublime 56 percent shooting, without the help of other American A-listers, most of whom opted to stay home. Durant took one day off after the tournament and was back at the Thunder facility before club officials knew he was back in the country.
"The beauty about Kevin is he's pure," USA coach Mike Kryzyzewski said. "He's not trying to do anything except play basketball." When Durant received his gold medal, he was asked if he expected his performance to aid his global-marketing appeal. He looked as if the question had been posed in Turkish.
Durant has turned the Thunder into America's team, an organic alternative for the masses weary of the Heat. Before every game Durant gives a high-five to the same young fan in the lower bowl at the Ford Center. ("My friend Tyler," he said.) He shouts the same word at the end of every huddle. ("Family," he said. "Always family.") He begs anybody who has not visited the NBA's loudest arena to come on over. ("You really have to experience a Thunder game," he said.) When it is time to cut loose and skip town, as he did for his 22nd birthday party in Washington, D.C., he and his teammates do not fly charter. "Southwest," Durant said. "They gave me an exit row."
He refuses to judge his fellow superstars or their hedge-fund sensibilities. In fact, he supports them, and he should. They have made him appear quaint by comparison, like the best player at the biggest Y, who loves his team and his gym and wants to know when the next game tips. After the summer of self-promotion, he is the much-needed reminder that ballplayers can still be ballplayers. He is not Businessman of the Year, the title for which so many seemed to be vying, but he is Sportsman of the Year.
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