Really, Kevin? Can’t Beat ‘Em?

(twelve-minute read)
One of the good guys, from what I can tell. Wearing the dark hat (and a bullseye) now: Kevin Durant.

One of the good guys, from what I can tell. Wearing the dark hat (and a bullseye) now: Kevin Durant.

Young sir, may I call you Kevin?

I’m sure They have been calling him lots worse, though I’m not looking under bridges to check. I’m guessing “traitor” and “chickenshit” and “turncoat” and “ungrateful bastard” are making the more printable lists. “Benedict Arnold” might be favoured by those who know a little American history.

So: Basketball Star Kevin Durant Signs Free-Agent Contract With Golden State Warriors. There’s your lede, not going to bury it. This being July 5th, it’s no longer news in the antic spin-dry cycle of what-have-you-hot-taken-from-me-lately entertainment/journalism. But to me it’s still novel, a bit shuddery and uncomfortable, sort of bewildering yet all-too-familiar, a cause of naive dismay and even a spur to misplaced and minor outrage. Hey, wanna come along? 

This is literally unmediated. I haven’t had the chance to filter my jangled thoughts through what must have been a torrential downpour in the Twitterverse sports teacup, a tempest in the chatrooms and sports blogs of the world. (At least in North America, this must have outdone Iceland over England by far, and may have even outstripped Trump and cute animals for an Internet spell.) I spent the very best part of yesterday hanging around in my corner of Ottawa with some of the finest young people you’d ever want to know, and many of them barely know who Kevin Durant is. The day was about selfless service. Voluntarism. Youth leadership by the young. (Hence, I wasn’t much more than a bystander, but an inspired and committed one.) Moral purpose. Community. Educational vision. Societal transformation. All that grassroots jazz. (And walking. Lots of walking.) There was no time for Twitter.

But some of the youngsters do know KD, and their phones are smarter than mine is. As we hunted for idealists in Overbrook on the fourth of July, Soemoe joined the crew. (He’s Burmese by origin, born in Thailand as a refugee, came to Ottawa in grade 4. A typical Canadian, in other words. He loves volleyball, and plays soccer/football at the drop of a neon-orange pair of kicks. At his high school, he played for the Rams in both sports, as well as basketball, and though he was nuts for Euro 2016 even before Wales and Iceland bedevilled the big boys, Soemoe is more and more like most Ottawa male teens of colour. He speaks hoops. Atypical Canadian? I’m not sure he’s ever had a pair of skates on, and he doesn’t give a whit about hockey. But then, citified young Canucks of colour mostly don’t. Talkin’ ‘bout a revolution, and only three days after Canada Day. But I digress.)

Soemoe: Hey coach, did you hear about KD?

Me: What? (*already feeling seismic aftershocks from Oklahoma, hearing moans of bereavement and the rage of the jilted*)

S: He signed with the Warriors!

M: NO!!

‘Cause that ain’t the way it’s sposta go. It’s weird when what passes for “big news” in the sports sandbox hits me. The biggest sports news is trivial in the Arena of Real Life, but damn, it matters to me. I mean, I have already alluded to this in terms of an earthquake, when the dead thousands of Haiti and Sichuan are still fresh in the anguished memories of their loved ones. Yet key-tappers all over America (the mad blogger predicts) have asked themselves the editorial and bordering-on-ethical questions, Can I really call this the “Oklahoma City Bombing”? Too soon, right? (It will always be too soon, too insensitive, if you know anything about OKC’s 1995 murderous tragedy. But you have to know it’s been written somewhere already; the wacky forecaster types again!) Soemoe and I and a couple of other jock-friendly types talked about it for a few minutes. I found myself really dumbfounded, still do, and weirdly but genuinely disappointed at the fact that a multimillionaire athlete, having already given it “the old college try” with the small-market OKC Thunder, had “made a business decision” to “take his talents” to Silicon Valley– yeah, too soon, and no way he’d use that ever-poisoned phrase that LeBron James did at his Decision to abandon Cleveland and jet to Miami to enjoy the ease of championship after championship with the Heat. Off to Golden State, yes, where the (almost) “greatest team in NBA history” plays.

