NEW ORLEANS — Could the most likable athlete in professional sports be playing in our backyard?
Kevin Durant, in his seventh NBA season, has quickly made a case for that title.
The Oklahoma City Thunder star has become a household name, a player whose appeal transcends age, race and gender. It's something few sports stars have been able to do and perhaps something not seen since Michael Jordan.
Durant has endeared himself to the masses by being grounded, generous and, of course, great. And he's kept a stranglehold on hearts through his unrivaled humility.
“He's as authentic as anybody,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “What you see is what you get, and what you see is an amazing, amazing person.”
Durant enters his fifth consecutive NBA All-Star Game on Sunday night in the midst of his most sensational season yet, a year that could soon be capped with Durant taking home his first league Most Valuable Player award.
In a marvelous month of January, Durant averaged 35.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 6.1 assists. He captured the collective attention of the sports world when he turned the league into his personal playground by scoring 30 or more points in 12 straight games, something that hadn't been done in more than a decade. Durant pumped in a career-high 54 points on Jan. 17 and registered more 40-point games in the month (five) than anyone else has produced all season.
When the Thunder comes out of this All-Star Weekend, it will carry a four-game lead over second-place San Antonio in the NBA's Western Conference, largely thanks to Durant.
But unlike other athletes who have ascended to this level of greatness, Durant's appeal hasn't diminished because of his dominance. The jealousy, envy and animosity that great players often receive have yet to land on Durant's doorstep.
They may never.
He's dodged detractors and risen above backlash.
And he's becoming more popular with each made basket.
Over the past year, Durant's awareness among the general public has grown from 29 percent of all Americans to 34 percent of all Americans, according to Henry Schafer, executive vice president for The Q Scores Company. By comparison, Spurs center Tim Duncan, a 16-year veteran, 14-time All-Star and four-time champion is at 33 percent.
“He's probably underutilized as a sports salesman,” Schafer said of Durant.
Meanwhile, Durant's Q Score rating, which measures familiarity and appeal, is 20. The average NBA player is 15. Miami Heat star LeBron James has a 17 Q Score.
“If Durant stays on the track he's on,” Schafer said, “he can start approaching the watermark of Michael Jordan, which is 25 (Q rating) and 79 percent (awareness).”
James, unquestionably the game's biggest darling before famously botching his free agency announcement in 2010, said holding such status comes with a certain level of pressure to maintain that reputation.
“But when you be yourself then it's easy,” James said.
James added Durant is doing all the right things.
“I just think the way he plays the game and his demeanor,” James explained when asked what makes Durant so liked. “He's a guy that never gets in trouble and plays the game the right way. And that's what it's about.”
Durant committed himself to those things long before he entered the league. But he began garnering more attention for how he conducted himself only as he matured from the soft-spoken teenager who was drafted second overall in 2007.
His superb talents aside, Durant's clean-cut image was the first thing that drew in casual fans. He has no piercings or visible tattoos. In fact, one of Durant's few blemishes didn't come until he was four seasons in. It happened when the world learned Durant had marked up his torso and back with ink. The only other stain has been Internet pictures of Durant sitting down inside Hookah lounges, puffing flavored tobacco.
But there might not have been a person on the planet who couldn't relate to Durant's devotion for his family, seen when he routinely concluded games early in his career by kissing his mother before walking off the court.
“He comes across as pretty wholesome,” said TNT NBA analyst Steve Kerr. “He's never in the news for anything negative. And yet … he still has a little bit of an edge, which I think people love, too. Just the competitiveness. You can see what a great guy he is, but you can see also how badly he wants to win.”
Durant made hearts melt in 2011 when he dejectedly whispered into a microphone “I let the city down” following a painful Game 5 home loss to Dallas in the Western Conference Finals. His emotional news conference sparked an outpouring of support while revealing a star who was not self-centered but contrite.
The day before James announced his decision to sign with Miami in a live television special, Durant quietly announced his five-year extension with the Thunder via Twitter. It illustrated Durant's humbleness and earned him even more respect.
The list goes on and on.
He told Sports Illustrated before the 2011 season that he wouldn't pose for the magazine's cover unless Thabo Sefolosha and then-Thunder center Nenad Krstic, two lesser-known teammates, appeared with him.
He privately donated $1 million to Moore following the devastating tornadoes last May. Then he toured the area, offering hugs, handshakes and whatever else he could to uplift a torn city.
He toted the Bible to games and postseason news conferences.
And he credited God for his sizzling streak in January during a live postgame interview on national television.
“What I like about him is his likability is not forced,” said TNT analyst Shaquille O'Neal. “You see a lot of guys (acting for the cameras) and it's forced. But he's natural.”
Durant downplays his likability, deflecting the attention back to his team like he always does.
“When they call our names, they cheer for everybody on our team,” Durant said. “So I would say our team is likable more so than just myself.”
Durant, after seven years, still hasn't given people much reason to not like him. That has as much to do with his likability as anything.
He's done plenty right but more importantly has strayed away from wrong.
“I think he does a good job of just being Kevin. And I don't think that will change,” said Brooks. “I've been around him seven years and he hasn't changed from just being Kevin.”