Roll of Thunder, Hear Me Cry

The detonation of a Woj bomb unlike any I had experienced before – the reverberations of which would ostensibly extend far beyond its one hundred forty character radius. “Kevin Durant signs with the Golden State Warriors”. Yes, those Golden State Warriors. The 73 win, you had to see it to believe it and you probably still wouldn’t believe it, Draymond Game 6 suspension away from back to back world championships and a rightful claim to the moniker of best team of all time Golden State Warriors. It has now been a little over a week since the decision. A decision purposefully invoked in lowercase type so as to not confuse it with its older brother, six summers its elder, The Decision. It has been a little over a week and I’m still not quite sure that I have distilled my labyrinthine thoughts into anything resembling a cohesive whole. But ostensibly my emotional arc has traced something close to a transformation from anger to sadness, although it is a transformation that feels somewhat misguided. And maybe even uncomfortably narcissistic. My anger was almost surprising. Not because I didn’t feel like it wasn’t warranted, but because it was directed at Kevin Durant of all people. Synonyms for soft and antonyms for loyalty were what my mind was ardently searching for, and that seemed incomprehensible and downright antithetical to everything that KD purportedly represented. I mean the man had positioned himself as a walking embodiment of Oklahoma City, fully encapsulating a humility and allegiance that wove himself into the fabric of the community rather than simply superimposing himself onto it. Just hours later, fans dressed in an orange and blue that appeared unusually muted, took a picture in front of the banner with his face on it that hung from the façade of the Peake – a banner that was situated directly between Russ and Steven. Maybe façade was the word to focus on because it was what provoked what I so vehemently felt. In the hours after his letter in the Players Tribune, there was this unshakable feeling that Kevin Durant was exactly that – just a facade. I remember the man’s MVP acceptance in speech in 2014 more indelibly than almost any other one because it was imbued with a sense of genuineness that usually felt absent, especially when was it being emanated from a soul already located in the stratosphere of his profession. His was a superstardom that felt casual, a talent that felt so banal you almost had to remain actively conscious of the fact that what took the floor each night was a 6’10” anomaly of a basketball player. Kevin Durant is veritably unlike any other player professional basketball has previously seen. Players his size are not supposed to be able to do anything as well as he does. And for glimpses in these past playoffs, most notably in their series against the Spurs, we saw one of the greatest two-way players ever to step on the floor. He seemed like a guy that was all about the journey. That championships were important, of course. But the process was what mattered. And he made it seem like he ardently believed all of that. But it’s just hard to believe that he still does. He left for the second greatest team of all time.

He left for a team that had the most regular season wins in NBA history. And he left for a team with the two greatest shooters in the history of the league. Yet, worst of all, and the hardest to swallow, is that he left for a team he was four minutes away from beating. Had Steph Curry and Klay Thompson not combined for the greatest shooting performance I have ever seen, the Oklahoma City Thunder would have conceivably been the 2016 world champions. KD would have resigned. Russ would have undoubtedly resigned next summer. And the Warriors and Thunder would ostensibly go on to actualize the greatest in conference rivalry since who knows when. But they lost Game 6. And they inevitably lost Game 7. But the dominoes didn’t stop falling there. See, the Warriors blew a 3-1 Finals lead to the Cavaliers that not only brought a championship to a city that had been starving for one but also cemented the legacy of the greatest player of our generation. The Cavs won and they will forever be remembered as champions. However, it is still abundantly clear that the Warriors were the better team. The 2014-15 Cavs did not have a puncher’s chance. They took the Dubs to six games on the back of what might go down as LeBron’s most impressive career performance – an effort precipitated by Delly wrong foot floaters and thirty-five point outbursts from a man who somehow just received sixty-four million dollars from the Lakers. But this year’s Cleveland Cavaliers did have a chance. And the Warriors opened the door for them. Images continue to persist in my head of Draymond stepping over LeBron in Game 5. Of Steph throwing his mouth guard after fouling out in Game 6. Of Steph throwing a behind the back pass to a fan in the front row in the waning moments of Game 7. Although it nears naïve overstatement, the last few games of the Finals and certain desperate moments in the Western Conference Finals were some of the first and realest moments of adversity this incarnation of the Warriors had had to face over the last two years. And they folded in the face of it. Thus their loss in the Finals naturally provokes an endless series of questions. As constructed, is the Warriors team capable of rendering themselves a dynasty? Unprecedented and still largely unsolvable, is this team capable of becoming something professional sports has never seen before, and not ephemerally? Does this team need something else?

