A Basketball Fairy Tale in Middle America
N.B.A. scoring champions are, as a rule, weirdos and reprobates and in some cases diagnosable sociopaths. Something about dominating your opponent, publicly, more or less every day of your life, in the most visible aspect of your sport, tends to either warp your spirit or to be possible only to those whose spirits are already warped. Michael Jordan, when he wasn’t busy scoring, was busy punching a teammate in the face and gambling away small fortunes. Allen Iverson, in his spare time, recorded an aesthetically and morally terrible rap album and gave an iconic speech denigrating the very notion of practice. Kobe Bryant is and shall forever be Kobe Bryant. Wilt, Shaq, Pistol Pete, Dominique, McGrady, McAdoo, Rick Barry — it’s a near-solid roster of dysfunction: sadists, narcissists, malcontents, knuckleheads, misanthropes, womanizers, addicts and villains. While it’s true that plain old N.B.A. superstars do occasionally manage to be model citizens (cf. Tim Duncan, Grant Hill, Steve Nash), there is something irredeemable about a scoring champion.
Kevin Durant, the star of the Oklahoma City Thunder, is the youngest scoring champion in N.B.A. history. At 24, he has led the league in scoring for three consecutive seasons, and all signs point to him keeping that up for the foreseeable future. It follows, then, that Durant should also be a prodigy of a head case. He should have been arrested for reckless driving at around age 9, broken his hand in a strip-club brawl at age 12 and accidentally shot his chauffeur no later than age 15.
Instead, Durant has a reputation roughly on par with Gandhi. He seems to be — not just for a scoring champion, but for anyone — almost inhumanly humble. His motto, which he intones constantly, is “Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.” His pregame ritual involves kissing his mother, as does his postgame ritual. Once, in college, during probably the greatest freshman season of all time, a reporter asked Durant if he realized that he had just single-handedly outscored the entire opposing team in the second half of a game. Durant answered, with absolute sincerity, “Who, me?” When I asked the Thunder coach, Scott Brooks, to tell me about his superstar, he laughed. “Whatever you say nice, you can print it out and I’ll just say I said it,” he said. “Because it’s true.”