Kevin Durant & The Discomfort With Player Power

by Dave Zirin, July 13, 2016

Kevin Durant has made the decision to create a superteam by joining the 73-9 Golden State Warriors. Going to the best possible workplace to achieve the greatest success would be a no-brainer in any other profession. But Durant is being pierced by the same arrows—slung by many of the same people—that LeBron James suffered six years ago when he made “The Decision” to join All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Miami Heat. This was expressed succinctly in one tweet by ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith who said, “Don’t give a damn what anyone says: weak move by KD. You go to GSW, the team who beat you, when you’re already on a title contender? Please!”

The view that joining other stars is “weak” because Durant is not choosing to be “the man” and drag his team to a title, has been echoed across social and sports media. But this perspective constitutes a grotesque rewriting of NBA history. This history has been etched by dynasties stocked with Hall of Fame talent.

What makes Durant so different? It is impossible to ignore that what seems to upset people is not so much the creation of these dynasties but who gets to do the creating. Bill Russell doesn’t earn 11 titles in 13 years with the Celtics if he is not playing alongside Hall of Famers Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, John Havlicek, or Tommy Heinsohn. The team was assembled by Red Auerbach. The Showtime Lakers, built around Hall of Famers Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and James Worthy, were put together by another Hall of Fame team architect, Jerry West. We never had a problem with those superteams because they were put together by old white guys in suits.

Today, the levers are being pulled by young black men in high-tops. Durant going to Golden State is no different than Red Auerbach fleecing the Warriors 35 years ago for the rights to Robert Parrish and Kevin McHale and teaming them with Larry Bird to win three titles. Even Michael Jordan, who has been mythologized beyond all possible recognition as someone who won six rings with the Bulls because he was the ultimate alpha-male “killer” player who put a team on his back, had Hall of Fame help. Ask Jordan if he wins anything without Hall of Famers Scottie Pippen or Dennis Rodman who came to the team as a free agent for the Bulls’s last three championships. Titles aren’t won by heroes, surrounded by a “supporting cast,” but collections of genius that did not form by some accident of history. The only thing that has changed in 2016 is who is doing the collecting.

One of the most dispiriting responses to Kevin Durant leaving the OKC Thunder for the Warriors was from 38-year-old Paul Pierce. The future Hall of Famer only punched his ticket to Springfield when his Celtics created their own superteam in 2007, adding Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen. Yet after Durant announced his move, Pierce tweeted derisively, “If u can’t beat um join um.” The only difference, though, between Pierce and Durant is that KD took his future into his own hands, becoming the subject of his own destiny. Pierce was content to be an object in the machinations of his general manager Danny Ainge. That worked out for him because Ainge leveraged his friendship with Timberwolves GM McHale to land Garnett. It’s a great story. It is also a template utterly impossible to replicate.

Yes, there are certainly people—and I am one of them—who are a little bit salty about Durant’s move because we saw the Thunder gel in the playoffs and now we won’t get the storyline to see if they will be able to put it all together for one more run. There are others who just recoil anytime the “rich get richer” in sports, and a team that went 73-9 adding a star like Durant certainly qualifies.

But it would be impossible to ignore, just like when some in Cleveland burned LeBron’s jersey in 2010, that many are just resentful of what they see as a world turned upside down. They want players to be seen and not heard: chess pieces in a game of live-action fantasy sports, moved by powerful men in board rooms who are armed only with their superior intellect and self-serving blather about “the process.” They can’t stand that maybe the best general managers are now the young black stars taking full ownership of their own legacies. They can’t stand that this is a player’s league and any player who doesn’t act as their own general manager, is just playing themselves.

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