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Kevin Durant: ‘You’re always going to have the ghost of your past’

Kevin Durant: ‘You’re always going to have the ghost of your past’

OAKLAND, Calif. – For nearly five months, Kevin Durant has been a reluctant villain, a failed fence-mender and a repeated explainer – so much more that he never wanted and couldn’t quite understand, all because he chose to play basketball somewhere else. But when the Oklahoma City Thunder came to town on Thursday, Durant’s former team finally allowed him to simply be a Golden State Warrior.

Durant had already played four games in the uniform and experienced the hate that his presence in blue and gold has yielded. But there is something about showing up to an arena, where familiar faces reminded him that he is now the enemy – either by mocking him through cryptic clothing choices or trash talk rooted in too-close-for-comfort familiarity – that can make moving on that much easier.

The emotion Durant thought would be overwhelming, the nostalgia he thought would be distracting quickly dissipated. He hadn’t come to reminisce on an eight-year run with a city and a nine-year overall run with a franchise; he came to handle his business and leave all of that behind.

“Those eight years, you can’t erase. You’re always going to have the ghost of your past, just always lingering around,” Durant told The Vertical after scoring a season-high 39 points in the Warriors’ 122-96 victory. “It’s something I’m never going to forget. Something that’s never going to go away. I’m just trying to move forward, look forward, but also realize how important the past was and that formed me into who I am today. I’m not throwing that part of my life in the trash. But now I’m on to something new, trying to keep growing in this situation, trying to keep getting better overall, as a basketball player, man, everything. Just keep moving forward, that’s the most important thing in my life.”

Russell Westbrook trolled Durant with his outfit, hopping off the team bus at Oracle Arena wearing an orange pinny that read, “Official Photographer” – an apparent shot at one of Durant’s favorite passions, photography (when the Thunder visited the Warriors in Oakland for the first time last season, Durant spent the next night taking pictures of the Super Bowl in Santa Clara). Westbrook denied he was trying to send any sort of message to his former teammate the past eight seasons, the fashion expert explaining that his clothing choice was for “no particular reason. There is no story behind it. I don’t wear anything for anybody.”

In the end, it didn’t matter. Whatever mental edge Westbrook tried to hold over Durant, or that he has held in the aftermath of Durant’s crushing departure – from posting photos of cupcakes on Instagram, to taking veiled swipes in commercials – were all moot because the Thunder were simply overmatched.

Oklahoma City still has talent. Westbrook remains one of the game’s most dynamic players, and has a chance to contend for MVP if he can drag this inexperienced crew into the postseason. But Durant left a hole the size of Chesapeake Energy Arena with the Thunder – one that won’t be replaced – and a pain that will only heal, if ever, in time. Right now, it all seems too raw, too soon for reconciliation. And no matter how many times Durant tries to make right the exit he wishes was executed better, no words or actions will bring back that love. He’s gone now. He belongs to someone else.

“I wouldn’t say I was defensive, just trying to be delicate with the organization I was with, the fans. I know they’re super emotional and upset about it,” Durant told The Vertical. “When I talk, I also want to be considerate of the fan base here. So it’s kind of hard to juggle everything. I’m only human. I’ve made mistakes. Definitely some things I would relax on, and think about more, than what I did. But for the most part, I don’t have any regrets. I learn from every situation. And my heart was always in the right place, so whoever doesn’t believe it, that’s on them. I know where I’m at with that.”

The fractured relationship between Durant and Westbrook, two of the game’s best players was the overriding storyline entering the game, and so much speculation centered on how they would respond to each other – if they would shake hands, hug it out, or choke it out. But Durant and Westbrook mostly ignored each other on the floor, aside from taking turns swatting each other’s shots during a venting-of-frustrations session in the third period.

Before the game, Westbrook and Durant both attended chapel to hear a message entitled, “Called by God.” The first time they shared a room since Durant sent Westbrook a goodbye text message wasn’t much for reconciliation or sentimentality. Those in attendance said the two players acknowledged each other’s presence but didn’t interact, even as Westbrook was first to leave the room, towel covering his head, and Durant followed, hoodie swooped over his head.

The players with the most memorable exchanges with Durant either never played with him or barely played with him. Jerami Grant, in his second game since arriving in a trade with Philadelphia, dunked on Durant and stared him down, inciting a vengeful wrath from which the Thunder couldn’t recover. Durant went to work in the post, went around them on drives and shot over the top of them from deep. Reigning two-time MVP Stephen Curry was content letting Durant take over as he dropped off a behind-the-back bounce pass that hit his new teammate in stride for another deflating 3-pointer.

Enes Kanter, who had some amusing reactions to Durant’s defection last summer on Twitter, started spouting off the mouth from the bench late in the second period. But he only seemed to inspire more fury, both in Durant’s feisty words and explosive, inspired play. Afterward, Durant burned Kanter some more.

“How many minutes did he play? Three minutes. I’m trying to focus on whoever is on the court. He’s trying to talk to me on the sideline. I’m sure he’s going to put something on Twitter,” Durant said. “I know those guys over there, and they know me. Trash talking is part of it. If you talk, I’ll talk back. I don’t really say much, but if you start it, I’ll finish it. It was a fun game. No ill will. It’s a part of playing. Talking trash is part of the game. We leave it on the court.”

Durant’s new teammates were prepared to have his back, knowing how much the game meant. But instead, Durant put his teammates on his back with a cleansing performance, displaying that while he has been uncomfortable with the reaction to his decision, he has always been secure with continuing his career with Golden State. The overreactions and second-guessing of his every move have been unnerving but Durant isn’t concerned with creating some cartoonish, superhero persona.

“We are real people,” Durant told The Vertical. “And I’ve learned in life, it’s easier for me when I act like I don’t have everything together. I can’t come out and just act like I’m super tough all the time, or have this huge shell up. Because I’m in this environment more than I’m with family, friends. So it’s easier for me when I own up to who I am, my flaws, my insecurities, portray it, get better from it and inspire someone who is feeling the same way and don’t want to show who they are. It’s a great space to be in at this age.”

Durant won’t see the Thunder again until January, won’t return to Oklahoma City for the first time until February. By then, the Warriors could well be on their way toward becoming the dominant force many expected they’d become when Durant decided he needed something new. But even in his short time with his new surroundings, Durant is noticeably content. The smile is genuine, much like his hope that this experiment will deliver the desired result.

“Everything is not perfect always, but when you’re in your good space you can deal with things better,” Durant told The Vertical. “It’s not even about who I play for. It’s not about how many points I score. But when you start to figure out yourself, what you like and not caring what other people got to say, it’s a good space and I hope everybody gets there.”


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