Breakups just don’t happen suddenly. They work their way to their conclusion at a glacial pace. Small annoyances grow in the soil of the mind, until they take root and become strangling vines on a person’s psyche, until someone is forced to take drastic action. The abrupt endings leave both sides confused, hurt, liable to second guess a laundry list of decisions and actions that led to this point. When those actions are laid bare, usually they show a rough road map that the two sides were heading for a split, even if it was not obvious at first glance.
This Wednesday, two separate profiles dropped, one by Lee Jenkins in Sports Illustrated on Russell Westbrook and one in Rolling Stone by Paul Solotaroff on Kevin Durant that when read in conjunction (and you should read both, they are excellent) show that Durant’s free agency decision was not the result of some fancy meeting in the Hamptons or an effort in brand building, but the natural outcome of two superstars who tried to make it work, but were fundamentally different people, with different life experiences and long term goals for themselves.
Russell Westbrook is a creature of habit. He shoots for a half hour every morning – at 9 am. He eats breakfast at the same time every day – 9:30 am. He calls both of his parents before and after every game. He’s loyal, showed in the piece that he refused to transfer to a higher profile high school in order to get better looks from colleges because, “that school was where I’m from. It’s where my friends went. I was never going to leave. I was never going to be a follower.” He’s more likely to be at home with his wife, dreaming up new designs for his clothing collection, than be at a club, dancing the night away with rappers and teammates. Westbrook was a kid who just wanted a scholarship, never dreamed he would be one of the faces of the NBA, never had the pressure that “being a chosen one” brings with it.
Kevin Durant was special. From an early age, his NBA stardom was preordained, invested in heavily by family members, coaches, clothing brands and even the neighborhood he grew up in. He was a lottery ticket, a symbol of hope for a town in Maryland – Seat Pleasant – that doesn’t have much of it. That’s a lot of pressure for a young kid, so KD internalized it, closing himself off as he singlehandedly worked towards his goal of NBA superstardom. Multiple high schools, long grueling nights in the gym and out of state trips for AAU tournaments doesn’t leave much time for socializing or experiencing life. Experiencing all the joys that life has to offer wasn’t even something that crossed Durant’s mind until he broke his foot in 2014, when for the first time since he was kid, took some time off from basketball and got to step back and reevaluate. Solotaroff’s piece shows that what Durant found was that while he had amassed great wealth and accolades, he hadn’t lived. So he decided to live. He cleared his house of the hanger-on’s from home, leaving just a small circle around him and set out to see all the joy in the world. That was the state of mind Durant had when he entered free agency last summer, the state of mind of someone who wanted something more out of life.
Compare that to Westbrook. Westbrook is a man of routine, hard to get a read on but fiercely loyal when you gain his trust. Durant is a man who had been living for others for so long, who had finally decided to break that routine and live for himself. Their personalities were not similar. Westbrook a full-on OCD neat freak with no tattoos, that doesn’t drink, while Durant has spent his off-season partying with Draymond Green and getting a litany of his musical heroes tattooed on his leg. Both writers lay out that these two were never best buds, more akin to the guy in your office you bullshit with during projects than someone you would have a social dinner with. But you can’t have expected them too. Durant, when he entered the league, was immediately saddled with the expectations of not IF but WHEN he would start winning rings, when he would start moving merchandise at the level of a Kobe or a Lebron, when would he would put Oklahoma City on his shoulders as they fought for legitimacy in the NBA. People weren’t even sure if Russ was a starting PG in the league when the Thunder drafted him and his emergence as one of the singular most electrifying scorers since Iverson was not preordained by a flashy Jordan marketing campaign.
On the court, they were never a harmonious duo. Westbrook still takes too many ill-advised shots too early in the shot clock. The Thunder’s offense, under both coaches Scotty Brooks and Billy Donovan, devolved into the “Your turn, my turn” predictability that plagued the early Big-3 Heat. Imagine having to deal with that for years and then, a year after a life changing epiphany – finding JOY in life, the Golden State Warriors come swaggering in, with their beautiful, selfless, “pass-up-a-good-shot-for-a-better-shot’’ style of play that is almost scary in how perfectly crafted it is for your game? How do you say not to that, to say yes to re-upping with a team that has not shown a commitment to spending the money it takes to win (*coughHARDENTRADEcough*) and who’s other star player’s game is such a poor fit for you? That’s was the decision Durant was faced with this off-season. Unsurprisingly, he chose to go play in that situation that was best constructed for him to succeed (something anyone in any other line of work besides sports would take no shit for) and to find the joy that he was so desperately seeking.
Sometimes break-ups are messy. The early silence from the two of them after Durant’s decision was noticeable (KD did text Westbrook his decision just moments after the Players Tribune article went live. Westbrook didn’t respond). But as the season fast approaches, the sniping in the media has gotten louder and louder. There was Durant’s quote about the differences in GS and OKC: “I feel really grateful to play for a team like that and play with a bunch of players who are selfless and enjoy the game in its purest form,” which many took as a direct shot at #0 (It also led to the ‘leader in the clubhouse’ for quote of the season so far by Russ, in response “That’s cute, man. That’s cute.”) Westbrook might claim he’s done talking about Durant already, but all eyes are on November 3, when Golden State and Oklahoma meet for the first time this season, in a game that already has the feel of a big fight PPV. Who knows what the reaction will be when KD and Russ face off for the first time, any interaction with an ex is always laced with uncertainty, but it will definitely be something that was a long time coming.