He went to Golden State? When does an MVP in his prime join another MVP and his merry band of All-Star teammates? Why would Kevin – I’m going to call him Kevin, since like millions of others I think I know him because I’ve watched him shoot and he loves his Mum and he cried when he won the Most Valuable Player trophy – why would KD go THERE?

Can’t Beat ‘em? JOIN ‘EM. It’s an old saying, but in my youthful days it always had the smell of cynicism. Who’s going to do that second thing if, first, you have to admit that the Other Guy is just Too Good For You? (Man, I’m tellin’ ya: it didn’t matter how many touchdowns Bub and Joe and those guys beat us by on the town square, I was going to keep throwing the ball to Hammer and Tony! What, just because the Cayuga High Warriors¹ had all that height on the frontline, did you think I was going to transfer there so I could win a Zone championship? Shee-YITE, no!) This was the reason for the reflexive distaste people had when LeBron, clearly the NBA’s greatest player, went to play with Olympians Bosh and Wade in Miami. It’s a stacked team!That just ain’t right!

¹ Aha!! My high school rivals down-river were called the Warriors! (Rap not actually having been invented yet, there weren’t yet rapper-names for things; nobody called them the ‘Dubs’, ever, though we called them lots of other things.) I begin to find ancestral roots to my unreasoning anger at Durant’s Defection. Warriors. Phtt.

Despite the salary caps that were supposed to protect the owners’s wallets AND promote somewhat equal competitive opportunities for teams – the Milwaukee Bucks can’t always lose, can they? – it offended “purists” that, just like an AAU² team — just like a bunch of alpha intramural ballplayers who’d rather yawn together, winning by 50, than have real challenging contests by playing for their own house/college/dorm — the pros had found a way to rig the game. LeBron brayed that they’d win “not five, not six…” titles. (He seems, with more grey hairs and maybe wisdom, to have realized that two was pretty good, and plenty tough enough.) And now KD has joined a team that already has three American Olympians on it, and that with two-time reigning MVP and media-darling Stephen Curry taking the summer off because of injury. To my old-school brain and emotional reflexology, it seems undignified. It just ain’t FAIR. (Bucks fans: I do know that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar won the first of his five titles, and Oscar Robertson his long-delayed one-and-only, as Bucks. 1971. I watched. On a colour television.)

² The U.S.’s venerable Amateur Athletic Union, now shorthand for pretty much whatever ails basketball. The AAU ethic is now infecting Canadian hoops, too, and it’s not all bad: it means that the competitive level is rising, overall, and We the North are caring more generally and more passionately about the game Ontario’s Mr. Naismith invented. However, “AAU Ball” has certainly earned, to a significant degree, its reputation for corruption, poorly- or un-coached teams of thrown-together talent, selfish players, egomaniacal “coaches”, disloyalty, and the commodification and abasement of what can still be a beautiful team sport.

I know what this makes me. Feeling that If you can’t beat ‘em, JOIN ‘em is not a success strategy, far from it, but an admission of inadequacy – well, yes, it makes me a fuddy-duddy. Out of touch. Old-school. Neanderthal. (Dumbass!) It’s much like how my sons and other mockers find my distaste for UFC quaint, laughable, mainly because I can’t get past this deeply-etched ethic: You don’t hit a man when he’s down. For all the brutality, not to mention the historic seediness, exploitation and racism that is endemic to boxing, the Marquess of Queensbury rules make boxing appear downright upright, dare I say noble, compared to what happens in the Octagon. But sorry, that’s another wacky digression. Can’t beat ‘em, so you join ‘em? That was the cynic’s way, a sour inversion of the true sportsman’s ethic. Heck, if all you want to do is win, all you have to do is find bad teams to beat. After all, as I explain to my high school hoops teams (some get it, some don’t, some roll their eyes at the silliness), we can go 40-0 if we only play grade-schoolers. Is that what you want? Nobody’s foolish enough to answer the rhetorical question, but depressingly, there are too many kids that, deep down, are so desperate for even the most tawdry tags of victory that they’d be okay with that.

[But wait: On a scale of one to infinity, how ridiculous is it that I’m grindingly disappointed with a man I don’t know for pursuing an employment opportunity he thinks will help his career and personal happiness? How pitiable is it, on the That’s PATHETIC Top 40, to get all electronically outraged by what colour a Celebri-Dude, personally unknown to me, wants to have on his team laundry, or whom he wants to share a private jet with? These are rhetorical questions, sisters and brothers, but there is a Comment section.]

Rings. Good Gawd I’m sick of guys talking about RINGS. Did Wilt sign with the Celtics because he couldn’t beat Bill Russell? Did Jerry West? (And yes, Wilt did come west to play with him., but that was via trade.) Did Magic Johnson think, Better go play with Larry? (Imagine Bird wearing purple and gold? Ha!) What do you figure John Stockton and Karl Malone’s reaction is to yesterday’s news? (Yeah, Malone also became a Laker; his late-career desperation for a frigging ring is no career highlight, but does make Stockton’s sticking with Utah yet more reason to have him high on the Howdy Index of Great Athletes.) The way we devalue players’ careers because they Haven’t Won the Big One is a disgrace, if I can use that word with all the more weighty shames that a world as inequitable as ours is able to: A) boast about a la Trump, or B) ignore like most of the rest of us do.

RINGS. I was glad to see a fine player and apparently good man like Richard Jefferson finish a highly respectable career with the Cavaliers and a championship, but nobody with a basketball brain puts him in the same competitive league as the ever-ringless Malone or Charles Barkley or Gary Payton, let alone “equaling” the all-time great Jerry West, who had to face the dynastic 1960s Boston Celtics, and therefore has only one NBA title even though he is still referred to as “Mr. Clutch”. (And fer cryin’ out loud! Sasha Kaun and Dahntay Jones and Ognjen Kuzmic (!) each have a ring now! So KD wants to be like them?) Once you get past Bill Russell — eleven rings, if they had rings then; jewellery notwithstanding, winning eleven means something — and the rest of the great and never-to-be-approached Celtics of yore, the greatest winner of all time in the Association is…

(…wait now…)

(…did you guess it?…)

…Robert HORRY, a career journeyman with a particular knack, a useful player who kept on getting picked up by championship-calibre teams, three of ‘em, to grab a few rebounds and make open shots when the stars were covered. Horry won seven championships — and look how we talk, as if he did it himself; he was on seven title TEAMS — which makes him a greater winner than Michael Jordan if Rings Won is your dipstick. (Which makes you a dipstick, I’m forced, sadly, to report.) Steve Kerr is also MJ’s “equal”, with six gaudy finger-baubles due to his time as role-playing bench-buddy to Michael in Chicago, to Tim Duncan in San Antonio, and then last year as Splash Coordinator (and head coach) of Golden State.

I wish we could stop talking about RINGS. They’re overrated, ever more bulbously ugly and size-matters vulgar and, well, so incredibly materialistic.³ So yes. I will stop talking about them now. But here’s a picture:

Head Coach (HC) Steve Kerr's 2015 ring, no. 6. (What does one *do* with these things? Too big, too pricey to wear.) Head Coach (HC -- players get their number) Steve Kerr's 2015 trinket, no. 6. (What to *do* with such a thing? Too big, too pricey to wear.) (Photo from San Francisco Chronicle article.)

Head Coach (HC — players get their number) Steve Kerr’s 2015 trinket, no. 6. (What to *do* with such a thing? Too big, too pricey to wear.) (Photo from blingy-details-obsessed  San Francisco Chronicle article.)

