And not to put too fine a point on it, but who freaking cares? All great athletes are arrogant; some just hide it better on camera. The people ladling praise on the guy for saying shucks and thanking the equipment manager and generally being very Beaver Cleaver with everyone—"Durant always asks the [University of Texas] basketball sports information director, Scott McConnell, about his sons by name," the New York Times informs—evidently would rather use athletes as large vessels for vicarious moralizing, something to put down on the mantel next to the Precious Moments figurines, than admit we care about them only because they jump high.
What do we actually know about Kevin Durant? His game, for one thing. He is as pure a scorer as we've seen, and you could drop him in with all the other great self-styled scoring forwards in NBA history—Adrian Dantley, Bernard King, Alex English, even George Gervin—except that at 21 he's probably already better than those guys. He is certainly more intuitive than just about any of his contemporaries. Carmelo Anthony, for instance, jab-steps and jab-steps and jab-steps on offense, as if cycling through different drafts of his possessions. Durant looks, considers, and attacks. There is nothing humble or understated or gracious about that.
He is the face of Team USA for a reason, and his time at the world championships in Turkey has served his game and his reputation well. In the tournament's group stage, it has become apparent that he is the team's only essential piece. In the first three games, he scored 63 points—the team's second-leading scorer, Chauncey Billups, had 35—and he became, out of nowhere, a sharp-eyed passer from the high post. Meanwhile, Durant has benefited greatly from all the cheap bunting and patriotic juju that people attach to any athlete who represents his country while his colleagues, as the New York Times put it, are "making movies and taking vacations." He is humble, and he is G.I. Joe.
Of course, that's what really matters in an age that judges athletes foremost on the quality of their salesmanship. LeBron packaged himself poorly. Durant has sold himself well, or at least has given of himself so little that the very idea of his reticence could be fashioned into a cudgel against the Very Bad Thing of the day—ego run amok. More than anything, Durant offers the moralists a clean bank shot at LeBron and his cohort. He will remain useful in this role for a time, and then one day he'll go and do some Very Bad Thing and shatter all our precious illusions. We'll have no choice but to pick out a new unicorn, a new cardboard idol to worship, and all the while we'll wonder how we got the last one so wrong. Did we ever know Kevin Durant at all?
Like Slate on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter.