It finally hit me the other day, and I’ve finally formulated my words so they hopefully sound less insane.
He’s gone. Really gone.
I feel like I’ve known him so long, and now, he’s just… gone. Silly to think I knew him… silly to think of this as anything beyond a “basketball decision.” But though I had no say in the matter, and didn’t deserve any say in the matter, I still hate it.
Many of you know by now that I’m into birds. And music. And sports. The three things have bumped around my head lately, all on the topic of my (former) favorite NBA player of all time, Kevin Durant. It seems only natural to my little brain that I compare the departure of KD from the Thunder to that of a bird leaving its nest, looking for something else… And, like those left behind, we just watch him go. Because we can’t stop him. He’s not ours. He never was.
“And when I awoke I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood?”
On July 4, when the news broke, I was crushed. Now that I’m over the anger, I guess I get it. He’s NOT required to make us happy. He has his own life. He can do his own thing. We’re not his bosses. We’re just fans. We’re just awestruck Oklahomans looking for a distraction from our lives.
I guess I just thought that meant something more to him. As naive as that sounds. But you have to understand where that naivety comes from – more on that in a bit.
Now, I’m in the sports business. I’ve seen people come and go on teams, people who I didn’t have any “feelings” for. People like LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, James Harden – heck, even DeMarco Murray… people who are huge stars, or huge in the hearts of people who cheer for the Sooners, haha… DeMarco left the Cowboys to join the Eagles (then was traded to the Titans, thanks Rod Walton for checking my memory!) and I hated it, but I didn’t take it out on HIM. It didn’t feel personal… I didn’t love LeBron’s approach to “The Decision,” but it didn’t affect me personally. Just kind of made me roll my eyes.
So why do I take Durant’s departure so seriously?
Before I tell you, I want to set up a scenario. I just got back from a trip to Oklahoma last week. I flew first class, because I can every now and then and not feel guilty about it. Often, on my trips out of Bristol, CT., I am joined by a colleague on the plane. This time, it was a very well-known college sports anchor who, knowing my favorite teams, asked me in a very frank manner if I was OK after Durant. It’s like they’re asking me about a death in the family. Hushed tones, head down, eye contact – “Are you OK?” All he needed to do was hold my hand and pat my head.
“He’s just not who we thought he was,” I said. He looked at me like I was crazy. “I don’t agree with that,” he said… but nicely. He doesn’t understand our naivety.
I tried to explain, as I’ll do here…
We thought he was ONE OF US. Oklahomans believed that, for once, someone chose us first. Someone, who wanted to play in the state of Oklahoma FOR MONEY, BY CHOICE, not just for the good ol’ football team. Not to ride Bob Stoops’ coattails to an NFL job. Someone who chose to live their life WITH US. Someone who was just doing it for the fans, and falling in love with our state, which WE all know is great, but suffers from a lot of bad press. And bad politics, but we manage to overcome that. Someone who could help us grieve our many tragedies.
Many people question why we choose to live in Oklahoma. It’s poor, there are tornadoes, there’s “nothing to do,” it’s hot, it’s broke… you name it. But hey, guess what? Many of us were born there, and realize its beauty regardless of the bad press. It’s like a huge secret to Oklahomans – we don’t get why YOU don’t like it. That’s on you!
And yes, I got out – but I left for the best job a sports journalist could have, or I’d still be there. I’d be demanding a change politically, but still. (Living up here in Yankeeland, my vote FINALLY COUNTS!)
But I chose to make Oklahoma my home for 37 years. OK, choice isn’t the right word. I was born there. But I chose to stay after I graduated college. I worked long, hard hours for the newspapers in Oklahoma. I made lifetime friends. I ALWAYS had something to do. In the words of Jerry Garcia, “Don’t tell me this town ain’t got no heart… you just gotta poke around.”
My people are buried there. It’s home, and it always will be. I miss it every day, though my life path has taken an interesting turn. But I resent the notion that there’s “nothing to do” in Oklahoma. I resent the idea that we’re all stupid and unable to do anything else, so we just stay. I resent the idea that we’re all racist welfare queens with little to no ambition. Oklahoma GAVE me ambition, education, and a deep love of people. A deep respect for nature, kindness, and love. A love of the land. I left after years of hard, gratifying work with some of the best people I’ve ever known. I left after doing everything I could in Oklahoma. I left because I needed another challenge.
KD left because he wants a ring. An easier road to a title. A trinket. An accolade. He doesn’t want to be in charge anymore, and he doesn’t care how he gets there. I thought he was … tougher?
THAT’s what I meant by “He’s not who we thought he was.”
