This story appears in the Oct. 31 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
KEVIN DURANT HAS SEEN THE YOUTUBE VIDEOS. The ones where he drains so many threes the crowd rushes the court to touch the hem of his garment. The ones where his step-backs and crossovers turn defenders into extras from The Walking Dead. The ones where, with his Bambi gait, he shuts down more crap than Congress. The ones where he out-LeBrons LeBron. On his extended summer vacation, Durant took his game to the playground courts of LA, DC and NYC. The highlights became the "Lazy Sunday" of the lockout. On them, freed from the formality of the NBA, Durant plays with frivolity. Nothing is at stake. The game is just the game. And he is just a kid, standing on the court, letting the crowd love him.
DURANT RAINED 48 POINTS at the CP3 Foundation All-Star Game in early October. Scored 50 a week later at the Drew vs. Goodman rematch. In one now-legendary August game at Harlem's Rucker Park, he dropped 66 points, his shots falling hard like a fat lady's pants. There were more than 150 clips of the game on YouTube.
By mid-October, the most popular one, Kevin Durant Catches Fire in Harlem, had 3.2 million views. To watch it is to witness a crowd growing incredulous, then delirious. To watch it is to see a man having a moment.
It's a month after the videos first began circulating, and Durant is eating wings at Hooters. He does not register the orange-and-tan waitresses or their tank tops. His eyes are fixed on flat screens and football. "This summer?" he asks, wrinkling his forehead. "All I was doing was hooping. I didn't feel any different. It wasn't anything I hadn't done before."
When told that the word going around the hoops world is that the games prove he's finally grown up, that baby Durant has at long last become a man, that he'll emerge from the lockout as the league's new alpha male and claim a fistful of rings for his long-suffering franchise, he scoffs. "I did it because I wanted to play," he says. "Simple."
At 23, Durant looks both older and younger than he is. His face still stubbornly holds on to its round-cheeked boyishness, a teenage Jamie Foxx. But his eyes seem from another, darker time -- wiser, more resigned. Durant insists that the player people swooned over on the playground is the same player who dons the royal-blue Thunder uniform. He figures that the lockout just left people hungry, that a saltine tastes like steak to a starving man.
"I felt like I was just being me," he says, swallowing a fried cheese stick. His pickup games were not, he stresses, about PR, nor were they about staying in the lockout limelight. "I was actually surprised by the attention it got," he says with some chagrin. "I wasn't doing it to get noticed."
He says "noticed" the way some people say "cancer." Notice is not something Durant enjoys much. This too is evident in the videos, where even at Rucker, after the fans erupt in a roar of gratitude, Durant doesn't smile. Or smirk. Or nod, hell yeah. His face remains impassive, Easter Island flat, as hysteria swells around him like a tidal wave. "I keep my feelings inside," he says. "I don't want people to see."
He's always been that way, as deep as still water. He never fussed as a baby, never acted out as a kid. He sucked his finger, but the doctor told his mother, "Children who do that are very self-sufficient," so she stopped worrying. When Durant and his older brother Tony battled, she forced them to hug it out until they made up, embrace for minutes if necessary, a remedy that ended only when they kissed each other on the cheek.
"Kevin is understated, a gentle spirit," says his mom, Wanda Pratt, 44. "And he views all people, no matter what they've done or how they've lived, as inherently good." She sighs. "It is a luxury to be able to look at people that way."
There's a Gumpian sweetness about Durant, a prevailing sentimentality. His Nike shoes feature the initials of his grandmother, mother, father, brother and childhood coaches -- including Big Chucky, a mentor who was killed six years ago outside Durant's hometown of Washington, D.C., shot dead on the street at age 35, after which there was a brief eclipse in the sunshine of Durant's outlook. He concluded that the nice way was maybe for wimps, that he should butch up, push back. He seethed on the court. His game, in turn, suffered. He was only 16, but he recognized that attitude "wasn't for me," that he was never meant to be hard. "I don't understand how people get joy out of hurting others," he says. He recommitted to hope and faith. Grew sweeter. Wrote "Keep Positive!" on every shoe. "I don't think I've met anyone who says, 'I don't like him,'" says Pratt. What, after all, is not to like?
"His image is so clean," says Thunder teammate Nick Collison, who at 31 qualifies as team elder statesman. "People think he's a choirboy."
Isn't he? Collison mulls it over. Laughs. Says yes. "He's just a kid, a really good kid. I hope people don't put too much pressure on him."
A DOZEN THINGS YOU PROBABLY don't know about Kevin Durant:
He has never been in love.
He has a music production studio in his house.
He has been known to rap.
His back tattoo took eight hours.
It isn't finished.
His inner voice is often "just a buzzing noise."
He used to sleep in church.
He has no regrets (not even missing the prom).
