On the morning of July 7, Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City's supremely gifted pterosaur, who is currently dunking on people's heads all along the Bosphorus at the FIBA World Championships, announced he would be re-signing with the Thunder. This was a fairly unremarkable piece of business—Durant, a year from restricted free agency, was expected to re-up—and the news arrived via his Twitter account: "Exstension for 5 more years wit the #thunder....God Is Great, me and my family came a long way...I love yall man forreal, this a blessing!"
More remarkable was Durant's timing. That same day it emerged that LeBron James would reveal his free-agent destination on a live television show that, for those who missed it, came to resemble nothing so much as a hostage crisis on the set of Howdy Doody. Facile contrasts were hastily drawn. LeBron stood accused of disloyalty and excessive immodesty, of being bad on television in the first degree, and the only debate about the Miami Heat's new hood ornament was whether to chase him around South Beach with a pitchfork or a torch. And Durant? He was "soft-spoken," "congenial, respectful," "humble, loyal." Kevin Durant had become the national sports unicorn.
"Hey, what's Kevin Durant trying to do there?" smarmed Adrian Wojnarowski, an otherwise excellent columnist for Yahoo Sports who all summer wrote about LeBron James in prose lifted from Travis Bickle's diary. "Be humble, understated and gracious?"
Oh, and loyal, too. Don't forget that.
This is how sports heroes are made nowadays—not by some feat of athletic transcendence, but by virtue of not being the bogeyman of the day. Phil Mickelson, once known sneeringly as FIGJAM ("F*** I'm great, just ask me") got himself anointed with oil on account of not being Tiger Woods at the moment it became very bad to be Tiger Woods. A few years ago, in a very different context, sportswriters celebrated Hank Aaron anew for not having been Barry Bonds, even though the two ballplayers had a lot more in common than anyone cared to admit. (In his autobiography, Aaron confessed to trying amphetamines, like everyone else from his era.) And now people praise the allegedly humble Kevin Durant for not being the allegedly narcissistic LeBron James, whom they once praised for not being the allegedly selfish Kobe Bryant, whom they once praised for not being the allegedly thuggish Allen Iverson.
That this is all very silly should go without saying. Never mind that the sportswriters wave around Durant's use of social media as a token of his quiet grace, then trash LeBron for getting a Twitter account. And never mind that LeBron announced his contract extension in 2006 with a press release that one could fairly describe as, yes, humble, understated, and gracious. The primary folly here is trying to divine the motives and innermost feelings of professional athletes. We know so little of them that doesn't come by way of razor commercials and magazine spreads and strategically chosen television interviews in front of strategically chosen topiary. We have as much genuine insight into Kevin Durant's head and Phil Mickelson's bedroom as we do into LeBron James' soul and Tiger Woods' underpants. To call Durant humble—over and over and over again—is to look at a passing cloud and swear you see the Vienna Boys' Choir.
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