Why is it, Kevin Durant, that you dress like such a nerd?
While driving north on an Oklahoma City freeway, towards a basketball clinic he’ll conduct for a bunch of kids on a mid-April afternoon, Durant laughs as he considers this question. Sure, at 23, Durant might be the most dynamic basketball player on the planet right now, a long, lean 6’9” scoring machine who has brought championship dreams to small-market OKC. But Durant is more than a transcendent hoops talent. He also happens to be a geek-chic fashion pioneer.
During last year’s postseason, the Oklahoma City Thunder star started wearing a backpack, with a single strap buckled across the front, to his press conferences – he says he keeps his iPad, a bible, and some other accessories in the sack. The bookish item was an instant hit. “People started rocking the book bag,” says Durant’s Thunder teammate, Royal Ivey. Nike produced, and sold out, a limited line of vintage Durant backpacks: a full collection is coming this fall. “He created a business,” says Nike sports marketing exec Chuck Terrell, “that we didn’t know we had.”
The backpack is only one piece of Durant’s of nerd attire. Off the court, he now regularly dons black-rimmed glasses, and buttons his plaid collared shirts all the way to the top. He’s the pioneer of a preppy-dress movement that he and other NBA All-Stars, like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Dwight Howard and Amar’e Stoudemire, have taken mainstream. “That’s just my style,” says Durant, from behind the wheel of his eight-seat GMC truck; his KD Nike logo appears on the headrests. “I like it. I’m wearing book bags, because that’s what we do where I’m from.” Durant grew up in Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C. “It’s just me representin’ home and me just, you know, having a different style from everybody else I guess.”
Durant says the spectacles aren’t a fashion play; his are prescription glasses. But I point out that he didn’t have to wear ones with black rims, a la Steve Urkel; they don’t exactly fit the machismo mold of the professional athlete. “But they look good,” Durant says of the studious eyewear. “I like how they fit me, you know what I mean? I’m just enjoying everything, man. Nowadays I can just throw something on and feel comfortable in it. As opposed to before, I was a little nervous about that.”
Wait a second: Kevin Durant, the national college player of the year as a freshman five years ago, the second overall pick in the 2007 NBA draft, the 2008 NBA Rookie of the Year, a perennial All-Star who has known nothing but absurd success on every hoops level, was really afraid to dress like a nerd? You were really worried about being accepted, and concerned with what the NBA cool kids in the lunchroom thought? You’re even more of a nerd than you’re letting on.
“Everyone wonders what people think,” Durant says. “I was just one of those guys.” So what, in Durant’s mind, gave him license to express himself through dress? “Getting a little older, learning how to brush things off,” Durant says as he pulls into the parking lot of the gym where the clinic will take place. “Being in this league, you have to learn how to have tough skin. That’s what I’ve learned. Twitter has helped me have tough skin, you hear so many crazy things on there, you just learn how to be numb to it, you know what I mean? Playing on the basketball court helps, but more so growing up as a young man – inner confidence is something that goes a long way. I’m still working on it.”
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If Durant hasn’t fully come into his own, the rest of the NBA should really be afraid. He can already do it all. Durant has led the NBA in scoring the last three seasons, and has now led the Oklahoma City Thunder, a franchise that lost 59 games three years ago, into the NBA Finals, where it will face the Miami Heat (Game 1 tips off tonight). In the regular season, Durant improved his all-around game, setting career highs in field goal percentage (50%), assists per game (3.5) and rebounds per game (8.0). Durant has kept this pace in the playoffs, and taken over several key games: in Game 4 of the Western Conference Finals against the San Antonio Spurts, Durant scored 18 of his 36 points in the fourth quarter in a crucial 109-103 Oklahoma City win. Against Miami, Durant will square up against James, and the two best players on the planet will vie for their first title. “I have no question that with his work ethic, and sense of team,” says former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy, now an ABC/ESPN commentator, “Durant is going to go down as one of the greatest of the greats in the NBA.”