"My whole time at school, I went to one party," he says. "I was in basketball shorts and shoes. I didn't like it. It was out of my realm. I was very shy. I didn't have many friends. To this day, I still walk with my head down."
If he had 48 hours to live, he would spend it with his family ... in the gym.
The last time he cried was in 2010, when the Thunder lost to the Lakers in the playoffs.
The first time somebody wanted a picture with him was when he was a junior in high school. "I asked, 'Why?' And they said, 'Because you are going to be famous someday.'"
THE WORLD NEEDS ITS GREATS. Collectively we yearn for The One who will rise above the rest, showing us by his ascent that there is purpose in this life. For a while, this was LeBron, now tainted goods. Kobe, stitched together, a wunderkind turned sage, is not going gently, but going nonetheless. And D-Wade, like our country's infrastructure, isn't aging well. Which leaves Durant to fill the aspirational sneakers MJ left behind -- even if hand-me-downs don't always fit.
"I want to sit back and enjoy it all," says Durant. "But at the same time, I think about all the things I did to get here, and it overwhelms me. It seems so crazy, you know?"
He already has a $60 million Nike deal, among other endorsements. (True to form, Durant requested his shoes be sold at the lowest price possible so kids could actually afford them.) Since last season's NBA All-Star weekend, Durant all but seems to be the only player featured in league marketing. "There are so many articles about how Kevin is going to save the NBA," says Collison, "how he is a new kind of player, one of a kind."
Not all babies, however, are born to be The Man.
Durant is quiet. Decent. Upstanding. A mama's boy. Even his body seems a testament to his modesty. Long, lean and whittled tight -- Dr. J if Dr. J never went through puberty -- his is not the physique of a man who spends untold hours gazing at mirrors. He is embarrassed by ego. He feels unseemly boasting, so he never does. "Stay humble," he says. "That is the goal."
Fine for church, but humble doesn't sell McRibs. "Kevin never thinks about building his brand," says Collison. "It isn't in his nature to sell himself."
Durant's five-year contract extension, worth about $86 million, was announced via a simple tweet. "Talk gets you nowhere," Durant says, and so he stays mum, as he has since he was a child, when he never -- not once -- told anyone he was going to be a star. "It's really basic. All I have ever wanted is to play basketball."
He did not allow distractions to exist then. He would play in the dark. He would play on the sun. Offer him the choice now of being first and broke or runner-up with five mansions and eight cars and Durant doesn't hesitate: He'll take first and busted. And he knows just how that sounds.
"People think I'm boring," Durant says, his voice soft. "I hear, 'You don't have a personality.' Or I'm too nonchalant." He shrugs. "I can't focus on what people think."
He tried that once, in Seattle, after joining the NBA as the second overall pick of the 2007 draft. He was a baby among men, 18 years old, all bony legs and promise. "They moved out Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis," he says. "People were expecting me to be the guy. And everything I did, it wasn't enough." After shooting 40 percent in the first half of the season, he was tagged a bad investment. He was docked for being wimpy, for falling to the floor like a drunken sorority girl. Conventional wisdom says that champions are killers. MJ was an assassin. Magic and Bird were pathologically competitive. Isiah's engine ran on a fuel of petty grievances. But Durant was too nice. Nice holds no grudges. Nice steps on no throats in pursuit of a ring. Durant heard it all.
"Being in the spotlight, it overwhelmed me," he says. "It was nerve-racking, to be honest."
So he stopped paying attention to the noise. Worked harder. Asked coach Scott Brooks to let him play entire games. Came to practice 90 minutes early. Opted for 200 pushups instead of 100. "I kept doing what I had always done," he says. "I had to believe it was the best choice." He shot over 50 percent in March, got his scoring average over 20 points per game for the season. Rookie of the Year followed. Then two scoring titles. A trip to the Western Conference semifinals in 2011. But the Mr. Cellophane tag proved harder to remove. It takes banners in the rafters to do that.
"No matter what you do, some people aren't going to be happy," he says. He talks about LeBron, how he's "the most-hated player just because he left Cleveland." How "nobody cares" when a team cuts a player.
"I wish there were a little more loyalty," he says with genuine confusion. "But you can't escape the haters. I knew that coming in." Durant smiles, then clarifies. "Let's not call them haters. Let's just say there are people who are very opinionated about me," he says, laughing. Does he care? Durant shakes his head. "Not even a little."
THERE ARE ROACHES on the movie set in Baton Rouge. Durant is sweltering in the late summer Louisiana heat, blocking a scene for his Warner Premiere film, working title Switch. The movie follows the Space Jam model of hallmark players expanding off-court brands through family-friendly comedies. In the movie, Durant plays Kevin Durant, only this Kevin Durant loses his mojo to a young fan. Wacky high jinks ensue.
"You wanna see acting?" says director John Whitesell. "Watch Kevin look bad at basketball."
