Until Carmelo Anthony’s recent surge, Kevin Durant had led the league in scoring for most of the season, but early on he was also a close second in another statistical category, trailing only the hyper-volatile DeMarcus Cousins for the number of technical fouls received (even now, he remains in the top 10 in this category). Apparently not content with this dubious distinction, Durant earned his first-ever flagrant-one foul during a road loss to the Utah Jazz prior to the All-Star break.
Today, he received a $25,000 fine for what the league called a “menacing gesture” during a blowout win against the Warriors on Thursday. To many, the gesture – a throwback to the popular throat slash that David Stern cracked down on years ago – seemed out of character, unless, of course, you’ve actually been paying attention.
Chalk it up to his proximity to the increasingly hot-headed Russell Westbrook, whose growing impatience for post-game press conferences has reached hysterical new heights, but upon closer inspection this might just be the latest in a long line of warning signs that point to Durant’s inevitable turn to the NBA’s dark side.
During his first few years in the league, writers, commentators, and fans were all fawning over a fresh-faced kid with limitless potential, a tireless work ethic, and surprisingly-humble attitude. Fast forward a few years to the Thunder’s heartbreaking loss in the 2012 NBA Finals, and suddenly there were questions about whether the three-time scoring champion was indeed “too” nice for his own good.
This was exacerbated by the fact that, less than a month later, the press discovered that Durant was spending part of his off-season in Ohio training with his theoretical arch-nemesis, Lebron James. Much ado was made by the sports media, who scoffed at the idea that an elite competitor like Durant would prostrate himself before an adversary when he should be figuratively holed up in a cave somewhere plotting his vengeance.
Nevertheless, for all of the altar-boy talk, Durant’s career trajectory off-court has followed a similar path to that of many less-heralded (not to mention less-likable) players who preceded him, most notably the fact that he has recently embarked on the ever-dreaded rap career. Few things elicit as many well-deserved groans as the baller-turned-rapper phenomenon, a tradition that has been reserved primarily for NBA malcontents like Allen Iverson, Metta World Peace, Stephen Jackson, and so forth (with a few notable exceptions, i.e. Shaq). And let’s not even talk about his big-screen debut in the critically-unacclaimed box office dud Thunderstruck.
Durant is by all means free to explore his artistic side however he sees fit, but the type of audacity that deludes a person into believing that everything they shit out turns to gold should raise a few red flags. Not long ago, FreeDarko founder Bethlehem Shoals wrote a commentary on Durant’s highly-acclaimed humility and supposed lack of ego arguing, correctly, that the question of “can there be such a thing as an athlete without ego?” is clearly a rhetorical one. You don’t go out and score 66 points in a summer league game at Rucker Park unless you have something to prove.
It’s certainly far from inevitable that Durant will one day transform into a villain. His transgressions to this point have been relatively tame. But the media won’t hesitate to fan the fire if he keeps adding fuel to it.
Need evidence? Look no further than the narrative arcs of both Kobe and Lebron’s careers. Each entered the league as high school phenoms with the blank slate of youth and inexperience on their side, Lebron with an unselfish style of play that is often rare with someone his age and with his ability, and Kobe as the charming, if not precocious, multilingual teen who was so often celebrated as much for his “articulateness” as for his interminable work ethic.
Both, however, managed to draw ire upon themselves for a laundry list of high-profile faux pas, and if there’s any takeaway for Durant, it should be that he is ultimately the master of his own destiny in regard to how his fans perceive him. People hate Kobe. People hate Lebron. They’ve given us plenty of reasons to. Nobody hates Kevin Durant…yet. He hasn’t given us sufficient reason to. But you know what they say about the straw that broke the camel’s back: there were a million other straws underneath it.
Case in point: earlier this season, Durant needlessly confessed that he tries to avoid heaving half-court shots at the end of quarters in order to protect his famously-efficient shooting percentage, a habit that Thunder Coach Scott Brooks has already derided him for. When you can manage to draw criticism for something as positive as an efficient shooting percentage, you’re doing something wrong.
But maybe Durant needs more of an edge to take his game to the next level. That’s the paradox of the NBA. We get annoyed at Dwight Howard for being an attention whore, yet we mock guys like Tim Duncan for being boring. We criticized Lebron for not having that killer instinct, yet we resent Kobe for being such a ball-hog. We denounce Metta World Peace for being violent, then we disparage Pau Gasol for being too soft.
The NBA isn’t what it used to be. There was a time when it was filled with legitimate tough guys and bona-fide villains. In an era when you can get a technical foul and get tossed out of a game for even the smallest impropriety, even a nice guy like Durant can become a villain if he doesn’t watch his step.