Kevin Durant will play basketball for The Golden State Warriors next year. That’s a really tough break for the Oklahoma City Thunder and their fans, I can sympathize. Thunder fans have a right to be disappointed and sad and even a little bit angry but setting the man’s jersey aflame (the sports-world version of burning someone in effigy) and cursing him for a coward and a traitor are not appropriate responses. Fact: Kevin Durant doesn’t owe it to anyone to continue playing in Oklahoma City. Durant is an adult who has made a decision that he thinks will be best for his career and happiness, deciding that he would rather live and work in a different city. That was his choice and his choice alone and if you are a fan of the Thunder who thinks that he should have been considering your feelings while making his choice, which he probably was, you are mistaken.
When a star athlete chooses to leave the team for whom they have long played there are inevitably some hard feelings on the part of the fans. As fans we like to believe that there is a symbiosis between the players, specifically the good ones, and ourselves. We like to inflate our importance to our favorite team’s success; our cheers inspire the team, the money we spend on tickets pays their salaries. While there may be some small element of truth, what is lost in this conception of the fan-player relationship is that fans are not simply paying to watch their team out of the goodness of their hearts; they are buying something that they want, something that the players are selling. While the relationship may be, in many cases if not most, warm, it is still transactional in nature; players get paid to play, fans pay to watch.
There is a weird sense of “You have made us happy with your excellent performance and therefore you owe it to us to continue making us happy and not making somebody else happy.” It’s not the first time we’ve seen this; one of the most prominent, and most bizarre examples of this sense of entitlement from fans is the case of Brett Favre. In 2008 offseason, Favre announced that he would be retiring from NFL football, he would later change his mind and contact the Packers about returning to the team. The Packers ultimately decided that they would not re-sign Favre but they would also not grant him unconditional release, trading him to the Jets. Favre played one season with The Jets, during which Packers fans were interested but quiet. Then, when The Jets released Favre and he signed with The Vikings, The Packers’ hated rival, a lot of Packers fans went nuts, cursing the name of Favre, and finally getting around to burning those jerseys. Never mind that Favre had wanted to return to the Packers but was denied the opportunity, the feeling was that Favre still owed them his loyalty. He did not.
Fans’ frequently expect a player’s loyalty to a team even though their own loyalty hinges almost entirely upon that player’s performance. If Durant were 34 instead of 27 and were his points-per-game somewhere in the mid-teens instead of the high-twenties you can bet that the fans would not be making such a fuss about his decision to leave. Fans feel entitled to a player’s loyalty without any sense of obligation to return that loyalty. A side note to the case of Brett Favre: Nobody made a peep when, in 2006, kicker Ryan Longwell, an eight season veteran of the Packers signed with the Vikings; only superstars owe their entire careers to single teams, I guess.
Durant is undoubtedly thinking about his legacy. Basketball fans are certainly correct in their collective judgment that his winning a championship with The Warriors will certainly mean less to his legacy as an individual player than would his leading the Thunder to a title. But how realistic are the hopes for OKC even with Durant. They’ve been close several times but not able to finish, even when they had James Harden. If Durant were to stay with OKC, how could they improve their roster enough to feel confident in their ability to defeat The Warriors and Spurs? They’ve already lost a key contributor in Serge Ibaka. Durant likely sees the writing on the wall that, if he were to stay with The Thunder, his legacy would be that of long-time second-best player in the league who tragically never won a title; a Charles Barkley/Karl Malone type. Perhaps he realizes that his individual legacy will always be overshadowed by that of his contemporary LeBron James and so he is tying his legacy to the very real opportunity to be a key player on the greatest NBA team ever assembled. Seriously, how good are The Warriors going to be next year? I know that no NBA team will ever go undefeated in the regular season, but they might get very close.
Kevin Durant has the same right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that any other American has, and, in that pursuit, he has decided to play in Oakland rather than Oklahoma City. I do not cast aspersions upon fair Oklahoma but, were I myself given the choice to live and work in the Sooner State or the San Francisco Bay area, I (and, like, everybody I know) would choose the latter, if you have the means, as Durant does. It’s pretty awesome there by all reports. I’m sure Oklahoma City is quite charming in its own right but, you know…
Recently, two of my friends, a couple, decided to move to another town so that he (they are a man and a woman, respectively) could go back to school. I was sad that they were moving, I desperately wanted them to stay because I love them and they enriched my life (they still do, just from out of town). But there is little doubt that it would have been inappropriate for me, in response to them telling me they were leaving, to shout “Fuck you, Jane and Kaz! You should stay because I want you to!” and then burn a picture of them and their baby. They made the choice that they feel is right for their future, the choice that they feel will make them more happy and successful going forward. Kevin Durant has done the same. Fans should think of it this way: Durant has decided he would rather work in a different city. He thinks this is the course that will be best for his career. OKC fans should be grateful for all the seasons Durant did play for the Thunder, the team was mostly awesome during those years, don’t cheapen that happy time like an angry divorcee.
Thunder fans should take heart in the example of LeBron James; really, it’s hard not to draw the parallel. At 26, James left the Cavaliers, a franchise who had failed to build a title-winning team around him, to play for the Miami Heat super-team with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh amidst an uproar of fan-hate and jersey burning. After a winning a couple of titles in Miami, LeBron headed back to the team that drafted him to deliver the city of Cleveland its first NBA championship. It is not entirely implausible that Durant, now 27, might decide to come back after winning a title or two with Golden State. You Sooners would welcome him back with open arms, we all know it.