And maybe this is where KD comes in. It has been said that the impetus for his move to the Bay was a Team USA connection with Steph and Andre Iguodala conceived years ago. So maybe they sold him on the idea of something. Maybe they sold him on the idea that he was the missing link to the ascertainment of something great. Of something transcendent. Maybe this is where my frustration originated. Because the move felt, and to a large extent still resides in some philosophical area outside my understanding. There are certain limitations to empathy here that made themselves clear. Why did he make the decision he did? I needed to know. Because from a competitiveness standpoint it made no sense. If loyalty was still a cornerstone, it made no sense. If a philosophical reverence of the process and the journey was still important, then it made no sense. So why then? Maybe in some ways, it was an omnipotent allure of the unknown. The fundamental human attraction to something else, to something beyond our understanding. He had spent his whole career in Oklahoma City. Maybe it was just time for a change. He had been steps away from a championship, sure. But he would have come back to largely the same thing. Sans Serge. And plus an athletically supreme backcourt of Westbrook and Oladipo. Maybe he had watched Steph. And LeBron. And D-Wade. And Kobe. And Timmy. And Dirk. And just maybe he had thought about his legacy. About the fact that he is the second best basketball player on the face of the earth and he doesn’t yet have a ring. Historical narrative dictates that he needs one to remain relevant in any kind of contextual discussion of the best players of all time lest he want his name included in a pantheon with Barkley, Iverson, Stockton, and Malone. Certainly signing with the Warriors is primarily motivated by a desire for a championship. And yet, there has been a perpetuated sentiment that this is the worst way to do it. But the cognitive dissonance is increasingly apparent. Kevin Durant needs a ring. And he has been surprisingly able to eschew the often pervasive discussion in any sport about the best players without a championship. He can thank LeBron for that one. However, he can also thank LeBron for making what he is doing now somewhat reproachable. Surely much of the disdain surrounding his move to Miami involved his televised Decision, because it posited an egocentrism that had seemingly no concern for the implications of what he was saying, his jersey simultaneously being burned by fans in northeast Ohio. LeBron understandably left a roster he was never going to win a title with to join two of his best friends, and fellow superstars. Yet it’s hard, if not disingenuous to compare the two decisions. LeBron ostensibly left to build something. KD left to join something. Nevertheless, what they both have become a reflection of is the phenomenon of the superteam; an amalgamation of players most often conceived out a need to win. To just finally get a ring. Players are not good enough if they never win a ring. But they are also not good enough if they win a ring by leaving the team they started with to construct something largely conceptualized as artificial. The only way for a ring to mean something is if it is earned, eventually obtained through an unyielding adherence to the necessity of adversity. LeBron helped write and embolden the legacy of Dirk and Tim because of this immediate juxtaposition. The two of them represent a kind of purity that falls in line with a capital R romanticism that governs fandom. A capital R romanticism that extracted a deep rooted desire for KD to be like one of them.

Yet as I’ve thought more about it, maybe it wasn’t actually Kevin Durant that bothered me most about Kevin Durant’s decision. No, it was too centralized and too individual. Honestly, who was I to pass any kind of merited judgement on the choice he made for his life and his career. No, see what initially angered me instead changed into a melancholic rumination on the phenomenology of fandom. It wasn’t actually about Kevin Durant about all. It was about the Oklahoma City Thunder, and what they represented. Ever since Clay Bennett robbed the city of Seattle of its basketball team and moved them to Oklahoma City, the team became a weird kind of beacon of light for me. Kevin Durant. Russell Westbrook. Jeff Green. Serge Ibaka. James Harden. An initial core that was built entirely through the draft. And don’t forget Sonics and Thunder lifer Nick Collison. Now the most dominant and universally acclaimed organization in all of sports over the last twenty years resides in San Antonio, Texas. Five championships in the last seventeen years. And playoff appearances in each of Tim Duncan’s nineteen seasons. But there is one word that seems to characterize the Spurs better than anything else. Culture. A word that has evolved into a rather ambiguous platitude when discussing team building and organizational success. Yet, to succeed to so completely in the single team city of San Antonio, something magical and unprecedented was needed. Timmy was something. Pop was something too. Tony and Manu surely played a role also. But I’m talking about something much deeper. A top down model of organizational success. Something that can manifest itself in an extended period of joy and fulfillment. R.C. Buford is a team building savant and the system itself was exceedingly malleable, ostensibly even operating at two ends of the basketball spectrum. The early 2000s Spurs were grinders. The early 2010s Spurs were virtuosos. And they had a superstar that never left. Ultimately they could build their team however they wanted because Tim always stayed. And almost every player brought in unfailingly became better. They bought into an identity meticulously cultivated and maintained. Players want to play in San Antonio because they want to be a Spur. Hell David West took a veteran minimum last summer, leaving ridiculous amounts of money on the table because he knew the last thing he wanted could maybe be best obtained in black, silver, and white.

