Among the various developments and stories coming out of the NBA playoffs this week, Kevin Durant’s comments following OKC’s elimination at the hands of Memphis probably stood out for me as the most thought provoking.
Miami took care of the depleted Chicago squad with relative ease, 4-1, and the Spurs moved on as well after handling Golden State 4-2. The Knickerbockers might still make some trouble for Indiana despite being down 3-2, although as always with New York much depends on their outside shooting, which has come and gone for them throughout the playoffs.
Meanwhile Memphis played especially well against the Russell Westbrook-less Thunder to advance to the WCF after winning the series 4-1. Key for the Grizzlies was being able repeatedly to slow down Durant in fourth quarters, the relative lack of other options for OKC making it easier for Memphis to do so.
“Nothing’s ever a wasted year for me... it’s basketball,” was Durant’s reply. “I’ve grown so much as a man since the beginning of the season. I’ve grown so much as a leader. Nothing is ever wasted.”
Durant elaborated by saying how he felt “blessed” to be able to play a game that he loved for a living, noting how positive an experience it was to be able to “go through some tough times and laugh and argue” with his teammates and thus benefit and learn from the experience. A refreshingly non-standard response, I thought, revealing an understanding of the meaning of sports that went beyond the usual gladiator-speak we’ve grown to expect from professional athletes.
Perhaps sensing a vulnerability in the response, a reporter followed up with a question asking Durant about the possibility of critics who might hear his words and thus “question his competitive fire.”
Durant did get a little fired up at that.
“I don’t give a damn,” Durant began. “I’m going to be who I’m going to be. I’m not Kobe Bryant. I’m not Michael Jordan. I’m not LeBron James. I’m not Magic Johnson. I’m me. I’m not going to ever compromise myself, my integrity and what I believe in for winning some basketball games and winning a championship. That’s just not I how I was brought up.”
Durant’s comments have earned some scrutiny over the last couple of days, with a lot of the usually obtuse commentary from pundits mindlessly echoing the “winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing” mantra they’ve heard from coaches and players ever since Vince Lombardi first popularized the statement nearly a half-century ago. (Lombardi wasn’t the first to utter the quote, incidentally.)
It’s utter heresy for some to imagine professional athletes being motivated to play their sports for any reason other than to win games and championships. The issue instinctively makes me think of former UNC basketball coach Dean Smith -- who always saw sports and their significance as occurring within a broader context -- and his great line about what it means to treat every game as if it were a matter of life and death.
“If you make every game a life-and-death thing, you’re going to have problems,” said Smith, adding that, for one thing, “you’ll be dead a lot.”
The whole idea of a game or season being a “waste” if not ending successfully makes me want to compare the relative significance of the lives being led by players and coaches and the ones lived by those who watch them.
Is it a “waste” to watch our favorite team play and lose? Hardly. And indeed, I think when most players talk about a season being “wasted” or a “failure” or choose other similar language with which to dismiss their efforts they are necessarily engaging in a kind of temporary fiction-making (purposeful or otherwise), saying what is expected of them and not what we all really know is the truth.
I think one primary attraction of sports -- for players and fans alike -- is the way they do tend to provide what often seems like unambiguous meaning to our lives in the form of wins and losses. There’s no denying that a victory at the end of game absolutely determines the meaning of everything that happened along the way, as does a loss. It’s a simpler version of existence, if you think about it, which otherwise never makes sense in such obvious ways.
I appreciate Durant’s willingness to point out that life is more complicated than some seem to want to believe.
Shamus is the author of the Hard-Boiled Poker blog.