Off the court, Durant may insist he isn’t trying to make any kind of a statement in his choice of attire, but his embrace of the nerd-chic movement is making one nonetheless. African-American NBA stars are breaking the stereotype that they have to dress like gangsters, that they must prove they are “from the hood” in order to maintain credibility. “It’s an obvious turning point,” says Wesley Morris, the Pulitzer-Prize winning movie critic from the Boston Globe, who wrote an insightful essay on the roots of this new NBA style, entitled “The Rise of the NBA Nerd,” on grantland.com in December. “The expectation has changed. We now better understand who black men can be, what they can sound like. Black men are breaking out of the hole we’ve been put in.”
In Durant, African-Americans are blessed with an ideal front man: a seemingly humble superstar who — while other sports superstars increasingly insist on playing in a major media market — chose to sign a long-term contract with Oklahoma City, of all places, two summers ago because he felt a comfort level in the low-stress town; who tweeted that he wanted to play a flag football game during the lockout, and showed up a few hours later at a college campus, shocking and delighting the students.
Durant’s refusal to play the part of ego-driven hoops celeb may stem from his early playing days. He was always tall for his age, but a bit gangly: coming out of elementary school, the local private schools weren’t lusting after him. “He became frustrated,” says Durant’s mother, Wanda Pratt, who worked as a postal employee (Durant’s father, Wayne, was separated from his son early in Durant’s life, but the pair have a strong relationship today). “They didn’t see the potential. He put in so much work, and what he wanted to happen didn’t end up happening. That was disappointing.” But Durant didn’t stay down. He huddled with a neighborhood coach, Taras “Stink” Brown, who mentored Durant. Brown would make Durant repeatedly sprint up a steep hill near the Maryland rec center he played much of his ball, and write the words “hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard” hundreds of times.
When Durant graduated high school, in 2006, the NBA had just instituted a rule requiring potential draftees to be one year removed from high school, or to turn 19, before becoming eligible to enter the NBA. Without one-and-done, would Durant have gone straight to the pros? “Me and my mom talk about that all the time,” Durant says. “She says she would have made me go into the league. You know, if I had an opportunity to be a high pick, to fulfill a dream that I’ve always had since I was a kid, why not?”
The year in Texas, however, worked out great for Durant – so much so that for supporters of the controversial one-and-done rule, Durant is a poster child. As soon as he set foot on campus, he left his mark in Austin. Before his freshman year, Durant took some summer classes. Russell Springmann, the Texas assistant coach who recruited Durant, remembers telling him about the long hours LaMarcus Aldridge, a Texas alum who was playing in the NBA, logged at the gym. Around midnight, Springmann got a call from Durant: the skinny frosh told him he had just finished a shooting workout. Durant became the first freshman in history to be named consensus National Player of the Year. He left his mark in another way, too. Springmann has a 15-month-old son, named Durant.
That one season in the Big 12 also prepped Durant for Oklahoma City life. “It’s quiet,” Durant says of OKC. “People give you your space. It reminds me of being at Texas. Coming from Maryland, and area where there’s a lot going on, a lot of traffic, big buildings, you need to come down here and slow down a bit in Oklahoma City. Going around to Lubbock, Texas, College Station, small towns like that in college, it kind of got me used to living in Oklahoma City.” In his off hours Durant often takes refuge in the music studio he installed in his home, or hangs out with his young Thunder teammates.
Durant actually spent his first pro year in Seattle, and took home Rookie of the Year honors. The Sonics then moved to Oklahoma City for the start of the 2008-2009 season; the Thunder finished their inaugural season 23-59, and many fans and league observers wondered if the town could really support a successful franchise. The Thunder’s old practice gym, where Durant is attending the clinic on this Thursday afternoon, sat down the road from a Purina plant. After a grueling workout, players would head to their cars, the scent of fresh dog food wafting under their nostrils.
In 2009-2010, the Thunder stopped playing like dogs. Durant won his first scoring title, and the Thunder pushed the eventual champs, the Los Angeles Lakers, to six-games in the first round of the playoffs. The Thunder found success by drafting young talents like Durant, point guard Russell Westbrook, one of the most explosive players in the game, and forward James Harden, and surrounding them with selfless role players, like center Kendrick Perkins, an NBA champ with the Boston Celtics.
