When Sports Illustrated sought Durant to grace the cover of its NBA preview issue before the start of the 2010-11 season, the Thunder's star refused — unless the magazine allowed him to share the cover with two teammates. Durant then chose less-heralded players Thabo Sefolosha and Nenad Krstic.
Duncan, more of an introvert who would have to be dragged to a photo shoot for a magazine cover, has deferred to teammates in a different way. The future Hall of Famer has sacrificed his scoring in each of the past two seasons as the Spurs have transformed into a more up-tempo team led by point guard Tony Parker. Still, Duncan shows what many say is genuine joy when lesser known players such as Gary Neal and Kawhi Leonard have big games.
“I just like how he's all about team and all about getting better,” Durant said of Duncan. “It's never about him.”
Durant and Duncan also are linked by their drive. Those who have worked closest to them can only shake their heads when speaking about their work ethics.
Brooks, on several occasions this season, has had to cancel scheduled practices the day before simply because he knew players like Durant and fellow stars Russell Westbrook and James Harden would spend too much time in the gym if he didn't. Sometimes, even that is not enough. While announcing upcoming off days, Brooks has had to insist the gym would be closed the following day and that no player would be permitted inside.
Durant noticed a similar passion from Duncan last summer, first when Duncan joined Thunder players for voluntary workouts in Austin, Texas, and then when Durant joined the Spurs during the lockout in San Antonio.
“He was in there working with the rookies and the second- and third-year guys like he was trying to make the team,” Durant remembered. “Seeing a guy that's been through everything spoke volumes.”
Presti calls Durant and Duncan creatures of process.
“They're focused on the quality of the work more so than what the results can bring them,” Presti said.
Durant has never skipped steps. Slow and steady, in his mind, has always trumped immediate gratification.
“I always work as if I'm preparing for 10 years down the line,” Durant said. “I've been like that since I was 9 years old, working and not knowing when it was going to pay off. Hopefully it does here soon.”
In Oklahoma City, shreds of success already can be seen, from Durant's scoring titles to the Thunder's incremental win total to the compassion with which the franchise and its baby-faced leader has reserved for its community.
Little by little, Durant is helping to build something bigger than basketball, a culture that years from now will be revered in the same way the Spurs have been for more than a decade.
That's one thing Durant doesn't have in common with Duncan. When Duncan arrived, he had David Robinson to lean on and learn from. Duncan simply took the torch.
Durant was the first one through the door in OKC.
“I think it's almost more remarkable with Kevin considering the generation that he is,” said Thunder guard Derek Fisher. “To think about Kevin being 23 years old in this era, to have Tim Duncan-like qualities in terms of his personality, his demeanor, his all-business attitude and his desire to have his teammates share in his success, that says a lot.
“Now, essentially, the only part left is to start adding those rings.”