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SportsColumnistsAl Iannazzone

Kevin Durant shouldn’t be getting the villain treatment after decision

Kevin Durant during the NBA Western Conference

Kevin Durant during the NBA Western Conference Finals on June 4, 2016. Credit: EPA / LARRY W. SMITH

People are saying that Kevin Durant turned his back on Russell Westbrook, the Thunder and Oklahoma City. They’re calling him weak and a coward for not giving it one more shot and for trying to shortcut his way to a championship.

Durant took the easy route by signing with the Warriors, or as Paul Pierce tweeted, “If u can’t beat um join um.”

Everyone is up in arms because Durant made a choice that wasn’t popular. He felt he had gotten as far as he could with Westbrook and the Thunder and that he needed a change. “I made an unpopular decision, but I can live with it,” Durant said. “I wanted a new chapter in my life.”

If the Thunder hadn’t squandered a 3-1 series lead over the Warriors in the Western Conference finals, if it had gotten a few more stops in Game 6, maybe OKC wins the series and the title, and Durant stays.

But that didn’t happen and Durant joined the Warriors, creating a mega-power with sublime shooting, scoring and versatility everywhere.

Without Durant, the Warriors won the NBA championship in 2015, then won a record 73 games and lost in seven games in the 2016 NBA Finals. With him, two-time MVP Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, they will be expected to top 73 victories. Hey, why not shoot to go undefeated?

Sixteen playoff wins and holding up a championship trophy in late June are what matters most to the former MVP, though.

It’s not good for basketball. The NBA likes to promote competitive balance, but only a handful of teams realistically have a chance to capture a championship each year, and now it’s decreased by one next season.

But winning is what defines players. You do whatever it takes, and if it means moving on, so be it. That’s what Durant did. His reputation as a star has taken a hit. But as a person, Durant did nothing wrong.

Many of us have left relationships or jobs for what we thought would be a better opportunity for happiness or success. It’s a part of life.

In sports, the player who leaves his team is cast as a traitor and villain or not a true star because he took a shortcut. You lose respect for him. You hope he loses and his former team wins more without him.

“We live in this superhero comic book world where you’re a superhero or a villain,” Durant said. “I made a decision based on what I wanted to do.”

This will follow Durant for the rest of his career, or until he wins a championship. If he does, it will all be worth it for him, and really, that’s what counts.

No one received more criticism for bolting than LeBron James when he left Cleveland in 2010 to join Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh in Miami. The way James did it, with the ill-conceived “Decision,” surely contributed to all the vitriol he received.

James was basketball’s most hated man until he led the Heat to titles in 2012 and 2013. Then he was celebrated for being a winner and establishing himself as an all-time great.

Those championships weren’t tainted, as many said they would be when James left. He became more appreciated for returning to Cleveland and ultimately leading the Cavaliers to the title this year.

Durant will never face as much scrutiny or hate as the more polarizing James. But Durant, who was praised when he announced an extension with the Thunder on Twitter six years ago, now is regarded as selfish and disloyal.

That tweet came out not long before James’ “Decision’’ aired, so Durant was applauded for being an unassuming star who gets it. Six years later, Oklahoma City fans burned their Durant jerseys. One group of guys poured gasoline on the jersey and fired assault rifles, and the bullets set the shirt on fire.

Relax, everyone. It’s sports. And it’s not like years ago, when players were motivated to beat their rivals. Patrick Ewing never tried to sign with Chicago. He wanted to beat Michael Jordan. He couldn’t.

Today, everyone is friends. They play on national teams together, develop relationships, talk about teaming up and vacation together.

Last summer James, Wade, Carmelo Anthony and Chris Paul vacationed together. Recently, a video circulated of James, Wade and Paul and their wives dancing during a couples’ retreat.

James said he wants to play with Anthony, Wade and Paul before they retire. You absolutely can see something like that happening. James, Wade and Bosh discussed joining forces with Miami during those summers playing for Team USA.

This will continue unless the NBA institutes a hard salary cap or the ability to put a franchise tag on players, as the NFL does. Until then, you should know the players’ loyalty is mainly to themselves, and that doing whatever it takes to win sometimes means moving on. Let’s try doing that from Durant’s decision.


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