A sweat-drenched Kevin Durant sauntered over to a row of black leather seats just off the adjoining courts inside the Thunder's training center, plopping down in the first bolted-in chair, finally taking a load off following another day at the office, another practice session that ended with him as the last player on the court, another 15 extra minutes maniacally adding more weapons to his arsenal.
Over the next 17 minutes, Durant opened up about his career in a sit-down interview with The Oklahoman, discussing his trials, tribulations and triumphs, failures, focus and future.
By the time he was done, Durant left no doubt where his mindset is as he enters his seventh NBA season. It was as clear as the sweat-stained imprint the back of his No. 35 practice jersey left on that leather seat.
“I want to be the greatest,” Durant said. “I want to be remembered as one of the greatest. When they redo that top 50 players (of all time), I want to be a part of that.”
Make no mistake. In Durant's eyes, that's not solely an individual achievement. He's over those. Winning, he says, is how he defines greatness.
“This whole thing is a fraternity. But it's a different fraternity when you're staring at a group of guys that won championships, MVPs, and you can say you're on that level with them in your career,” Durant said. “It's only a handful of guys, maybe 15, 20 guys, that you can get in that conversation with. And I'm nowhere near there yet. So that's where I want to be.”
Durant spent his first six seasons proving he was a stud. Now he wants to be known as simply a champion. The past two seasons showed Durant just how elusive a title can be. In 2012, the Thunder took a 1-0 lead on Miami in the NBA Finals before losing four straight. Last season, the Thunder's playoff run was derailed by a season-ending knee injury to Russell Westbrook.
It's not that those setbacks sparked a heightened sense of urgency for Durant. It's just at this stage in his career, championships are now all that truly matter.
“It's always been important to me. I always was one of those guys that played to win,” Durant said. “But, first coming into the league, I was a little confused because it's so many great teams every night. It was no cupcake games like it was in high school and college. Every night, you got to come to play because these are great players. They were all something coming in. And my thoughts coming into the league was, of course, to win, but once I got on the court it was to establish myself. That's what I thought. Grow as a player and then worry about that.
“But now, I've played in the All-Star Games; I've scored 30 points, 40 points before; had a triple-double before. I feel individually, like stats and stuff, I feel like I did my job with that and I established myself. But it's about winning championships, and the first thing I got to get out of my head is ‘I.' It's like, ‘I want to win a championship.' It's not about that because one guy doesn't win it, two guys don't win it, three guys don't win it. So it's about the whole team, the whole organization winning a championship.”
This is where Durant danced with demons last year.
Few on the outside world knew it, but chasing a championship swallowed up Durant a season ago. In many ways, he succumbed to the pressure our sports culture puts on star players. He felt he needed to be perfect. Felt his team had to perform flawlessly.
“Last year, I was obsessed with it,” Durant said of winning a title. “Like, I wasn't going to sleep because I wanted to win so bad. I was screaming at my teammates, at the refs, at the coaches. I got mad because I thought ‘if we have a bad game here, we're not going to win a championship.'”
That edge, Durant said, is part of the reason he was uncharacteristically whistled for 12 technical fouls last season — matching his combined total from his five previous seasons.
“So I'm not going to let that overtake my mind,” said Durant of his championship chase. “I mean, of course I want to win it, but I'm not obsessed with it. I'm going to put in the work to help my team, but I'm not going to be obsessed with it because that's when I compromise myself, and most of the time it doesn't work out.”
Durant's new approach will challenge the perceived prerequisite star players are said to need before punching their championship ticket. Michael Jordan made no bones about being obsessed with winning. Kobe Bryant has been widely praised for having an inner drive that rivals Jordan's. Those two have 11 championships between them. Contrarily, before he led the Heat to the last two championships, LeBron James was widely criticized for not having that same win-at-all-cost attitude.
But Durant knew a change was needed. He looked himself in the mirror and admitted he saw someone who had become so wrapped up in being perfect in his pursuit of a title that he lost his way.
“Maybe it's not (a bad thing),” Durant said of the obsession. “But for me, it was just, like, I wasn't enjoying it no more. It was more like a job more than just going out there having fun playing the game. I never want to lose the love. Once you lose love of something and you make it into a job then …”
“Like, for me, when I was coming in I was like “If I miss a shot, I'm going to miss this shot in Game 6 of the Finals,'” he said. “‘If we don't play defense this game, we're not going to play defense in the Finals.' Like, I was thinking like that. And I was going home and I would get so mad over small stuff. That's not me. So I was losing myself over what people thought, what other people thought.”
Durant masked his inner struggles with a sensational season. He became only the sixth player in NBA history to shoot at least 50 percent from the field, 40 percent from the 3-point line and 90 percent from the free throw line. Larry Bird was the only other player to compile those shooting percentages while averaging at least 28 points.
But it wasn't enough, and Durant knew it.
“Lately, guys that are main guys on the team, the world beats them down for not winning a championship, or not coming through for your team every time,” Durant said, pounding his fist into an open palm. “The world beats you down for that type of stuff. And I was letting that get into my mind, listening to what other people say. It was really taking control of my life basically, because I was letting it seep into my personal relationships, just everything. And now, I'm playing free and having fun with the game and just letting it all hang out.”
For now, Durant seems at peace. But when the real games resume Wednesday so will the expectations … and the pressure … and the questions.
Two years ago, the Thunder was the darlings of the league. Today, because it traded James Harden, because it lost Kevin Martin, because it didn't replace Martin and because it is now without Westbrook to start the year, the Thunder has as many doubters as ever when it comes to the team's championship potential.
Durant doesn't care.
“I want to be just totally transparent and honest,” he said. “I don't care about nobody else. I want to use some words but I can't use them right now. But so what?
“I'm not worried about nobody else. I'm not going to lose sleep over nobody that's not in my personal circle or in this (organization's) circle. I'm not losing sleep over nobody.”
“Nobody on the other team, what they got to say about my opinions or anything, I'm not losing sleep over none of that,” Durant said. “Because I'm enjoying myself playing this game. I'm blessed to just be in this league. You can bash me. You can bash our team. So what? I mean, at the end of the day, I'm still doing something I love every single day, and I'm fighting for something bigger than myself. And that's a great feeling.”