³ I promised myself not to bother researching, but there I went. Championship rings these days are orgies of size, diamond-encrustation, obsessive detail and madly conspicuous flaunting. Each one costs well into five figures, by even conservative estimates.
Rookie of the year with Seattle, way back then.

Rookie of the year with Seattle, way back then.

Zombie Sonics. I’ll go read Zach Lowe, who’s great on the NBA. I’ll read Bill Simmons, who coined the phrase “Zombie Sonics” out of reverence for NBA history and his sympathy for the Seattle fans who lost their team. The Sports Guy refused to call the Oklahoma City Thunder by their new name for a respectable few years. I’ll no doubt consume a lot of lesser writers and talking heads blathering about Durant and his Legacy. But before I finish here — thereby returning both to life outside my study as well as access to the furious churnings of the Interwebs (h/t to Chuck Wendig, who likely won’t say a word about l’affaire Durant) — I’ll say this. There has to be an awesome level of Schadenfreude being revelled in by folks in Seattle, and all who cared about the green ‘n’ gold of the still-lamented Supersonics, a one-time NBA championship team that abandoned its home for a deeper-pocketed billionaire’s preferred playpen. Sonics chauvinists have bitterly slow-clapped every Thunder setback, and must have been perversely delighted by this year’s near-win as OKC came from ahead to lose to Golden State in the Western conference finals. (Brooklyn Dodgers fans, if any are still alive, nod grimly in their wheelchairs. No Lakes IN Los Angeles! mutter the bereaved and mostly deceased lovers of the Minneapolis Lakers. Add your least-favourite sports-team dislocated-abomination here. Yup. It’s a business.) Now the Oklahoma City fans, having lost franchise cornerstone Durant, have a taste of how fans in the Pacific Northwest felt about losing not just the cornerstone but the whole damned building. And they know about losing buildings, and much more, and how sudden that can be.

And HOW many balls will Golden State be allowed to play with? Here’s another weird thing about the KD Experience. I love the furious competitiveness and otherworldly athleticism of Russell Westbrook, OKC’s mad genius of a point guard, but have long been frustrated by his insistently subpar decision-making when playing alongside one of the greatest pure scorers we’ve ever seen. Just. Get. Kevin. The BALL. Though to all appearances Durant loves Westbrook, has always said so, he is now leaving him for a team with TWO All-Star guards, Curry and Klay Thompson, with zero inhibitions about chucking long three-pointers that even most pro players would be benched for. Coach Kerr does have a beautiful move-the-ball ethic, but according to my math there is still a finite number of shots that his team will be able to take in a game. KD’s no dummy, but the abstract theory of how lovely it will be to play in a West Coast Flow offence with other gifted players will be sorely tested by the stat sheets. Jealousy? Freezing out teammates? Refusing a reduced role? Reduced enthusiasm for the sweaty attention to details that make championship teams work? Too much of a good thing? Could such things happen in the dear new NBA? I’m thinking: How can they NOT?

The DUBS: Desperation or Arrogance? While I’ve mostly been obsessing, since Soemoe news-bombed my blissfully gossip-free yesterday, about reasons for disappointment at Kevin Durant’s free-agent decision – yes, here it comes, you’ve been patient up ’til now, sure hope I’m first with this brilliant bit of Interweb textual sorcery and wit (but not likely, I know), I’m calling it THE DUREXIT™ — I also wonder about the Warriors. Something like this hasn’t been done. Wade and Bosh were great players, but LeBron wasn’t saddling up alongside a two-time MVP, a Finals MVP (Andre Iguodala) and two other All-Stars. I don’t know how they can afford it, but Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut just put up their houses for sale. (Shameless speculation.) Their team, having just put together the greatest regular season in Association history, and two of the most dizzily successful years the league’s ever seen, are changing the formula. Here comes old-school again: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (Bum Phillips said it, but then, he was a Neanderthal football guy. This is California, babe!) GS likes to think of itself as a model of the thoroughly modern, intelligent franchise, but I’m calling hubris on this one. They had this year’s title in hand, had it won in their entitled heads long before the Finals, AND then had some injury shocks and thoroughly dumb play and the astounding Finals masterpiece (his last?) by LeBron James. (Even had LBJ lost game 7, he should have gotten the Finals MVP award, as only Jerry West (The Logo) himself has ever done from the defeated NBA finalists.)

And so they’re changing everything? Okay, one guy doesn’t mean EVERYTHING, but in the NBA, and with a talent like Durant, it comes close. So maybe it’s desperation, anxiety-driven overkill? Their salary structure has to fracture, even in the money-drunk context of current TV/media deals. (Can you say “downturn”? “Financial bubble”?) They will have to sign worn-out, ring-desperate (and therefore affordable) veterans to bargain-basement contracts. (In the single-digit millions per year. Zing!) Is Klay Thompson going to be happy to be Dude Number Three? He was often The Guy in the 2016 playoffs. Is Draymond Green going to embrace sacrificing the ink and love and ball-touches that Durant will siphon away? Green seemed hungry for greater credit and attention this year. Is Steph Curry any more likely than Westbrook to settle for being a pass-first point guard? He’s already facing the not really an MVP-when-it-counts criticism, and for all his cuddliness and lovability does appear to enjoy the top billing. And when has Kevin Durant ever NOT been the leading scorer on his team? Third grade, when he played with the grade sixes? If he suddenly isn’t, that’s going to be a problem. And if he is, that’s going to be at least two ego-driven problems for Jedi Master Kerr to massage.

It seems to be my go-to mantra these days. I just don’t GET it. Maybe I just don’t want to. 

FINALLY: The Genesis of My Dismay. Not two days ago, confident and, in hindsight, evidently hopeful that Kevin Durant would be as loyal as jester-capped idealists like me wanted him to be, I made a prediction. BOLD, it was! (Cursed it is, to be hopeful! Yoda it must be, I am channelling!) I like Billy Donovan, Oklahoma City’s first-year coach, and looked forward to his continued fine-tuning and harmonization of the immense gifts of KD and Westbrook, and emerging star/sidekicks like Steven Adams and Victor Oladipo. (I was a big fan of the Ibaka trade, which will now be hammered anew.) Sam Presti, as general manager, from my remote perch looks dedicated to running a true team in a sustainable way. And so, when OKC was fresh off nearly decapitating the Warrior kings (they HAD them), were sure (in my mind) to re-sign Durant, and had just gotten younger and more talented (Oladipo, and Sabonis the Young!), I trusted my contrarian gut and said (to a still-echoing Twitterverse Silence), OKC is going to be the next mini-dynasty in the NBA. The Spurs aren’t dead, LeBron reigns, and the Warriors are state-of-the-basketball-art and aren’t going anywhere, I got that. BUT NEVER MIND. I’M THE PREDICTOR. They will win two championships in the next five years or so.  KD’s prime. Russell’s maturity. (Plus idealism! Don’t forget idealism!)

And now I’m wrong, not that that’s new or that anybody noticed, particularly, but in this case it bugs me more than usual. And maybe that’s why I wake up on a July morning thinking about the NBA free agency period, about the off-season wavelets of a pretty small puddle, by Global Importance standards, and finding myself stimulized and consternated by them.

But mostly? I think my irritation and, gosh, even sadness, comes down to three things. First, and even though it may be naive in such a Business of Sports world, it’s about loyalty. I was hoping against THE DUREXIT™; it’s a fine thing, even in the sporting sandbox, for people to have examples of relationships that last. Next, my dismay springs from concern about our widespread desire to have something for nothing, to choose the path of least resistance. (And they’re so shiny!) The easy way isn’t necessarily a GOOD way, and often it turns out that it’s not even all that easy. And third, it’s about how Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors of the burst-bubble-ready NBA are, today, the poster-boys for the More Is Always Better ethic and all the thousands of things that are wrong with it. Enough.  

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