KD presented like a man of the people, even though he’s a Longhorn, haha. We believed, perhaps foolishly, that he LOVED US! Just the way we are. He gave us many great years. He visited the Murrah Building and took new players to the Memorial. He picked up debris left from countless tornadoes. He spoke like us, heavy on the “y’all.” He was in Sonic commercials. HE PLAYED FLAG FOOTBALL WITH US. He hit so many late-game shots, we came to count on him. Like he could somehow solve every problem we’ve ever had as a state. Undo the race riots. Undo the stupid abortion laws and Ten Commandments debacles. Fix the teacher salaries and wage gaps.
We all got mad when a rogue copy editor used the headline “Mr. Unreliable” after KD missed a big shot in the Playoffs. REALLY mad. We took to the radio waves to tell him how sorry we were about that, to try to let him know that no, we don’t all feel that way. Please stay, we almost begged. He seemed to accept our apology, on the court at least.
We felt his physical pain. We studied his foot from every angle when he missed most of last season. We knew all the foot ailments he could have, how he may have what Yao Ming had, how he may never recover… and then, when he returned, we cheered like he was our son.
I actually called him “my son KD.” I loved his mom like she was the governor. Hell, she could have been! She’s be an improvement even with no government experience.
I sound silly, and certainly not journalistically ethical. But I didn’t care about my bias (plus, I’ve been in the biz long enough to separate myself from real bias.) My first year at ESPN, I sat in a crowded newsroom with famous TV people and watched KD sink a 3 to beat the Mavs. I heard one of our most famous anchors shout “THAT’S WHAT WINNERS DO.” He wasn’t on air. He was just watching KD work. I felt so proud of him, like the world was seeing him through our eyes, FINALLY!
When I first read his anemic Players Tribune note that he was leaving, I felt nothing for a few days. It honestly felt like a breakup. I, fortunately, was off work, so I stayed away from SportsCenter and tried to stay away from the stories. After a few days, I began to read the Internet again. Many people were laughing at us Oklahomans, making fun of us for being so “butthurt” and behaving badly.
Many people thought it was just hilarious. Especially former Sonics fans. I get that, but 1) don’t sell your team to known land thieves (Sooners) and 2) be better fans. I know you find our pain hilarious, but keep in mind, we’ve attended EVERY GAME. Even the shit ones. Where were you?
To us, it’s not funny at all, of course. Because we don’t have a lot more options. The Thunder are our only pro team, and KD was our franchise face. He was our first, our last, our everything. KD was the choice of a new generation. KD was the great lanky hope. And now, he’s gone. Just like a bird.
I’d watched him since his freshman year at Texas, just barely 18. All 6-9(ish) of him, unable to lift the bar to benchpress. Lanky, but more Dirk Nowitzki that Dirk. He always looked kinda sad, or just determined. Like there was something going on behind his eyes.
“He was no more than a baby then. well he seemed broken-hearted, something within him…
But the moment that I first laid eyes on him, all alone on the edge of 17.
Just like a white-winged dove.”
But now, he’s a full-grown man with his own life and a new start. We had to free him from the nest. But I’m not happy about it. I know that may sound weird to people NOT from Oklahoma. But we’re very proud of those we call ours. We’ll claim just about anybody, too. Because WE know what makes Oklahoma great. WE know why we stay. We don’t understand why people leave unless they have a damn good reason. And we don’t get KD’s reasoning.
I love him like a son, though I don’t know him personally, as odd as that sounds. I want the best for him. I just had hoped the best was our home. It’s not. But I get it. It’s his life. I’m not mad, just disappointed.
And he can’t expect us to be happy about it. He can’t expect us not to be disillusioned. He seems angry that we’re angry. WHAT DID YOU EXPECT? And I ask, KD, that you leave the villain routine alone. It’s not your strong suit. Just be a man and take the boos. Don’t be a dick. We raised you better than that.
We thought he was an Oklahoman-in-the-making. Instead, he’s a bird that’s flown to better, easier terrain. And Oklahoma is left to clean out his nest, hoping we can make it with what we’ve got. Because we’re very, very proud of what we have. And we intend to keep it in working order.
Russell Westbrook, if you’ve got hero mode in you, and I suspect you do, now is the time to become one. The state is yours. Please respect it. And if you leave, do so after winning. And please don’t join the enemy. We can’t take it again.
But Kevin, I wish you sorta-kinda well. I hope you realize someday how much you were loved, and what you meant to us. What you could have become to us. Josh Heupel will never forget… you were above him in the hierarchy. But still, thank you for everything. Thank you for those late-game shots that made us so sure you loved us… but we get it. It’s not us, it’s you.
Vaya con dios.