Despite all his accolades, Abe Beame has never been the target of a Lil B curse.
When I was in college, I embarked on something of a spiritual quest in the most cliche middlebrow college guy way possible. I read the Old and New Testaments, I read the Quran. I read Franny and Zooey, then I read The Way of a Pilgrim. I read Siddhartha. I saw I Heart Huckabees which led me to The Jewel Tree of Tibet. It was pretty all over the place and probably made me miserable to talk to for a solid year. I bring this period in my life up because I believe it is why I’ve always had sympathy for Brooklyn Nets super wing/Talking Heads song Kevin Durant. His career has been a similarly aimless, sophomoric, middlebrow spiritual quest.
The book I read in college that made the most profound impact on me was called Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Frankl was from Vienna, a therapist, neurologist and Holocaust survivor whose experiences led him to develop Logotherapy, a mode of therapy and thought that I’ll simplistically and probably slightly erroneously explain like this: Frankl would have a depressed, suicidal patient who would come to him and say, “Doc, I’m depressed and suicidal. I want to kill myself.” Frankl would respond, “Ok, well why haven’t you?” And in answering, you begin to define what you live for, to develop a set of values that explain the very specific and relative meaning of your life to you.
So for fun, let’s try to figure out the meaning of Kevin Durant’s life. It’s not family and stability. He had all of that with his first team, The Oklahoma City Thunder [Ed. Note: For the sake of clarity, it should be acknowledged that Durant played his rookie season for the Seattle Supersonics before the team was kidnapped and taken to Oklahoma’s capital city] and the collegiate atmosphere they achieved that briefly made them the darlings of the NBA. It isn’t the daunting challenge of mind and body that basketball can present, because again, in OKC, he had that, along with his Rottweiler point guard, Russell Westbrook. They were wildly athletic, but didn’t quite have it all (who does?), and said Durant eventually said, “no thanks.” After paying decent lip service to how much he loved the city and organization, and coming agonizingly close to the ring a pretty stunning number of times for such a young player, he bolted at the first real opportunity he had to do so.
But it also isn’t ease or comfort. He had that in Golden State, the team that somewhat miraculously eked out a series win against Durant and Russ at their best, down 3-1, the season before KD joined them. The Warriors team Durant completed had an embarrassment of riches that essentially broke basketball for three years, putting a choke hold on the league and delivering Durant two consecutive Finals MVPs and the rings he thought would cement his legacy. But it didn’t, and led him to Brooklyn. Here’s a clip from the locker room the night of their first Championship celebration, and the moment I knew it was never going to work for Durant in the Bay.
It’s certainly not aesthetics. Under Steve Kerr, with two of the best and most selfless shooters the league has ever seen, with one prodigal basketball mind who always makes the right play in Draymond Green, and a bench full of savvy high character veterans, the Warriors came as close to sacred geometry as basketball will likely ever get — as close as basketball can be to Brazil in the World Cup. It was beautiful and perfect and utterly ruthless, as they steamrolled the league and specifically LeBron season after season. And even playing next to Steph Curry, a player who has done more than any other to revolutionize this entire sport over the course of the last thirty years, Durant was unquestionably the best option the team had.
So the question is: what does Durant live for? There’s a great episode of The Twilight Zone called “A Nice Place to Visit”. In it, a guy is shot and killed robbing a liquor store and wakes up in the afterlife, where he finds himself surrounded by money and women in a lavish flat, with access to a casino where he can never lose. The man at first believes he’s in heaven, but as the lack of adversity in his existence sets in, he sees the utter monotony of unqualified success is a prison, and he has, in fact, gone to hell. This is the hell of being Kevin Durant.