In the summer of 2010, while the world breathlessly awaited LeBron James’ infamous decision, Durant announced, through a simple tweet, that he had signed an extension with the Thunder (it was a five-year, $85 million deal). This quiet, unassuming move cast Durant as the anti-LeBron. While James was looking to leave Cleveland for a glitzier destination, and staging an obnoxious television special to stick it to his hometown fans, Durant showed loyalty by staying in Oklahoma, and humility by declaring intentions through a low-key tweet.
“I don’t think that was fair,” Durant says of his anti-LeBron label. “His situation and my situation were a lot different.” This was the first extension of Durant’s career, and he signed it before he became a free agent. It was a situation more akin to when James initially stayed on in Cleveland, signing his first extension with Cleveland back in 2006, before his rookie contract expired. “It’s crazy that we got linked together, because I wasn’t a free agent. He was a free agent,” says Durant. “A lot of people think that in the NBA, you do stuff other people want you to do. I was really happy for him, that he made a decision for himself, something that made him happy.”
After Durant decided to stay put in Oklahoma City, he led Team USA to a gold medal at the 2010 World Championships. Durant was unstoppable during the tournament; in America’s semifinal win over Lithuania, he scored 38-points, a U.S. record for world championship play. Against Turkey in the gold medal game, Durant hit seven-three pointers – a world championships record. The Thunder advanced to last year’s Western Conference finals, before falling to the eventual champion Mavericks in five games. During the protracted NBA lockout that preceded this season, when Durant wasn’t making surprise flag football game appearances, he was a basketball barnstormer. He played in summer league and charity exhibition games in China, the Philippines, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and New York City.
This tour kept Durant sharp. “This game is mental, man,” Durant says. “If you come out and have a good game against some of the best players in streetball, or some of the best guys overseas, that gives you confidence no matter what. That’s what it did for me, playing all those games. I’m glad I started that whole tour thing. I see a lot of guys doing it now. They have games, in different cities. I felt like I started a little trend. It was an unbelievable summer for me.” In one game, Durant dropped 66 points in New York City’s Rucker Park, a streetball cathedral. “I don’t think I can do that again,” Durant says. “All those shots I was making, you know, God was looking over me and telling me ‘this is your time.’ Even though it was not an NBA game, it’s legendary, man. He was telling me it’s my time, and I don’t know if I can duplicate it again, man.”
Durant shoots like an off-guard, dribbles like a point guard, and runs like a deer. Thunder forward Nick Collison, a teammate of Durant’s since the Seattle days, has a favorite Durant play: Durant grabs a rebound, dribbles the length of the floor and picks up some steam, and either stops short for a pull-up jumper—how can you block it, given Durant’s length? — or slithers through the lane for a slam. Some athletes, because of their build, make you stop what you’re doing and just watch in awe. Durant defies all physical expectations; a spindly 6’9” guy, with a 7’5” wingspan, should not be shooting from anywhere on the floor, and handling the ball so easily.
And his game is still evolving. “I have never seen a superstar that age work so hard in the regular season,” says Perkins, who played with future Hall of Famers Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston. “How he gets to practice early, the stuff he does after practice – you don’t see that often, man. That’s the thing I’m most impressed with. When guys see KD shooting over two or three people, sometimes they think it’s a bad shot. But he actually works on that shot.”
For Oklahoma City to knock off Miami, Durant and Westbrook, who averaged 23.6 points per game this season, fifth-best in the league, must continue to gel. When a team is blessed with a scoring talent like Durant, having a score-first point guard like Westbrook can backfire. Westbrook was benched during the fourth quarter of a playoff game last year after a botched play, and Durant and Westbrook got into an on-court shouting match during an early season game. Scott Brooks, who is in his fourth season as Thunder head coach, insists that doubts about the duo are overblown. “Russell is the point guard of our team, and Kevin has the league in scoring two years in a row, and has a chance to do that this year,” Brooks says after a Thunder practice in mid-April. (After Kobe Bryant rested in his team’s regular season finale against the Sacramento Kings, Durant, who averaged 28.0 points per game this season, indeed won his third straight scoring title; Bryant averaged 27.9 points per game). “So as the point guard, if the guy on your team is leading the league in scoring, you’re doing something right. You very rarely lead the league in scoring by 10 points. It seems like that’s what some people want Russell to have Kevin do.”