However, the Spurs are an anomaly. There is no other organization in professional basketball whose success is so indebted to culture and top down leadership. Los Angeles. Boston. Chicago. Miami. New York. These are destinations and big markets. Carmelo forced his way out of Denver for one. CP3 in much the same manner, left New Orleans for one. But since I was old enough to really genuinely remember what I was watching on the court (sorry Michael), the Spurs have been better than all of them. And that’s why the Thunder were so special. And so special to me. They represented possibility in a way the Bucks had never been able to. A team completely homegrown in a market that was small and realistically could not attract anyone. They had everything in place. Sam Presti is a Spurs disciple. And he, and the Thunder have done almost everything right. Building nearly exclusively through the draft, they assembled a team with two of the top five players in the world and tried to surround them with the pieces that complemented in a meaningful way. I still remember sitting in a hotel room in Omaha, Nebraska watching the 2009-10 Thunder play the eventual world champion Lakers in their first round series and it was obvious that something special was just beginning. The Peake was absolute mayhem. Russ was trying to dunk through three guys from the free throw line. The next season was the start of their actualized rise to prominence before being forced to acquiesce to the buzz saw that was Dirk’s coronation. They reached the finals in 2012 on the back of KD, Russ, and James. I don’t know, maybe they weren’t ready. And at the time that seemed fine. It was team whose four best players did not exceed the age of 23. They had to go up against a Heat team that had finally figured things out. So it was understandable because undoubtedly they were going to be back. That first Finals appearance was just going to be the first of many. Until it wasn’t. That summer after contract disputes could not resolve themselves, James was traded for the once promising Jeremy Lamb, sixth man extraordinaire Kevin Martin and a pick that would eventually become Steven Adams. That team in 2013 won 60 games and once again looked the part. That was until Pat Beverly stepped into his role as antagonist and precipitated a Westbrook injury that ruined any chance at a title. Serge was hurt in 2014. Durant hurt in 2015. Which takes us to this year. Out goes Scott Brooks and in steps Billy Donovan. Now Scott Brooks is interesting to consider. Surely he isn’t Gregg Popovich but he is still a very good basketball coach. However, to what extent he is culpable for the Thunder still being championship-less is ambiguous at best. Sam Presti did an unprecedentedly good job in back to back years of obtaining two absolute superstars. And yet, just placing two superstars on the court with each other does not necessarily ensure success and the relationship between Durant and Westbrook has been a complicated case study into whether or not positive coexistence is possible with personalities and egos that when juxtaposed next to each other, seem so antithetical. So much has been made of the fact that the two can never coalesce, that just maybe their fit with each other is more problematic than it is beneficial. And yet in reality the fit has always had the potential to be something wholly transcendent. Yes, Russ is a ball dominant lead guard that has not always looked the part of a lead guard, but he is an insanely willing passer and at his most relentless and ferocious might just be the hardest player to guard in the entire league. And Kevin with the ball or without it is quite possibly the most skilled offensive threat the league has. On the surface it doesn’t seem all that problematic. That’s why it’s always been so hard to actually discern what percentage of the purported conflict between them has been fabricated. It’s no secret that KD was deeply attracted to the free flowing, selfless, ball averse offense of the Warriors – an offense the Thunder could never quite execute under Brooks – and the fact that it only just began to finally emerge in spurts during this year’s playoff run had to be understandably frustrating. But this team was so close. They were up 3-1 largely behind incomprehensibly great performances from the two of them. The pieces around them were working in nearly perfect concert. Steven Adams became the rim running pick and roll partner both of them needed. Serge stretched and hit timely shots. Enes gobbled up rebounds and made the Death Lineup almost unplayable. Dion passed. And Dion made plays. Yeah those last two sentences weren’t lies. There were no excuses anymore. Youth and inexperience was a card that could no longer be played. Injuries and overall health could not be played either. And that was fine, because they were on the brink of culminating a journey that began on draft night in June of 2007, ten years in the making. And then it all came crashing down. Kevin left. Russ will probably leave. And the Thunder will inevitably have to start all over. That fundamentally is what makes me so sad about this whole thing. The line for success in professional sports is so fragile and razor thin that when an opportunity presents itself you have to take advantage. Windows don’t stay open in places like Oklahoma City for very long. And when the window closes, it inevitably remains shut until a new journey is undertaken. The Thunder have been an analogue for everything I want the Bucks to be. A team in a small market with a rabidly enthusiastic fan base and a homegrown roster with an organization committed to a cohesive and measured vision. To reaching the top of the mountain by climbing up it and sticking a green and white flag in the ground and vehemently shouting that it is possible. That investing in even the smallest promise of eventual transcendence is worth it. It’s what makes relinquishing your soul to a team and to sports worth it. So KD I want to thank you for always perpetuating that. Thank you for being a reflection of something I want to believe in. But damn it, why couldn’t you have just stayed and supported that belief just a little bit longer?

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