Durant is an evolutionary player. Versions of him have been here before. He’s a silky and effortless offensive player. About as pure a shooter as I’ve ever seen. He has tremendous handle for a player a foot shorter than him, and he’s an impossible finisher around the rim. The wrinkle is that he’s a legitimate 7 footer. This takes him from gifted into the realm of science fiction. He has a shot that doesn’t miss, but also can’t be blocked, or even bothered. He turns what appears to be a difficult approach to the rim that you’re led to believe he’ll have to flip up sideways based on a limited understanding of angles and gravity, into a dunk that looks like little more than extending his arm and flicking his wrist. He has limitless ability. The last piece of his game to fall into place was his defense, and with his agility and length, under Steve Kerr, with Draymond, he became a legitimate, agile, impossibly long rim protector and the chessboard queen of a top five league defense.
Some say the closest antecedent to Durant was George Gervin, another immaculately smooth and pure scorer. And I guess if we’re just focusing on court and not acknowledging that Durant was launched here in a space cradle off the surface of a dying planet, I’ll allow it. But to me, in temperament and plight, his spiritual forefather is Kareem. It’s the combination of height and skill, they are probably the two tallest and most skilled all around players we’ve ever seen. Both are so dominant, so able to go wherever they want and do whatever they want with a basketball, they lack the sex and magic of their human peers and lull us all into a dull complacency. Both are aloof, strange men who lord over us from a literal great height. Both have been alienated, and either misunderstood or properly understood and just kind of disliked by the public.
The difference is Kareem never gave a fuck. He’s a natural introvert who lives in his own head and spent 20 years amusing himself as a God playing amongst men, telling a dumb and racist press corps and fanbase to go fuck themselves. And maybe this is how Durant will end up. Reviewing random television shows and writing detective novels, in his own world post-basketball. But I doubt it. What Durant not so subtly has told us — the meaning of his life if you will — is he wants our unqualified love, respect and adulation on his terms. This is why he continues to look for the right situation, the right alchemical mix of basketball that doesn’t rely on him solely to win a championship, which could potentially fail, incurring our criticism and wrath, but still gives him enough to do while winning another chip, which would theoretically prevent us from asterisking his greatness.
Between February 2017 and December 2018, Durant did a series of podcasts with Bill Simmons. In this age of guarded athletes, media trained to the point where personality has become a cement wall built with cliche, performance, and suggestion, it is an incredible document, the likes of which we will probably never see again. For well over six hours during the prime stretch of his Warriors run, KD sat and let it fly, giving Simmons unfettered access to his opinions, thoughts and philosophy. It’s fascinating, and occasionally irritating, because KD might be the biggest fucking contrarian I’ve ever heard in conversation. He has a need to qualify and correct nearly every assumption made during their talks. Truly basic shit any sane person would take for granted gets teased out, prodded and questioned. KD is such a contrarian his two favorite authors are V.S. Naipaul and Christopher Hitchens. KD is such a contrarian he swears he prefers the black and red colorway of the patent leather Jordan 11s to the white and Carolina blues. He’s such a contrarian that– matter of fact:
INT. ATLANTIC CENTER STARBUCKS- DAY
Three men stand off to the side of the counter waiting for their orders. One of them is very tall.
I ain’t sneeze
Are you? I ain’t sneeze. I coughed a little through an exhale.
Actually, it’s Kevin
KEVIN DURANT reaches for what he thinks is his drink. KELVIN shoulders in and grabs it. KELVIN, 28, Dominican, husky, two tone cream Timberlands, puffy North Face with a fur lined hood, immaculate shape up, etc.
Pardon me bro. Enjoy your day.
Nah, you enjoy yours, “bro.”
You can feel this quality getting more virulent as the series with Simmons goes on, as KD discovers the success in Golden State will never fill the bottomless pit we all have inside of us. I’m not a psychiatrist, but if I had to try and diagnose what is behind Durant’s pushback, his need for precise language as it applies to him and his insistence that when we discuss him, we assume nothing, is he has spent his entire life reckoning with people projecting their interpretation of his every professional decision onto him, what it says about him and what it all means, and he’s fucking sick of it.