Durant did not want to do the film. "I caved to peer pressure," he jokes, kind of. Heat came from three sources -- the studio, the NBA and mom -- and all were insistent that he was the only player for the part. He's the first athlete since Jordan to star in a U.S. movie partnered by the NBA.
Still, Durant is grateful for the work. The 14-hour days have kept him busy, distracted him from the lockout and the uncertainty it brings. In between takes he's been known to sign autographs for extras. A security guard calls his daughter and hands the phone to Durant, who talks to her for five minutes. If ever a man might succumb to the urge to big-time, it's when his name's on the back of a movie-set chair. Durant seems not to know this. "I go with the flow," he says. "I wanted to make it to the pros for my mother, brother, godfather, grandmother. If it all ended tomorrow, I'd be okay. Because my life now? It's all bonus."
IT'S A MUGGY SATURDAY MORNING in late September, and Durant is practicing alone at the LSU gym. Kanye blasts over the speakers. Last week in Austin, the Texas alum hosted a team workout. All but five players came, assembling like a baller flash mob, logging hours on the court, a unit trying to stay nimble, connected. Durant knows the lockout won't last forever, and even if it does, he feels responsibility as the linchpin in the already tight-knit team. "A man holds himself accountable," Durant says. "For me, it goes from small to big. Something as simple as folding your clothes and putting them in a drawer."
Even though he worked on the movie until after midnight, Durant shoots for hours, his movements economical. Quiet. Unless he misses.
Durant follows every ball until it meets nylon. His brow knit, he watches the way one would watch a toddler waddling toward the street. He drops his gaze only after makes, then lowers his chin to his chest, scratches his head with his middle finger, tugs down his shorts a quarter-inch. He does this every shot. There is no variation. Shot, track, drop, scratch, tug. If there is a pivot before, Durant adds a grunt.
Every now and then he dunks, after which he looks down, mildly discomfited by his extravagance. This is how he was taught, back at his boyhood rec center near DC. No playground games allowed. They dent form, introduce bad habits. Durant has no bad habits.
While he practices, the news comes that the NBA has canceled the first round of preseason games. Durant keeps shooting.
Outside, after his shower, Durant pulls his backpack over both shoulders, shuffles past the Shaquille O'Neal statue gleaming in the midday sun. "That is one of the greatest things I have ever seen," he says, walking around the perimeter, appreciating every angle. He then mentions the live tiger down the road, the LSU mascot. "It just paces back and forth in that cage," he says. "It's cool and all. But I feel bad for him just the same."
MEDIUM WINGS. LEMONADE. Durant is back at Hooters for supper. Tomorrow's a day off. He plans to watch the Saints game. Maybe some UFC. He's excited about his upcoming birthday. He's celebrating in Miami. There will be a party on a yacht, then later at a club. "It's going to be great," he says eagerly. "My mom is planning it!"
He tells a story about how, as a kid, he imagined that the life of an NBA player was "glitz and glamour. Every night going out to the club. Buying everything you wanted. Lots of girls." He chuckles. "That's not my life. I try to stick to being the same person I was as a kid."
Not that he hasn't made some big changes. Most of his chest and back were tattooed this summer. The photo of a shirtless Durant, inked neck to navel, blew up the web almost as much as his summer-league clips. Some speculated that body art + 66 points = a tougher, manlier Durant. Others noted that the tattoos all reside beneath his basketball jersey -- deliberate obfuscation? A ruffian hiding in plain sight? Perhaps the KD everyone thought they knew was in fact someone completely different.
"Are you kidding me?" Durant says, rolling his eyes. "I have always liked tattoos. I was just afraid of needles before."
Near Atlanta he found a shop, got over his fear. Durant says he just woke up one morning and decided that would be the day. "And I will get more. All the news about it is silly. Stereotyping. I was the same person two minutes before I got my tattoos that I am now." When asked who that person is, he answers quickly: "A hard worker. Loyal, caring, selfless. Too selfless sometimes. People take advantage."
He pushes his napkin around the table, considers other changes he'd like to make. "I think sometimes I miss out on good things by being too detached. Like if Obama walked through the door, I'd be like, 'All right, so what?' and finish eating my food. I never get too excited about things."
He takes a quiet breath. "I think sometimes if I could change that about myself, maybe I'd be in love, or not as alone. Maybe my life would be fuller or something." Just then a girl comes over, sidles into his booth, sits with one thigh over his lap.
"You somebody, right?" she asks.
Durant smiles. "I guess so."
The girl has her friend snap a picture, looks over Durant top to bottom, then leaves, giggling.
Durant waves goodbye, picks up a chicken wing, takes a tiny bite. "I've met Jay-Z a bunch of times," he says. "And he is just so down-to-earth. You would never think he's a billionaire rapper. It spoke volumes to me." He wipes his mouth with his napkin. "Everyone in the world knows this guy, and he acts like he's nobody."
Allison Glock is a contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine.