I do not know you personally, I have never met you, and while that used to be a dream of mine, I am not sure I would care too much to find myself face-to-face with you. What I know about you is limited to your words and actions that have been surrounded around your ability to play basketball, the ridiculous number of stories articles that I have read about you over the years, and a few other decisions that I have seen you make outside of the athletic world.
I remember watching you play basketball for the first time when you were at the University of Texas. As an Oklahoma State Cowboy fan, I absolutely despise the Longhorns, but I knew when I saw you play that you were something special. Not everybody can make the jump from college ball to the League, but, despite your string-bean physique, you had an amazing shot and a will to win. You carried that Texas team all year long, and unfortunately for you and your teammates, you fell short in the NCAA Tournament, which I am sure bothered you.
Then you were drafted second in the 2007 NBA Draft to the Seattle Supersonics. I was shocked, because I thought you were considerably better than Greg Oden, but I did not really care, because I was a big Kobe Bryant and Los Angeles Lakers fan at the time. After only a year in Seattle, your team packed up and moved to Oklahoma City, albeit under difficult circumstances, but it was like a dream for me. I had grown up watching NBA basketball, and I never thought that I would find a professional team in my own backyard. But you and bunch of young guys came waltzing into town, and even though I was not a fan of the decided upon team name of the Thunder, I knew that the new hometown squad would be a solid #2 behind my Lakers.
The first year was rough, but I remember reading throughout the season how you and the team would not quit. In the second season, I was blown away when the Thunder made the playoffs. Unfortunately, the first-round matchup was against the Lakers, and my loyalties were with Kobe, so a lot of my friends were mad at me as I cheered when Pau Gasol knocked down a game-winner in Game 6 in Oklahoma City to win the series. The Lakers would go on to win a title, but deep down inside of me, I wondered how much longer I could cheer against a hometown team that played with so much passion.
The following season, you guys continued to improve, and I found myself struggling with cheering for the Lakers when my two favorite teams would meet. Then, I read an article about you, and it forever changed my NBA fandom. An ESPN writer wrote a detailed story on you entitled Kevin Durant Humble in the Heartland, and for the first time, I realized just how special of a person you were. Your outlook on life and your desire to simply work harder and get better appealed to me. For almost 15 years, my favorite player had been a flashy kid who made the jump from high school to the NBA, but now I looked at a young man my own age who carried himself with an air of humility that spoke to me in a very real way. That day, I decided you were my new favorite player, and as much as I loved Kobe and the Lakers, the Thunder were in sole ownership of the #1 spot in my heart.
I know it sounds cheesy, but I really respected you and the things that you did as a player on the court and as a person off of it. I saw how over the years you really implanted yourself as a part of the Oklahoma City community, as well as how much you loved playing in a small-town compared to the bigger markets in the league. I sat in the stands so many times, anxiously waiting for you to knockdown some crazy shot or slash into the lane for one of your ridiculous dunks. I still remember watching in my apartment on December 29, 2011, when you hit a buzzer beater against Dallas to win, and with my 6-month old daughter asleep in the next room, I took off running down my apartment hallway screaming in celebration. My daughter did not wake up because she was already used to my crazed antics of which you were typically the source.
Then you led us to the NBA Finals. After hearing for years that Oklahoma City was a cowtown that did not deserve a professional sports team, you and a group of young fellas proved the world wrong. We lost to Lebron and his super team in Miami, but I was so thrilled at what we had accomplished. The future was bright.
The next few years were challenging. James Harden went to Houston. Russ got injured in the series against the Rockets (I am still bitter against Patrick Beverly, by the way). Then you won an MVP award the next season while Westbrook was injured, and you were lauded as one of Oklahoma City’s all-time heroes. We were struggling in the playoffs, and Berry Tramel wrote an article which was titled “Mr. Unreliable.” He supposedly had nothing to do with the title, but I was infuriated, and to this day, I can barely stand to read anything written by him or to listen to him on the radio.
The next season you were injured. Russ did everything he could to carry the team, but with you gone, and a number of other injuries plaguing the team as well, we just barely missed the playoffs for the first time since the team’s first season here. I was upset, but I knew it was temporary, because you would be back, and the team would be stronger than ever.
Scott Brooks was fired after we missed the playoffs, and Billy Donovan was brought in. I figured because you had some type of history with Donovan, that things would click right away, we would have a solid season, and you would stay. We had a rough start, but by the time playoffs rolled around, we were playing like a well-oiled machine. We rolled through the Mavs in the first round. San Antonio destroyed us in Game 1 of the second round of the playoffs, but my faith did not waver. I knew we could beat the Spurs in a 7-game series. We rallied as a team and defeated them 4-2.
Next up was the 73-win Golden State Warriors who were deemed a shoe-in for the NBA Finals. I had my doubts, but we stole Game 1 in Oakland, and all of a sudden, I saw our team on the brink of another NBA Finals appearance. We lost Game 2, but came home for Games 3 and 4, which we absolutely dominated. We had a 3-1 lead headed back to Oakland for Game 5, which I knew would be tough to win, but we had Game 6 back in Oklahoma City, so I was not worried. We led in both of those games, but you specifically faltered down the stretch, and we lost. But I defended you vehemently. Winning Game 7 in Oakland was considered nearly impossible by most, but we had you, Kevin Durant, Kid Clutch, Durantula, the Slim Reaper…but that was not enough. We lost the series after holding a 3-1 lead, and even though I was crushed, I still went to the airport at 2:30 in the middle of the night to greet the team, specifically you, along with hundreds of other fans to show just how much we appreciated you all.
The following month was a long one, but I never even worried. I was so confident that you would re-sign with the Thunder and remain in Oklahoma City, that I had not even considered that you would go somewhere else. Your decision loomed, and “sources” were saying you were heavily considering the Celtics, the Clippers, and the Warriors. I could understand the Celtics, but I hated the Clippers, and the Warriors?!? That had to be a joke. Then you made it clear that you would make your announcement the morning of July 4th, and as I prepared to go out of town to spend Independence Day with family, I checked my phone over and over again, waiting for some type of update.
Then it hit. You posted My Next Chapter on the Player’s Tribune. I clicked, skimmed over the beginning, and then got to the line I was looking for: “I have decided that I am going to join the Golden State Warriors.” I was already on the road, and I could do nothing but keep driving, and for the first time in my adult life, I cried a few tears over something sports-related. It was silly, I know. You are just a player, and like you had said all along, this would be a “basketball decision.” But it did not feel that way to me. It felt personal. It felt like when my junior high girlfriend broke up with me through a note. I thought to myself, “Really? That is all we get? A letter?”
I enjoyed my 4th of July like a lot of Oklahomans do: swimming, grilling, and shooting guns. Some fans called you a coward or a snake, some set fire to your jersey, and some said they understood your decision just fine. For a couple of weeks, I did nothing with all of my KD stuff. Then, I finally grabbed a box and put it all away. Much like you did your relationship with Oklahoma City, I put all the t-shirts, the jersey, the magazine, the posters, etc. in a box and shelved it, most likely never to be used again. I started to plan for your return to the Peake, and I started to think about how I might act. I thought for sure I would cheer for you up until tip-off, but then it would be game time.
Then the regular season started, and for some reason, you could not seem to keep your mouth shut. Over the course of the last 6 months or so, you have said a lot of really dumb and hurtful things about my city and my team, of which you are no longer a part. I am not sure if your words were misconstrued, or if you have just changed as a person. The latter is probably the most likely, which is what disappoints me the most. I picked you as my new favorite player and the Thunder as my new favorite team back in 2011 because of how humble you seemed to be. When we won games, you gave your teammates the credit. When we lost games, you took the blame. You did everything a hero would do. But; then you left.
Say what you will, but I do not think this was merely a “basketball decision.” I think when it came down to it, you stared a challenge in the face that you were not sure you could meet, and that scared you. You stopped trusting in your teammates, your “brothers,” as you called them at one point, and you relied on yourself. Maybe you thought you were not good enough to face the challenge, so you bailed. I do not blame you for wanting to win a championship, and I can understand the pressure you must have gotten from friends and family to go somewhere more exciting like Oakland, but I never thought you would bail and take the easy way out.
I hope you found what you were looking for in Oakland, but the fact of the matter is that I firmly believe the Thunder will one day be NBA champions, probably later rather than sooner, but that is something I am willing to wait patiently for. You, on the other hand, may very well find yourself living in regret and wondering “What if?”
I wish you would have stayed. I wish we would have had one of the greatest NBA seasons in recent history. I wish we would have met the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals for the second consecutive year. Only this time, we would beat them, and we would go on to the NBA Finals, where we would most likely face Lebron James and the Cavs, and this time, you would beat Lebron, and you would be the Finals MVP, and you would be our hero once again.
But that did not happen, and now you are gone, and a lot of people think I am crazy for feeling this type of way about an athlete that I have never even met. And maybe they are right. Maybe I would have been better off if I had not invested so much time, money, and emotion in a basketball player and a basketball team, and part of me wonders what that would be like.
One thing I do not regret is being a loyal Thunder fan, and I have never been happier to wear a player’s jersey than I will be tonight when I enter the arena with the number 0 on my back. You are gone, and a new era has begun in Oklahoma City. Win or lose, Russell Westbrook is the real hero. Simply put, he is the leader we always needed, and we never even realized it.
So, Kevin, thank you for everything that you did for our team, our city, and our state, but tonight, when you hit the court, rest assured, you will be the only one regretting your departure. Thank you for leaving just in time, and thank you for showing us that Russell Westbrook is the real hero in Oklahoma City.