Media members, I guess by the furthest stretch of the imagination, myself included, tell stories. Stories need heroes and villains, they need narrative and arc. So we try to prescribe our hero or anti-hero Durant with “wants” and “needs”. We explain his career to others, and to ourselves, in a certain light. And that light, in spite of his incredible accomplishment, hasn’t always been flattering. Durant bristles against this because he might be the thinnest skinned truly great professional athlete we’ve ever seen. He’s the inverse of Muhammad Ali, a fearful individual who doesn’t want to appear to try hard but transparently does because he absolutely needs us all to love him so he can be at peace.
The odds of him finding this validation are not great, because the problem with basing your happiness on other people, particularly other people on Twitter, is there will always be a minority of vocal assholes, and that seems to be all Durant can hear or see. He’s the real life Rod Tidwell, a sensitive guy with a fragile ego, looking for our constant validation and approval but zeroing in on the negativity. That’s what the Simmons podcasts were about, presenting his true self to the masses and hoping this nakedness would quiet his critics. That they’d respect his bravery and finally see his point of view, a laughably and heartbreakingly naive wish. And this is why he spends his off time doom scrolling, telling himself with the perfectly crafted reply from his burner account, we’ll finally all come around.
So maybe that love is in Brooklyn this season. Why not? There’s a saying or something along those lines about the borough, right? In Kyrie Irving, he’s found a Dennis Hopper to his Peter Fonda. A similarly aimless, intellectually curious, perpetually unsatisfied dumbass/savant who regularly performs acts of mind-snapping wizardry on the court when he isn’t online making headlines for the wrong reasons (and if they ever actually add Harden, making it a trio of dumbass savants, I may cancel this column and walk out of my life so I can just sit in front of YES 24 hours a day with my mouth hanging open like I just watched The Entertainment, waiting for the next game to start). I don’t really know how the MANY weird and talented pieces of the former and current team that is the Nets fit together, or how nice Canadian Steve Nash is going to steer this team of coaches through the crucible of the postseason, or what Rasputinesque dark power DeAndre Jordan holds over Kyrie and Kevin, but it stands to reason, in light of our current champs, that if the two best players in a basketball game are both on your team, you’ll win most nights.
I can’t say much of my philosophical and spiritual exploration in college stuck in terms of the path my life has taken. That is to say, at least for me, there is no defining religious or logical principles that decided the really bizarre and random place I ended up. If I had a belief system, it would be agnosticism, or the lack of belief. By Frankl’s definition, what I “live for” is dicking around with my kids, eating well, drinking more than I should, watching *a lot* of movies, and writing occasionally. I’d say my life was a product of in the moment opportunities, with the foggy grasp of what I thought I learned from the experiences I had before said decision, combined with dumb human impulsivity.
It’s been a really stupid and arbitrary journey. If I can ascribe any one thing to my narrative, it’s the lack of narrative. The casting about, half-heartedly searching for meaning but generally taking the most logical and advantageous seeming option I had in front of me. And I think there’s something in that Kevin Durant would relate to. And I think that’s most people. We’re all inscrutable sudokus that will never add up. The great hack Robert Zemeckis once used the metaphor of a CGI wispy feather floating on a current of wind to explain our lives to us, and he sucks, but in this specific instance, it’s not entirely off. Perhaps, the sooner KD recognizes this and decides, not performatively, but in his heart, to say “fuck it”, he’ll find the peace he believes is waiting somewhere out there in a perfect future that doesn’t exist.
At the end of Alan Moore’s timeless allegory, The Watchmen, Dr. Manhattan, a super being who has been godlike for so long he’s lost all touch with humanity, decides to leave Earth to go to a barren planet with no rules or culture where he can create his own life. Some day Kevin Durant will play his last game of professional basketball, and when that day comes, I hope he finds whatever has been eluding him in life, as a YouTubing VC in Silicon Valley.