Kevin Durant decided last summer to join the second best basketball team in the world, boosting an already stacked roster. Now, one win away from a championship, Durant is on the brink of standing atop the basketball world for the first time in his life. Yet the world, even those who defend his decision to go to the Warriors, look at the move as a shortcut to the top. And while it makes for decent bar talk, the discussion draws focus from the best parts of a championship.
Coming out of college, Kevin Durant was highly touted and expected to have a long, successful NBA career. To become one of the two best players of his generation wasn’t a guarantee but within the realm of possibility. The same couldn’t be said for his Warriors teammates. Steph Curry was selected 7th overall in the 2009 draft, immediately after two other point guards. If you said you saw this coming from Curry, no one, not even Curry himself, would believe you. And looking at each player’s rise from great to otherworldly, it seems only fair that each is credited with hard work and self confidence. Durant possesses a jump shot and agility never seen in such a tall player. Curry’s the best shooter ever. None of this is news in 2017, but in 2009, when these players were getting their footing in the league, neither was a guarantee.
Too often, strengths and weaknesses are taken as givens when we evaluate expectations. The Warrior’s pick and roll is definitely lethal and reasonably keeps opposing coaches up at night. But the play’s threat comes from each player’s shot making ability, a skill that has been honed throughout thousands, possibly millions of jump shots. These guys have worked harder to master their shots than most people work on anything in their lives. Yet, when other players team up it isn’t criticized because they haven’t developed such great shots? As Americans we have an appreciation for hard work and perseverance like few other countries. The American dream has long been built on hard work above all. But if that hard work came in years past and the developed skills have since developed, the hard work is forgotten? Psychologically it’s understandable. Reasonably it’s not.
Basketball, probably more than any other sport, is highly emotional and personal. Players aren’t wearing pads or helmets, they don’t leave the court very often, and the game lends itself to extended moments of pushing and close physical interaction typically reserved for football linemen. With only 5 players on the court per time, each has a huge input toward the game’s outcome. These factors add weight to the players’ attitudes and interpersonal connections. A bad seed in the football locker room does far less damage than in basketball. An individual can sour the mood and ruin chemistry.
But no one ever expected this of Durant. Some foresaw technical issues on the court, but not the internal friction that can happen when a superstar joins a well oiled machine like the Warriors. Few were surprised when the Lakers had trouble bringing together Dwight Howard and other unlikely teammates, those were bigger egos. It’s taken as a given that the superstars and personalities on the Warriors will not only coexist but thrive. Yet somehow, it feels unfair to many. As if being a good teammate, good guy, good basketball player, is an unattended fact of life.
We want to praise the player at the end of the bench, hoping one day to get the chance to show what he’s got. Sports is great in that way, we never know when a player will get the call and break through. We look back on these difficult days for hints that greatness was present, success before it was recognized.
“Champions behave like champions before they’re champions.” Bill Walsh
Even after it peeks its head, when acting like a champion turns into being a champion, there are no guarantees. It can be easy to forget that the best players in the world, the most talented and accomplished people, didn’t only fight to get where they are, but continue to fight to stay there. Jump shots and cool demeanors are learned and built up. Just the same, they can fade away. We’re frequently blown away by greatness, earned and developed in the face of low expectations. Appreciate the struggle but also the destination, they deserve it.