Both players insist they get along, and their chemistry seems natural. After Westbrook practically jumped to the roof of Oklahoma City’s Chesapeake Energy Arena to catch a Durant alley-oop pass against the Sacramento Kings, and threw down one of the NBA’s best dunks of the year, Durant deadpanned to reporters in the locker room: “I don’t want to give him too much credit. It was a great pass by myself.” Westbrook, hearing Durant’s comments from the other side of the room, responded with a “Oh, my gosh!” Westbrook and Durant, joined by Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha, walked to the team bus together—the Thunder needed to catch a flight to Minnesota before a tornado, which was in the weather forecast, hit town. The more extroverted Westbrook chirped about the game and playfully tapped Durant on the shoulder: Durant looked like a big brother, letting his younger sibling brag about his latest exploits.
In January, the Thunder signed Westbrook to a five-year, $80 million extension. So for years, Americans will be arguing about which one-two punch is more powerful: LeBron James and Dwayne Wade in South Beach, or Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in OKC. What better place to start that debate than this year’s Finals?
After finishing the clinic in Oklahoma City, Durant relaxes in the back room of the Thunder community events facility, a former roller-rink. He slouches down in a chair, and stretches out his legs. We’re again talking about his nerd-chic style—though right now he’s just wearing gray sweatpants and a t-shirt—and I ask him to respond to something that Touré, the journalist and cultural commentator, wrote in a March issue of TIME. Touré was describing the concept of “Black Irony,” one of TIME’s “10 Ideas That Are Changing Your Life.” He wrote: “I see [black irony] in NBA star Kevin Durant’s penchant for nerd chic, wearing glasses and a schoolboy backpack and thereby taking the air out of the black male imperative to be masculine, tough, and cool.”
Many pro jocks wouldn’t want to respond to that kind of analysis. The sociology of race is dangerous territory: one slip could cost you endorsement dollars. But to his credit, Durant eagerly takes on the topic. He says he does not dress like a geek to be ironic, or to make a social statement. He just likes the look. But he’s aware that his clothes deliver the kind of message described by Touré, and he embraces it. “I don’t come off as a tough guy or as a popular cool guy,” says Durant. “I’m not that type of guy. A lot of people can really judge you by the way you look. I never wanted to have that look of a guy who’s always wearing baggy pants, and dark colors … A lot of people don’t know you so they see the image, the outer of you instead of knowing the interior part of the person. So if when they see you, [if] they always see you upset, always see you with baggy clothes, see you wearing the dark colors, it’s normal for a person to think, ‘oh, that’s how he looks, that’s how he is.’ You know what I mean? When somebody sees me I want them to think of someone who’s always smiling, always positive, that’s always selfless. That’s who I am.”
People often cite the absence of tattoos on Durant’s arms and legs as evidence of his good nature. Durant does have tattoos, but they are on his chest, where his uniform can cover them up during games. “I want tattoos on my arms,” says Durant. “I don’t think that should change how you look at a person. But that’s just how it is. And I like how they look on my chest, having a skinny body.” Durant has not ruled out eventually tatting up his limbs.
While Durant wants to avoid negative stereotypes, he says he’s not obsessed with image, nor measuring how every move will impact his brand. “You never get the sense that he’s trying to impress people,” says Collision. “It’s really refreshing to be around a guy like that. People don’t treat star basketball players like they treat everyone else. You live in a strange world, and people treat you weird. Sometimes, guys can lose touch with reality. He’s avoided that.”
Durant calls himself a work in progress. But at only 23, another scoring title under his belt, his team on the brink of a championship, he’s in an enviable place. “I do everything because I want to do it,” says Durant. “I don’t really think about ‘is this person going to like me because I did it this way’? I want to play flag football, because I want to do it. I signed an extension with the Thunder, because it’s what I want to do. I played in those charity games, at Rucker Park, because I love playing the game of basketball. I didn’t do it because I want people to say ‘Kevin is a good guy.’”
Or a nerd.
MORE: Black Irony